California to water-wasters during drought: no more Mr. Nice Guy!

After the California governor's call for a voluntary 20 percent cutback actually yielded a 1 percent increase in water use, officials are ramping up efforts to change outdoor residential water use to deal with the drought conditions.

Robert Galbraith/REUTERS
A golf cart passes water sprinklers at a course near San Jose. A northern California water provider is considering hiring “water cops” to investigate reports of water-wasting.

As the California drought grinds through its third year, it’s no more Mr. Nice Guy as far as the government goes.

After last month’s news that the New Year’s call by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) for a voluntary 20 percent cutback actually yielded a 1 percent increase in water use statewide by June, California took the unprecedented action of imposing a mandatory requirement that all 440 of the state’s major water districts implement drought response plans as of Aug. 1.  

Now, as municipalities scramble to meet the deadline, officials say they are optimistic about compliance. 

“I believe in calling on the better angels in all of us,” says Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board responsible for drafting the new rules.

“I firmly believe that most people want to do the right thing and they are looking for ways to help them do it,” she says, adding that creating the appearance of a level playing field among all residents also helps.

“People want a sense of fairness, that we are all in this together and that everyone is doing their part,” she says.

Indeed, perhaps not surprisingly, one of the effort's growth areas is the explosive use of the phrase “drought shaming” on Twitter and a historic high in phone calls to the statewide hot lines, with residents reporting water-wasters in their neighborhood.

Some have gone further, taking matters into their own hands. On July 19, @Kevin_byDesign tweeted, “I just turned off my neighbor’s sprinkler. I think they forget, & left it running.”

Some districts are simply fine-tuning plans already in place, while others are sending first-time notices to residents that they can no longer wash their cars without the right hose nozzle (one with a shut-off valve) or water their lawns during the day.

The general requirements – which can include fines – focus on a reduction in outdoor residential water use, particularly in landscaping. 

The shift in aesthetic values has faced some stiff pushback. Some homeowner associations (HOA) have strict guidelines for their members and can impose fines if members do not maintain healthy green lawns. Governor Brown stepped in this week to give some help to those who want to take a first step by letting their lawn go brown. He signed a law shielding them from HOA fines.

This move to a new aesthetic is crucial, advocates say. “We need to move away from East Coast kinds of plants in this environment and encourage drought-tolerant sorts of plants that use much less water,” says Motti Buskila, an arborist who lives in Sherman Oaks and is working to increase understanding of what it means to go drought-tolerant.

“It doesn’t have to be all stones and dry,” he says, adding, “It’s not just that it will save water, but planting what is native to this region will help restore habitat for things like butterflies and bees that are so necessary to our environment.”

Some municipalities that already had wide-ranging plans are helping ease this transition, which can be expensive.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, for instance, recently hiked the rebate for ripping out a lawn and replacing it with drought-tolerant California flora from $2 to $3 per square foot – one of the highest incentive rebates in the state. 

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