By Paul Rogers
Acknowledging that California's water conservation efforts are falling short as the state descends into a fourth year of punishing drought, the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday imposed new mandatory water conservation rules that will affect millions of people -- from how homeowners water their lawns to how restaurants and hotels serve their guests.
"There have been some heroic efforts that people have taken, but we are not seeing the efforts to step up and ring the alarm bells that the situation warrants," said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, which approved the measures in Sacramento. "We're going to need to go further if it doesn't rain."
But enforcing the rules, which could carry fines of up to $500, will be left up to local cities, counties and water districts. And so far, very few have fined residents for wasting water.
Critics called the rules, which take effect April 15, a step in the right direction. But they said they are insufficient without more enforcement to avoid water shortages if the drought drags past this summer.
"At this point, we are failing. We are not meeting our goals," said Conner Everts, with the California Environmental Water Caucus, a nonprofit group. "At what point do we accept that this might be the fourth year of a 10-year drought and plan for that?"
The past three years have been the driest three years in California history dating back to the Gold Rush. On Tuesday, the Sierra snowpack was at 13 percent of its historic average, and many of the state's largest reservoirs were far below normal. Meanwhile, 2014 was the hottest year in recorded history in California and around the globe.
In January 2014, the governor declared a statewide drought emergency and asked Californians to cut water use by 20 percent voluntarily. But the state's urban and suburban residents have fallen short of that goal, cutting water use by only 9.7 percent from June to January, compared with the prior year.
Specifically, the rules adopted Tuesday:
Ban all restaurants, bars and hotels from serving water unless customers ask for it.
Require all hotels and motels to provide signs in rooms telling guests that they have the option of choosing not to have towels and linens washed daily.
Ban Californians from watering lawns and landscaping with potable water within 48 hours after measurable rainfall.
Require cities, counties, water districts and private companies to limit lawn watering to two days a week if they aren't already limiting lawn and landscape watering to a certain number of days a week. The rule applies to all 411 water providers with more than 3,000 customers in California, covering more than 95 percent of the state's population. But there is a loophole: If water providers are already limiting days of the week, even if it is to three or more days, they can continue with those rules and not restrict watering to two days a week.
The lawn-watering provisions are expected to have the most impact. That's because outdoor irrigation makes up 44 percent of water use in California's urban and suburban communities, according to the state water board.
In the Bay Area, some water providers are already limiting lawn-watering days. Customers of the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which provides water to 1.3 million people in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, are limited to two days a week.
There is no enforcement, however. The district has a hotline to report violations, and it calls, visits or sends emails to violators. But it has no ordinance on its books to allow the agency to issue fines, said district spokeswoman Abby Figueroa.
That could change starting April 14, when the district will consider tougher rules. Those will include "excessive use" fees for residents who use considerably more water than the community average and perhaps sending staff out to enforce the rules.
In Santa Clara County, watering rules vary widely.
The San Jose Water Company, which provides water to 1 million residents, limits outdoor watering to odd or even days. People whose addresses end in even numbers are allowed to water only on even-numbered dates, and those with addresses ending in odd numbers are allowed to water only on odd-numbered dates. But the company is not fining violators.
Milpitas allows watering two days a week. San Francisco, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara and people served by San Jose's city water department do not have day-of-the-week restrictions.
The statewide rules passed Tuesday also require water providers to promptly notify property owners when they discover leaks. And they mandate that water providers report every month to the state water board which days of the week they have limited watering and whether they are penalizing violators.
Many Bay Area restaurants already are limiting water to diners.
At Delicious Crepes Bistro in Santa Clara, which serves vegan fare and whose mission statement promises to be environmentally friendly, the staff says it's already careful with wasting drinking water. When the drought became serious last year, the restaurant added a water-filled thermos on the counter and asked customers to serve themselves, with a sign on the wall saying "take only as much as you can drink." The glasses next to it hold only 12 ounces, the bistro's smallest glass.
"Originally, we poured water from a pitcher into bigger glasses," said Hanna Mityashina, 28, the cafe's manager. "We noticed when we reduced the size of the glasses, it reduces the consumption. We want to preserve water."
Next door at Chef Ming's, owner Diana Lee said serving water to customers is part of being a polite hostess. "When I go to a restaurant, I hope someone can give me water -- cold water or hot tea," she said. "Do you just say, 'Are you ready to order?'"
Lee said she hopes the law is flexible enough that she can ask customers if they want water -- and not just wait for customers to request it. Already, she said, when water is left on tables "I throw it on my plants because I feel so guilty."
Two of her customers, Marilyn Keever and Barbara Fairburn, said waiting for a water request is a good idea.
But Keever joked that she has an even better one: "If you ask for water, you have to drink the whole thing, or you'll be arrested, handcuffed and taken away."
Staff writer Julia Sulek contributed to this story.
(c)2015 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)