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As drought-stricken California tries to wring every last drop from its half-empty reservoirs, regulators on Tuesday approved the state’s first mandatory water restrictions for its urban residents.
Certain uses of water outdoors, including washing a car with a hose that does not have a nozzle that stops the water immediately when not in use or power washing sidewalks and driveways, will be banned from August 1, at the risk of fines of up to $500 a day.
The new rules come as about 80 per cent of the state experiences “exceptional” drought, according to state authorities, in the third most severe dry spell in California since record keeping began a century ago. While major cities are not at risk of running out of water, the drought has already caused billions in damage to the state’s economy and increased the risk of severe wildfires later in the year.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who believes that these restrictions are going to save the state from a drought, but they’re an important symbol of the seriousness of the water problems we face,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, an environmental group in the San Francisco area.
The drought is expected to cost the state $2.2bn and lead to the loss of more than 17,000 jobs, notably in the agriculture sector, researchers at the University of California, Davis, estimate. California’s agriculture sector is the largest in the US, making up more than 11 per cent of the nation’s total farm output.
While the new rules are thought to be the first such statewide emergency water restrictions in state history, dozens of local water utilities have already put in place some measures, according to the Association of California Water Agencies. Jerry Brown, the governor, has asked consumers to use less water voluntarily.
“If we continue to have a dry climate, then we’re likely to see some additional restrictions in the future,” said Tracy Quinn, a policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Many farmers across the state have already seen their allocation of irrigation water from the state’s drying rivers and reservoirs cut, sometimes to no water at all. Farmers are leaving nearly half a million acres fallow for lack of water, according to UC Davis researchers.
The situation facing the state’s residents is so far less severe. Urban water utilities’ investments in water conservation has saved all but some remote townships from facing the possibility of water shortages.
“[Cities] aren’t in dire circumstances . . . but if the drought continues then they’re going to find themselves in more difficult shape,” said Jay Lund, a professor of environmental engineer at UC Davis and co-author of its recent report.
Trying to conserve water as the drought continues has prompted some cities to think creatively on how to recycle used water and how to convince consumers to use less of it.
San Francisco’s water utility, which wants its customers to reduce usage by 10 per cent, recently plastered the city’s public transit system with a provocative series of advertisements. One ad urged residents, “When showering, make it a quickie”.
Since the campaign started water conservation rates have improved, said Tyrone Jue, spokesman for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.
“People were not taking this drought seriously,” said Mr Jeu. “We wanted a campaign that would get people’s attention.”