• Reuters


California’s cities and towns would be required to cut their water usage by up to 35 percent or face steep fines under proposed new rules released Tuesday, the state’s first-ever mandatory cutbacks in urban water use amid ongoing drought.

Communities that already use very little water, such as the coastal city of Santa Cruz, will only have to cut back by 10 percent under the plan, but thirsty areas such as the Coachella Valley desert will be required to implement the steepest reductions.

“We’re moving very quickly because it is an emergency,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, the state’s top water regulator. “We want to make sure that all of the local water districts have their actions in place to ramp up their actions in time for the hot summer months.”

The tactics under consideration for a still-developing conservation plan were posted on the water board’s website at about 5 pm on Tuesday, just days after Gov. Jerry Brown ordered mandatory 25 percent cutbacks in urban water use as the state’s devastating drought enters its fourth year.

In order to reach the 25 percent statewide reduction, the water board proposed to require some areas to cut back more than others. Communities where residential customers use more than 165 gallons of water per person per day would have to cut back by 35 percent, while those using less than 55 gallons per day would only have to reduce their consumption by 10 percent.

The water board proposed fining local water utilities up to $10,000 per day if they do not persuade residents and businesses to meet their conservation goals.

The proposed regulations also require water suppliers to report regularly to the state on their progress. Even the smallest districts would have to collect usage data and limit watering to two days per week.

So far, the proposed restrictions have focused on urban users, even though they account for only 20 percent of state water consumption, while the agricultural sector, which the Public Policy Institute of California says uses 80 percent of consumption, has been exempt.

Ironically, the board’s discussion of the conservation order during its meeting in Sacramento Tuesday took place as rain fell outside and as snow dropped onto Sierra Nevada mountain peaks that were bare and dry when Brown made his announcement on Thursday.

Figures released as the discussion began showed that water use among Californians dropped 2.8 percent in February from the same month in 2014, a sharp slowdown from year-on-year decreases of 22 percent in December and 8 percent in January.

Officials said the small drop in water use was of concern, but not unexpected, since February is typically a month when little water is used because of winter rains. More important, said Marcus, is to make sure conservation increases during the dry summer months.

A broad-brush outline presented at Tuesday’s meeting indicated that regulators would also consider requiring tiered billing based on the amount of water that people use, something already in effect in many cities, including Los Angeles. Tiered billing could also affect local utilities, which would pay more for water if they cannot get their customers to conserve beyond a specific target set by the state.

The proposed regulations will be subject to public comment and voted on by the board in early May.

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