Environment & Science

FAQ: How are SoCal cities reacting to California's conservation cutbacks?

Water drips from a faucet at the Dublin San Ramon Services District (DSRSD) residential recycled water fill station on April 8, 2015 in Pleasanton, California.
Water drips from a faucet at the Dublin San Ramon Services District (DSRSD) residential recycled water fill station on April 8, 2015 in Pleasanton, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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New rules requiring California cities to cut water use by as much as 36 percent are just over a week old and information on how districts are handling the mandated water use cuts is beginning to trickle in. KPCC environment reporter Molly Peterson answers your questions on how things are going so far. Have more? Let us know in the comments!

How bad does Southern California have it on water cutbacks compared to the rest of the state?

Mostly as bad as everyone else. The state’s 9-tiered plan for cities to implement conservation measures took effect last week, and under it cities have to cut their use between 4 and 36 percent, according to their calculated daily per-person use rate. What’s interesting is that a disproportionate number of water agencies in Southern California are in the three middle tiers for cutbacks. This is, they have to cut use by 16 percent, 20 percent, or 24 percent.  The state’s message to agencies in these tiers is:  "Sure, you've started in on saving water since the drought began, but you still have plenty left to do."

(If you’re wondering, "will I have to cut back 25 percent myself?" we answered that and other related questions when the plans first were announced in April.)

How are cities reacting now to the regulations taking effect?

A lot of Southern California cities had or have passed water conservation ordinances. Their rules target irrigation or landscape watering, so they limit how long sprinklers can be on, and on what days watering is permissible; some even tell you what the landscape can look like.

Every city has unique language for these rules, but they work similarly. Three days a week is becoming two days a week, or one, in some places. And financial penalties, most still small, have started to appear.

(Wondering in what cities use is going down, KPCC has a run down of water use stats by area.)

What about the water-hogging districts, what are they doing?

Nobody is turning off water to the biggest users, but there are plans underway to make those users pay more for it. Where those users are also wealthy, as in Beverly Hills and Malibu, it’s not immediately clear that paying more will improve conservation.

Just a few examples:

What are low-use districts doing to make those final, tough cuts? 

You know how people losing weight say the last 10 pounds is the hardest? Same with water use, according to officials in cities with low use, like Compton. Renters don’t often control watering around their properties, and dense urban areas don’t always have lush, sprawling lawns to kill that can quickly cut their water use numbers.

In Paramount, Director of Public Works Christopher Cash says getting below the current 64 gallons per person per day will be really difficult because there’s not a lot of irrigation to start with.

“You’re getting closer to the amount of water that people are using for things other than outdoor irrigation,” Cash said. That would be smaller cut-backs like washing dishes, brushing teeth, and flushing the toilet.

When are they coming for my swimming pool?

Not soon. The closest they’re coming is limiting how much and how often you can refill it. In Santa Barbara, you can top off your pool a total of a third of its volume during the year. More than that is prohibited unless you have to repair it (like for leaks).

Some cities, including Santa Barbara, are requiring pool owners to have covers now. In Long Beach you’ll need a cover.

But bans on filling pools are being turned back. Areas served by CalWater — including San Bernardino and East Los Angeles — will be able to swim comfortably after the company removed its earlier ban on filling and refilling single-family residential pools. Orange County’s Santa Margarita Water District also lifted its earlier ban.

When are they coming for my lawn?

The Metropolitan Water District has extended its turf rebate program, so current public policy still focuses on the idea that while they’re not gonna take them away, they’ll pay you if you give them up willingly. 

San Clemente is taking an interesting route to cutting its water use by 24 percent. The city has prohibited new ornamental turf on medians and parkways, and is replacing its public lawns. it's also passed a prohibition on residents and businesses planting new lawns during the next 9 months, while the deep cutbacks required of cities statewide are in effect. 

San Clemente’s Andrew Kanzler says the ban will have a real impact on 300 new homes in a planned development to be built during this time.

Kanzler says residents like the idea of the city removing its lawns, “but in practice I think there is still an objection to getting rid of lawn and that kind of thing," he said. "And people that are replacing their lawns, a lot of people are putting in synthetic turf so they still want that kind of look.”

In other words: not a massive transformation in the outdoor look of the city.