California drought restrictions FAQ: What the governor's executive water order means for you

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Ever since Gov. Jerry Brown issued his sweeping executive order requiring California cities to collectively reduce water use by 25 percent within less than a year, we've been getting questions about what exactly the order means to everyday water-users. The short answer: Not much at the moment.

The state Water Resources Control Board still needs to translate the governor's pronouncements into actionable regulations. But once those are set, average Joe and Jane water users are more likely to start feeling the squeeze — particularly those in communities that use more water than others. 

Below are the details as we know them, brought to you in a user-friendly FAQ.

What are the new restrictions and when do they go into effect?

As mentioned, the governor is looking to cut urban water use by 25 percent by the end of next February. There are 411 urban water districts in the California, and the 25 percent reduction will be drawn from all of them combined. The reduction itself will be measured against a baseline of the aggregated water use for the combined districts for the calendar year 2013.

Fran Spivy-Weber is the vice chairwoman for the Water Resources Control Board. She told KPCC that water board staff is expected to draft and get public comments on a suite of new regulations in time for the water board's May 5-6 meeting. If they are approved, the new regulations would take effect June 1, Spivy-Weber said.

Will I have to reduce my personal water use by 25 percent? 

The details are still in the works, but it's expected that each individual water district will work to reduce water use among its customers, though not necessarily all by 25 percent. Spivy-Weber told KPCC that the 411 urban water districts will be broken out into "buckets." Those with higher per-capita water use and few or no conservation programs will be put into buckets with a higher reduction goal. Those with lower per-capita use and robust conservation initiatives will be put into buckets with lower goals. 

“Some have been working very diligently on cutting back their water use and they have done a fabulous job," Spivy-Weber said. "They should not be expected to cut back nearly to the extent to someone who hasn’t done anything yet.

"Some districts may have already cut a lot so they may only be asked to cut back 10 percent and another may have done little and need to cut 30 percent."

Richard Stapler, a spokesman with the state Water Resources Board, told KPCC that districts that miss the goal of their bucket could be fined $10,000 a day starting March 1, 2016.

“So there is an incentive to really get those restrictions in place," Stapler said. 

Will we start seeing increased enforcement of businesses and individuals overusing water?  

The answer here is probably. Nearly all of the 411 urban water districts in the California have some type of mandatory water restrictions in place. This is according to the state water board. Each district is responsible for enforcing those restrictions, and each is responsible for determining its own enforcement approach. 

Take for instance the Los Angeles Department of Water (LADWP) — the state's largest water utility, with nearly 680,000 service connections in the city of L.A.. It has four "water cops" whose job it is to enforce the agency's water restrictions. Among the restrictions are assigned days and duration for outdoor watering and prohibitions against letting water run off into streets and washing cars without automatic shutoff nozzles. 

For the most part, the LADWP has taken an "officer friendly" approach to enforcement, fielding complaints of water wasting and issuing warnings to offenders. But that could change.

Will there be penalties if I don't cut back my personal water use? How strict will they be?

That's up to each individual water district. But to continue with the LADWP example, the utility has issued just two $200 fines so far this year as well as eight $100 fines — after having issued no fines last year. 

All of these fines were issued to homeowners. LADWP dings users $100 after one violation and one warning, and $200 after three violations and one warning.  

What if I'm a renter and don't pay my water bill?

This has become a point of tension between renters and landlords, particularly in rent-controlled apartments where landlords have a harder time passing along increases in fixed costs.

Of the roughly 680,000 water connections serviced by the LADWP, 110,000 go to multifamily dwellings. That means tenants don't necessarily have an incentive to save water since they're not paying for it directly. 

Landlords do have an economic incentive to install low-flow shower heads and toilets and immediately fix any leaking pipes. 

Given the number of renters in Los Angeles, the LADWP is encouraging apartment dwellers to do their part by taking shorter showers and reporting any leaks or water-wasting appliances to their landlords.

Can I keep my lawn? 

Yes, but eventually it might cost you more for the privilege if the idea of separately metering indoor and outdoor use catches on.

In the meantime, officials are doing ever more to convince you to ditch your lawn. In his executive order, Brown called on the state's urban water agencies to replace 50 million square feet of lawn. The primary mechanism to achieve this has been cash incentives to get homeowners to voluntarily give up their lawns.  The LADWP pays one of the state's highest incentives, offering $3.75 per square foot for the first 1,500 square feet and $2 per square foot thereafter. Palo Alto pays the highest at $4 per square foot.

This is one area the governor hopes to see immediate traction on his order. Richard Stapler with the Department of Water Resources told KPCC that he hopes water managers will start accepting more applications for lawn rebates knowing that new funding from the state is on the way. 

That said, the governor's order envisions lawns being part of California's cityscape for the foreseeable future, but with restrictions. He wants to require any new homes and buildings that include lawns to come with either drip or microspray irrigation systems. 

Will my water bill go up? If so, by how much?

Each individual water agency sets its own rates and will continue to do so under Brown's order. But there are a number of "upward pressures" on rates given the drought. One, ironically, is conservation. The more people save water, the less revenue their water agencies make in sales. Those agencies still have fixed costs to pay though, and in some cases, they have raised rates to meet those costs. 

Conversely, some agencies are experimenting with something called "tiered pricing" to encourage conservation. It works like this: All customers pay the same amount for a fixed allocation of water. Customers that use more are charged gradually increasing amounts the more they use. So if that swimming pool or lush backyard is important to you, you could soon be paying extra for it. 

Such tiered pricing schemes, though, are controversial and have been challenged in court. Opponents say California law only allows utilities to charge for the cost of delivering water to customers, and they cannot tack on additional fees for the water itself.

Governor Brown's order appears to have taken such challenges into account. He calls on the water board to adopt "emergency regulations" requiring urban water users to develop "rate structures and other pricing mechanisms [...] to maximize water conservation consistent with statewide water restrictions."

The era of widespread tiered pricing may well be nigh. 

What kind of information do water suppliers have to give the state now?

Since last June, the state has required individual water agencies to report monthly water "production" amounts (how much they send through their pipes) and how much customers are using per capita. They goal is to give the state an apples-to-apples comparison on how much water the various districts use. 

Are cemeteries and golf courses likely to go brown?

Though they look like water gluttons, many cemeteries and golf courses are actually pretty water-friendly because they recycle their water. That's why you often see huge water features at golf courses with recirculating fountains. That said, golf courses and cemeteries that don't recycle or embrace drought-tolerant plants where possible will likely be under increasing pressure to make water cuts, particularly in districts required to reduce water use the most. 

I thought farms were the biggest user of water...what's the state doing about them?

California's farms as a whole do use significantly more water than its cities. But that gap has narrowed somewhat as the drought has intensified. This year and last, farmers got little to no water from  the federal government's system of canals and reservoirs because of the drought. Last year, the state's system provided only 15 percent of requested allocations, and that figure is expected to rise to just 20 percent this year.

Many growers have been forced to leave their farms unplanted. Last years an estimated 400,000 acres were taken out of production.

Many other farmers, though, particularly almond growers, have made up for surface water shortfalls by pumping ever increasing amounts of groundwater. Concerns that farmers were depleting groundwater faster than it could be replenished prompted the legislature to pass California's first-ever groundwater management law last year. Local "groundwater sustainability agencies" are supposed to come up with plans for managing groundwater to limit overdrafts, but those plans don't need to  be finalized for years to come. Many worry aquifers will suffer irreparable harm in the meantime if the drought continues. 

Brown's order didn't completely let the ag industry off the hook, though. Agricultural water suppliers will be required to file yearly drought management plans that describe the actions the suppliers will take to manage water demand during the drought. Included in the plans will be how much water farmers requested and how much the suppliers provided. 

Will we see farmers uproot water-inefficient crops like almond trees and rice paddies?

That largely depends on you and all the rest of us who like almonds and rice. Global demand for those and other water-intensive crops have prompted farmers to devote ever increasing acreage to them. It's unlikely the state will ever be able to mandate crop choices to farmers. So, it largely falls to consumers to ratchet back their demand. If we didn't want almonds to the extent we do, farmers would rip out their orchards in a heart beat. 

Use the tool below to see how your water district is saving water and a list of applicable water restrictions.

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