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Drought fallows cropland, but the lawns are still green

As California farmers face water curtailments and are forced to leave acres fallow, urban residents face mostly paper restrictions on their use of water.

Published on July 25, 2014 11:53AM

Last changed on July 25, 2014 1:30PM

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

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State officials say 80 percent of California is experiencing severe drought.

That’s not a surprise to farmers in the Golden State who have faced curtailments and who have been forced to let land go fallow.

The state has imposed mandatory water conservation measures on urban residents, too. No watering sidewalks, no washing cars with hoses that lack nozzles that can be closed, limiting landscape watering to two days per week.

Despite widespread news coverage, it doesn’t look like everyone in California has heard the message. It’s even unclear that many cities and counties are taking the situation seriously.

Take the story of Michael and Laura Korte of Glendora, Calif. CBS News reported earlier this week that the couple decided to heed Gov. Jerry Brown’s call for a 20 percent cut in water consumption. They stopped watering their lawn. But then, when their lawn went brown the city sent them a notice threatening them with fines of up to $500 if they didn’t green it up.

While touting that its conservation efforts have reduced consumption by 12 percent, the city says property owners are still expected to keep up appearances as required by city code. “Conserving does not mean property owners should allow vegetation to die or go unmaintained,” the city’s website warns.

Because drought has long been an issue, municipal governments and water districts have been encouraging conservation efforts for years. Yet, the Los Angeles Times reports that since May 2013, water consumption along the Southern California coast has actually increased by 8 percent.

And though the state has imposed fines of $500 for people who waste water, non-farm water users are mostly on the honor system when it comes to enforcement. According to the Mercury News, the city of Los Angeles has one person assigned to the job. The city’s “water cop” has a beat of more than 500 square miles that includes 4 million residents.

It’s a big job, so enforcement is largely complaint driven. But, the Mercury News reports, 30,000 complaints since 2009 have yielded only 300 citations and fines. Water cop Rick Silva — he prefers to be called a “water educator” — admits he tries to educate violators rather than be heavy-handed.

The Orange County Register reported that officials there are using the “carrot and stick” approach to water conservation. In that county of suburban swimming pools, coastal resorts and theme parks, each resident uses an average of 144 gallons of water per day. The Register says that compares to 125 gallons per capita in Los Angeles, and 50 in cities hardest hit by drought.

The carrot: Financial incentives for homeowners who replace lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping. The stick: Door hangers and written warnings — once local governments rewrite ordinances to match the state’s rules. Not much of a stick.

While state and federal water regulators have used their authority to cut water to the state’s $43 billion agriculture industry, most urban customers have not faced limits on the quantity of water available.

Water allocation and delivery in California is a complicated business, so we are wary of sounding simplistic. But in an emergency, everyone should be expected to do their part. Farmers included. It seems, however, that green lawns should be sacrificed ahead of jobs and livelihoods.


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