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California regulators hope fines up to $500 deter water waste during state's severe drought

  • California Drought Restrictions-1.jpg

    Groundskeeper Sanjay Ram, right,of the Department of General Services, waters plants lining the sidewalk around the state Capitol Tuesday, July 8, 2014, in Sacramento, Calif. State water regulators are considering fines up to $500 for excessive water use for things like irrigating lawns and car washing due to the state's severe drought. State officials say conservation efforts so far aren't producing enough results. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)The Associated Press

  • California Drought Restrictions-2.jpg

    A sign alerts visitors to water conservation efforts at the state Capitol, Tuesday, July 8, 2014, in Sacramento, Calif. State water regulators are considering fines up to $500 for excessive water use for things like irrigating lawns and car washing due to the state's severe drought. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)The Associated Press

  • b5b2a172c2305c1a590f6a7067007840.jpg

    The fountain at the Capitol Park Rose Garden sits empty, Tuesday, July 8, 2014, in Sacramento, Calif. State water regulators are considering fines up to $500 to enforce emergency restrictions on urban water use like irrigating lawns and car washing due to the state's severe drought, because conservation efforts so far aren't producing enough results. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)The Associated Press

Brown lawns and dusty cars could become the norm in California as state regulators consider unprecedented $500-a-day fines for water-wasters, after acknowledging that voluntary steps to reduce consumption amid a historic drought haven't worked.

Water regulators are set to consider the draft emergency regulations when they meet in Sacramento next week, invoking for the first time mandatory statewide restrictions on residential outdoor water use.

A combination of mandatory and voluntary restrictions has resulted in a statewide water use reduction of 5 percent through May, far short of the 20 percent sought by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Regulators are hopeful that Californians, with some nudging, will respond as they did during the drought of 1976 and 1977.

Brown happened to be governor then, as well, and called for statewide conservation measures. About a third of the state's residents responded, enough to voluntarily reduce water consumption by about 20 percent, according to an archived report from the state Department of Water Resources.

"I like to say, having a browning lawn and a dirty car is a badge of honor," State Water Resources Control Board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

About 30 percent of the state's water suppliers already have imposed mandatory restrictions that include limits on outdoor irrigation, washing vehicles and filling ornamental fountains and swimming pools.

The regulations the board will consider Tuesday aim to put muscle behind conservation efforts and would give more authority to law enforcement to impose the restrictions, though it will be up to local governments on how and when to act.

Urban water agencies would have to require mandatory restrictions on outdoor water use, if they have not done so already. Agencies without water plans would have to restrict outdoor irrigation to no more than two days each week or take other mandatory steps to conserve the same amount of water.

Statewide regulations would prohibit landscape watering that causes runoff onto sidewalks or streets, washing sidewalks, driveways and other hard surfaces, using a hose to wash a vehicle unless the hose has a shut-off nozzle and using drinking water in a fountain or decorative water feature unless the water is recirculated.

Violations would be punishable by fines of up to $500 a day, although most cities are likely to have a sliding scale that starts with a warning and builds for repeat violations.

The board is initially targeting outdoor use because that accounts for much of the water waste, Marcus said.

The California Department of Water Resources estimates that cities and suburbs use about a fifth of the state's water in most years. About half of the urban water use is outdoors.

Agriculture is by far the greatest water user, accounting for 75 percent of the state's consumption.

Kevin Wattier, general manager of the Long Beach Water District, said the agency already has mandatory restrictions but added that his district's starting $50 fine is too small to bother enforcing. He said the possibility of heftier penalties alone should stop guzzlers.

Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, said he doesn't expect fines to be imposed by local agencies on a large scale, but said the regulations would push Californians to take the drought seriously.

"The word 'voluntary' doesn't say 'serious' to most people; the word 'mandatory' does," Quinn said.

Marcus, the water board chairwoman, said the proposed regulations are reasonable steps that all residents should take.

"What we're proposing here as an opening salvo is the bare minimum," Marcus told reporters during a conference call. "If it doesn't rain later this fall, we certainly will consider more stringent measures."

She said board members might require efforts to stop leaks that account for an estimated 10 percent or more of water use, or stricter landscape restrictions, or encouraging water agencies to boost rates for consumers who use more than their share of water as a disincentive.

"We're not trying to spank people. We're trying to ring a bell and get people's attention," she said.

"We have communities struggling for water and bathing out of buckets," Marcus said. It's fair, she said, for the state to require that at a minimum, "that people don't water sidewalks, that people don't let their water run when they're washing their car."

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Associated Press Writer Fenit NIrappil contributed to this story.

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