Drought-parched California tightens curbs on wasting water

SAN FRANCISCO Wed Jul 16, 2014 2:14pm EDT

1 of 3. A buoy meant for boaters rests on the dry bed of Lake Mendocino, a key Mendocino County reservoir, in Ukiah, California February 25, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Noah Berger

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Water regulators in California approved tough new conservation measures on Tuesday to limit outdoor water use, including daily fines of up to $500 for using a hose without a shut-off nozzle.

The new restrictions prohibit watering gardens enough to cause visible runoff onto roads or walkways, using water on driveways or asphalt, and in non-recirculating fountains.

"We are facing the worst drought impact that we or our grandparents have ever seen," said State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus. "And, more important, we have no idea when it will end. ... The least that urban Californians can do is to not waste water on outdoor uses."

The new restrictions will take effect on Aug. 1. Many cities and counties in the state have already imposed voluntary curbs, but the new rules will allow municipalities to set mandatory cutbacks and fine those who do not comply.

"An emergency requires action, and today’s announcement is a much-needed response to California’s drought emergency," said Ed Osann, senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which supported the regulations.

California is in the third year of a catastrophic drought that has diminished the Sierra Nevada snow pack, which normally feeds the state's rivers and streams with cool water.

Democratic Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in January, committing millions to help stricken communities and temporarily easing protections for endangered fish to allow pumping from the fragile San Joaquin-Sacramento River delta.

The drought is expected to cost the state an estimated $2.2 billion this year, along with a loss of more than 17,000 jobs, as farmers are forced to leave fallow some valuable cropland, a report by scientists at the University of California in Davis showed on Tuesday.

"The 2014 drought is responsible for the greatest absolute reduction in water availability for California agriculture ever seen," the scientists said in the report, adding the results "underscore California’s heavy reliance on groundwater to cope with droughts."

UC Davis scientists Richard Howitt and Jay Lund, who co-authored the report, said pockets along the state’s Central Valley, where farmers are relying on emergency groundwater reserves as other resources have run dry, would be hit especially hard by economic losses.

Loss of crop revenue is estimated at $810 million, mostly because water shortages have forced many farmers to let their fields lie fallow.

Some 60 percent of such land, where farmers once irrigated grazing fields or grew annual crops of corn or beans, are in the San Joaquin Valley, where 70 percent of the state's agricultural revenue loss is concentrated.

Most of the 17,100 lost jobs, including seasonal and part-time agriculture work, are in the San Joaquin Valley.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Bill Trott, Sharon Bernstein, Peter Cooney and Clarence Fernandez)

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