California bans watering of ‘non functional’ lawns around businesses as drought persists

Californians can expect to see more yellow grass around hospitals, hotels, office parks and industrial centers after water regulators voted Tuesday to ban watering of “nonfunctional” turf in commercial areas.

The State Water Resources Control Board also moved to order all the state’s major urban water providers to step up their conservation efforts.

The moves are the strongest regulatory actions state officials have taken in the third year of the latest drought. They come a day after Gov. Gavin Newsom warned urban water providers that mandatory cuts could be coming unless Californians do more to conserve. So far, Californians have failed to cut their urban water use as much as they did during the last drought that ended in 2017.

“There is a sense of urgency here,” Water Board Chairman Joaquin Esquivel said before Tuesday’s vote.

Parks, sports fields, golf courses, residential lawns and other areas where people regularly gather aren’t covered under the rules the board approved Tuesday. The restrictions only prohibit potable water being applied to “nonfunctional” turf around the state’s “commercial, industrial, and institutional sectors.” The ban also doesn’t prohibit Californians from watering trees, which help cool urban areas.

Outdoor watering of lawns and landscaping accounts for the bulk of California’s urban water use. Banning decorative lawns would save enough water to supply 780,000 households each year, according to the governor’s office.

The other portion of the regulations the water board approved on Tuesday requires nearly all of the state’s local water districts to move to the “Level 2” tier in their drought response plans or reduce watering to no more than two days a week. After the last drought ended, California required the state’s urban water suppliers to come up with plans that have six levels of conservation, based on how much water they have available.

Newsom had already asked water providers to move to Level 2, which assumes that each district is facing up to a 20% cut to their supply. Before Tuesday’s vote, only about half of the state’s population was under a water district that had moved to Level 2.

Water providers push back

Esquivel, the board chairman, said the rules approved Tuesday were necessary to save water this year as California’s blistering summer months take hold and to ensure there’s enough water statewide if the drought continues into a fourth dry season.

“It’s hard for anyone in the state to … say, ‘We’re good,’ ” Esquivel said.

But several water providers told the board just that, as they argued against a one-size-fits-all regulatory approach.

“We have no shortage because we have done what the state has asked,” said Stacy Taylor of the Mesa Water District in Southern California.

Taylor spoke on behalf of the nearly ⅓ of urban water providers in California that she said have “no water shortage now, nor in the anticipated future.”

Taylor and several other local water district officials testified they’ve already asked customers to cut back substantially over the decades. They’ve also spent millions of their ratepayers’ dollars on finding new water sources. They argued the moves left them well prepared for this drought.

For instance, the San Juan Water District, serving wealthy Granite Bay, and other Sacramento-area water districts have enough groundwater reserves that they’re going to send some this summer to other regions in the state that “desperately need” it, said Paul Helliker, the district’s general manager.

Environmentalists, however, argue all Californians should be required to cut their use if the water board wants to make good on its slogan, “Conservation is a way of life.”

“It’s time to actually, if not kill our lawns, reduce the impact of inappropriate landscaping in the state as we get drier and drier,” said Conner Everts, a board member at the Water Impact Network, an environmental group.

The board, however, acknowledged that some water providers are in better shape than others. The rules approved Tuesday give some leeway in moving to Level 2 to a handful of damp coastal areas such as the city of Santa Cruz, whose residents don’t use very much water and that have ample local supplies.

Meanwhile, the state’s sprawling agricultural industry, which uses substantially more water than urban areas do, already has seen dramatic cuts to its water supplies.

Locally driven conservation

The board’s move came a day after Newsom met with a group of the state’s urban water suppliers in Sacramento and warned them he would issue mandatory cutbacks if the districts’ customers didn’t cut their use.

So far, Newsom has been trying a locally driven approach to conservation. Newsom stopped short of imposing mandatory cuts like his predecessor, Jerry Brown, did during the last drought. Brown ordered all Californians to cut their water use by 25%.

Newsom in July called on Californians to voluntarily reduce water use by 15%, but per-capita urban consumption continues to rise. State figures show that Californians’ water use grew 7% in March compared to a year earlier, and was up 18.9% when compared to March 2020.

On Monday, Newsom told water providers that wasn’t good enough.

“Every water agency across the state needs to take more aggressive actions to communicate about the drought emergency and implement conservation measures,” Newsom said in a written statement after the meeting. “We all have to be more thoughtful about how to make every drop count.”

Still, many of the state’s largest water providers already have moved to cut water use.

For instance, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a water wholesaler that supplies water to 19 million people across six Southern California counties, took the unprecedented step last month to limit outdoor watering to one day a week.

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