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As California’s relentless drought continues, state water regulators on Tuesday adopted new emergency water rules meant to ensure more aggressive conservation statewide.

The State Water Resources Control Board voted on the emergency drought regulations in response to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s March executive order.

“California is facing a drought crisis and every local water agency and Californian needs to step up on conservation efforts,” Newsom said in a statement. “I am hopeful the measures enacted by the State Water Board will lead to a reduction of water use across the state. These conservation measures are increasingly important as we enter the summer months.”

What’s changing?

The new regulation bans irrigating “non-functional” turf at commercial, industrial and institutional properties, like grass in front of or next to large industrial or commercial buildings.

Officials defined “non-functional turf” as turf that is solely ornamental and not regularly used for recreational purposes or for civic or community events.

Not included in the watering ban is turf that is used for recreation or other community purposes. Water used at homes or water to maintain trees is also not included.

Officials said banning watering of decorative lawns would save between 156,000 acre-feet and 260,000 acre-feet per year —  the equivalent of water used by 780,000 households in a year.

The new regulation also requires all local water suppliers to implement water use restrictions as California enters the hot, dry summer months.

The suppliers will have to take action under “level 2” of their water shortage contingency plans, which is meant to address up to a 20% shortage of water supplies.

That means that residents could see limits on outdoor watering that only allow them to water their yards on certain days or during specific hours.

Water suppliers could also enforce water-use prohibitions, state officials said.

“The severity of this drought requires all Californians to save water in every possible way,” State Water Board chair Joaquin Esquivel said.

Why is this happening?

Dry weather conditions have resulted in one of the most intense droughts on record in the West coast. 

January through March were the driest first three months in California’s recorded history, the state’s largest reservoirs are currently at half of their historical averages, and the state’s snowpack is just 14% of average. 

In July, Newsom called for Californians to voluntarily cut water use 15%. But that didn’t happen. Water use in cities and towns actually climbed by nearly 19% in March.

The governor warned this week that if there is no significant reduction in water use statewide this summer, the state could be forced to enact mandatory restrictions.

“I’m asking all Californians to step up, because every single drop counts,” Newsom said.

What to expect

Some water suppliers have already imposed strict new restrictions on customers.

In April, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California declared a water shortage emergency, and took the unprecedented step of ordering restrictions on outdoor watering in parts of Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties. The new watering restrictions are set to take effect June 1.

Still, about half of California’s 436 water suppliers have not yet activated “level 2” of their water shortage contingency plans.

Urban water suppliers will need to fast-track and submit supply and demand assessments to plan for potential extended dry conditions, officials said.

For water suppliers that haven’t submitted drought plans, the emergency regulation will require them to take conservation actions, including restricting outdoor irrigation to two days a week and prohibiting landscape irrigation between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.

The ban on non-functional turf becomes effective after approval from the Office of Administrative Law, which could come in a matter of days, officials said.

Level 2 requirements for urban water suppliers are expected to take effect on June 10.

As the water shortage continues, the state is calling on Californians to take these steps “to avoid a crisis:”

  • Cut back on outdoor water. Officials say limiting water by even just one day a week can save up to 20% more water. 
  • Take shorter showers.
  • Taking showers instead of baths, which use up to 2.5 times the amount of water as a shower.
  • Using a broom instead of a hose to clean outdoor areas.
  • Washing full loads of clothes to save 15-45 gallons of water per load.