In summary

The giant Metropolitan Water District imposed first-ever restrictions today. Some suppliers in Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties will limit watering of lawns to once a week to ease the burden on the drought-stricken state aqueduct.

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Unprecedented water restrictions are in store for about 6 million Southern Californians, a sign of deepening drought in counties that depend on water piped from the state’s parched reservoirs. 

The Metropolitan Water District’s board voted unanimously today to require six major water providers and the dozens of cities and local districts they supply to impose one of two options: limit residents to outdoor watering once a week or reduce total water use below a certain target.

The water providers must have plans to police their customers, and if they fail to impose the restrictions, they could face fines of $2,000 for every extra acre-foot of water that exceeds their monthly allocation limits, starting in June, according to Metropolitan.

The restrictions target parts of Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties that rely heavily on water from drought-stricken Northern California rivers transported south via the State Water Project.

“At this time, a third of our region, 6 million Southern Californians in parts of Los Angeles, Ventura, San Bernardino counties, face a very real and immediate water stress challenge,” said Metropolitan Water District General Manager Adel Hagekhalil. “Today these areas rely on extremely limited supplies from Northern California. And there is not enough supply available to meet the normal demands in these areas.”

Cutting back outdoor watering to one day a week would be a big change for the arid, densely populated areas, where many people irrigate their lawns and gardens. 

Southern Californians have heard for decades about the dangers of drought, but per-person residential water use has increased in the past two years, despite the severe drought. Experts say conservation wavers in the region because restrictions are largely voluntary — and their water never seems to run out

“This is insane but not unexpected,” Peter Kraut, a council member from the San Fernando Valley city of Calabasas told the Metropolitan board, which is composed of 38 city and local district officials. “I’m appalled that a change this drastic is happening in such a short period of time.”

“This plan will result not just in brown grass but in killing countless trees. The damage to our environment will take decades to repair,” Kraut added.

Today’s mandate is the first outdoor watering restriction imposed by the giant water-import agency, which supplies 19 million people in California. More stringent restrictions may come later, Metropolitan officials warned: The water providers must also prepare to ban all outdoor watering as early as September, if necessary, as California suffers one of its driest periods on record.

The six affected water suppliers are Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District and Three Valleys Municipal Water District — all in Los Angeles County — and the Calleguas Municipal Water District in Ventura County and the Inland Empire Utilities Agency in San Bernardino County.

About 13 million other Southern Californians are unaffected by the order because they aren’t as dependent on water imported via the State Water Project. They receive imports from the Colorado River, which largely are sent to Orange, San Diego and Imperial counties.

Metropolitan has been working to increase the number of customers who can receive Colorado River water to reduce reliance on the hard-pressed state aqueduct. The Colorado River, however, also is facing extreme drought, and deliveries to California, Nevada and Arizona are being cut back under an agreement signed by the states in December.

How much each agency must curtail customers’ water use under Metropolitan’s order depends on how much each relies on the state aqueduct compared to other sources, such as  groundwater or recycled sewage.

Water agencies are still figuring out the details. Some local water providers urged the board at today’s meeting to let them continue watering sports fields and parks more frequently so the turf doesn’t dry out.

Two of the six depend almost entirely on state aqueduct supplies — the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, which serves 75,000 residents west of Los Angeles, and the Calleguas Municipal Water District, which supplies 19 agencies and cities in southeast Ventura County. 

Some communities served by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Inland Empire Utilities Agency and the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District have other sources that may buffer the blow of the new mandate. Los Angeles DWP spokesperson Ellen Cheng did not respond to multiple inquiries about which parts of the city will be affected. 

Some of the affected agencies, such as Las Virgenes in Calabasas and nearby western Los Angeles County cities, already have cracked down on residents by imposing new escalating rates and penalties, with mixed success. Others, including Los Angeles DWP, which has limited outdoor watering to three days a week since 2009, have not added any new restrictions during the current drought.

“I’m not happy that we have to do this. It is challenging. But it is a necessity.”

tom love, upper san gabriel valley municipal water district

The Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District, which serves a million people in 19 cities from South Pasadena to Azusa, will meet with its local retailers soon to determine what restrictions to put in place to meet the new order.

“We are likely to recommend to our local retailers to implement mandatory water use restrictions that may not be as low as one day a week. But whatever we think is necessary to reduce consumption so that those local supplies aren’t depleted,” said General Manager Tom Love. 

“I’m not happy that we have to do this. It is challenging. But it is a necessity,” Love said. “And whatever Met does in this regard just provides us the backup to do what we need to do within our service area.”

“I have never seen it this severe in my whole career,” he added.

Though his administration ordered water suppliers to step up their drought responses, Gov. Gavin Newsom has largely left it to local water agencies to coax or mandate cuts in water use during some of the state’s driest years on record

About half of water flowing through Southern Californians’ taps comes from elsewhere, piped from Northern California rivers, the Colorado River or the Owens Valley. Though the Metropolitan Water District entered 2021 with record amounts in storage, the last three years have seen the lowest total deliveries from Northern California reservoirs. 

Metropolitan’s decision to tighten water restrictions comes on the heels of the driest January, February and March on record. State officials in March reduced deliveries from the state aqueduct to just 5% of requested supplies.

‘Everything’s still being watered’

Since the last drought, Southern Californians have conserved: using nearly 16% less water per person per day in 2021 than in 2014. But residential use has increased per capita this year. 

“Everything’s still being watered. And what’s interesting is that there’s no idea of a shortage happening,” said Kareem Gongora, a San Bernardino County planning commissioner.

“You come to the (Inland Empire), you don’t feel like there’s a drought. Everything is pretty much practically green still, manicured lawns.” 

Gongora, who lives in Fontana, recently moved to a new house. He said he intentionally chose one with a much smaller yard and lawn because of the risk of drought and the price of water. When it rains, he said, he turns his sprinklers off. When it doesn’t, he runs them twice a week. 

“We're new to our neighborhood,” he said. “I don't want to make a bad impression on my neighbors” by letting a yard dry out and die.

Gongora said he remembered more restrictions and penalties during the last drought, and called Metropolitan’s new restrictions a step in the right direction. “I don't see anything happening at the pace that it should have,” he said.  

In Los Angeles County’s Agoura Hills, Mayor Deborah Klein Lopez’s sprinklers don’t work. She turned them off about two years ago, and let her lawn go brown. She said she has no intention of turning them back on. 

“I had new next door neighbors move in and I was like, ‘I know my lawn is I ugly. I promise — I have two kids in college. It's on my list,’” she said. “But, a brown lawn is a little bit of a badge of honor right now, just because it shows that you're really keen to the severity of the situation.”

“You come to the (Inland Empire), you don’t feel like there’s a drought. Everything is pretty much practically green still, manicured lawns.”

Kareem Gongora, San Bernardino County planning commissioner

Looking around the neighborhood, she said, another neighbor has a plastic lawn, and some have drought tolerant gardens. But about a third water lush landscapes, even though their local water supplier, Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, has been trying to convince residents to cut back. 

Each resident in the Las Virgenes water district’s affluent service area has water budgets for their indoor and outdoor use. In December, the district began mandating a 25% reduction in outdoor water use based on each resident’s square footage and whether they have pools and other factors, according to Mike McNutt, a spokesperson for Las Virgenes. 

Because of their dependence on dwindling imported supplies, “We consider ourselves, Las Virgenes, and I think, arguably, our neighbors Calleguas Municipal Water District, to be ground zero when it comes to the California drought right now,” he said. “We have to do things that are maybe more significant than others in order to save every drop of water to stretch that as long as possible.”  

Thus far, though, residents have largely failed to cut back — with about half regularly exceeding their water budgets, McNutt said. Water usage in January and February was 6% higher than in 2020, and 37% higher in March.

In April, Las Virgenes ordered customers to cut outdoor watering even further, down to 50% of their outdoor budget — sending out mass texts, emails and voicemails to alert residents. Those who use 150% more water than allotted face escalating penalties, starting with a warning and increasing to $10 for every extra unit of water for a fifth violation. After the third offense, the district may install a flow restriction device to cut off irrigation supplies. 

Still, about 3,000 of the 22,000 Las Virgenes households, McNutt said, have repeatedly exceeded their water budgets by more than 150%. 

“What we're going to do is take the most egregious of those water wasters, and those are the people that we're going to install the flow-restriction devices on,” he said. “We're not interested in being punitive. What we're interested in is getting people's attention by saying this is serious, and this is real.” 

The Las Virgenes board will consider enacting the one-day-a-week outdoor watering mandate beginning June 1, McNutt said.

“We're not interested in being punitive. What we're interested in is getting people's attention by saying this is serious, and this is real.” 

mike mcnutt, Las Virgenes Municipal Water District

Each water agency must develop watering schedules and have plans to enforce them by June 1. Any penalties Metropolitan collects will go toward helping member agencies tackle the drought, said Brad Coffey, group manager of water resource management.

There will be some exceptions to allow residents to hand-water trees and shrubs to keep them alive during the hot summer months, and to “allow drip or other high-efficiency irrigation systems to apply water at a weekly volume consistent with the one-day watering restriction imposed on less efficient irrigation systems.” 

“Of course, it is not sufficient simply to have these restrictions on paper,” Metropolitan managers wrote in a letter to the board. “Member Agencies must be willing and able to impose meaningful penalties for non-compliance.” 

A statewide turf replacement rebate program that began during the height of the last drought put more than $20.5 million towards tearing out Californians lawns, but it expired in June 2020. A high efficiency toilet program ended even earlier, in 2016. 

“The state has not offered any rebates during the current drought period from 2020 to present,” said Allison Armstrong, a public information officer with the California Department of Water Resources. “However, there is funding in the Governor’s proposed budget that supports a turf replacement program, and we may have more information to share later this summer.” 

The Metropolitan Water District offers rebates “year-round whether we’re in a drought or not to encourage the public to conserve long-term,” said spokesperson Maritza Fairfield. 

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Rachel Becker covers California’s complex water challenges and water policy issues for CalMatters. In 2021 she won first place for Outstanding Beat Reporting from the Society of Environmental Journalists,...