California Invokes New Water Restrictions Despite Sudden Soak at End of December

Following record-breaking amounts of snow and rain to end December in parts of California, the state announced Tuesday new water restrictions for the second time in a decade as some of the state is still experiencing drought conditions.

Rain and snow in the final weeks of December surpassed forecasts, and the weather drove a figure that showed 80 percent of the state in extreme or exceptional drought conditions in mid-December down to about one-third of the state experiencing the conditions at the end of the month, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

However, officials warned those extreme levels of weather would likely not continue through the rest of the winter months and that water restrictions would likely be necessary as much of the state returns to drought-level conditions.

The rules could be enacted by the end of the month and include conservation tactics like not letting sprinklers run onto sidewalks and prohibiting watering lawns within 48 hours of receiving 0.25 inches of rain, among others.

Violations could lead to a $500 fine, although officials said fines will likely be as rare as they were in the last drought.

California, Drought, Water Use Restrictions, Weather
California officials have announced the return of water-use restrictions that could go into effect by the end of the month. Above, cracked earth is visible as water levels are low at Nicasio Reservoir on May 28, 2021, in Nicasio, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

"Conserving water and reducing water waste are critical and necessary habits for everyone to adopt as we adjust to these uncertainties and we build resilience to climate change, so adopting emergency regulations now just makes sense," said Eric Oppenheimer, chief deputy director for the state water board. "We need to be prepared for continued drought."

Weather patterns have become more unpredictable due to climate change, and state climatologist Michael Anderson said forecasts show January, February and March could be drier than average.

The restrictions come as Californians continue to fall short on Governor Gavin Newsom's call for a voluntary 15% reduction in water use compared to last year. Between July and November, the state's water usage went down just 6%.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Water Resources announced Tuesday that recent storms will allow the resumption of hydropower generation at the Oroville Dam, which was halted in early August due to historically low lake levels.

Despite the rain, significant parts of the state's water system are still under stress from the extremely dry conditions earlier in 2021 that dropped many of California's largest reservoirs to record and near-record lows.

Regions north of the San Joaquin River, including Sacramento and San Francisco, used between 17% and 26% less water than in November 2020, while Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, which account for 55% of the state's population, used nearly 1% more, according to state data.

Among the other water uses that won't be allowed under the new rules: washing cars with hoses lacking shut-off nozzles and using potable water to wash driveways, sidewalks, buildings, streets and patios or to fill decorative fountains or lakes.

There are some exceptions. For example, trees in street medians can be watered, while turf cannot. The rules will take effect once an administrative review is completed.

Though much of the U.S. West is in drought, no other western state has adopted statewide restrictions on residential water usage. Instead, it's local governments and water agencies in places like Denver and Las Vegas setting policies about when people can water their lawns. For example, the Las Vegas region adopted restrictions on planting grass, including banning it in front yards, in an effort to save water.

California adopted similar restrictions during the five-year drought that ended in 2017, and some cities and local water districts made them permanent. Such restrictions were just one piece of the state's conservation approach, which also included incentives for Californians to rip up water-hungry lawns in favor of drought-resistant landscaping.

Today, California's overall water use is lower than it was when the last drought began. But that makes conservation trickier this time, because some of the easiest measures have already been adopted. State water board officials were unable to say how many of California's nearly 40 million people are under such rules or exactly how much water they expect to save.

Though the regulations include an ability to fine violators up to $500 per day, fines were rare last time around. The state has no plans to put "water cops" on the streets, Oppenheimer said, but he noted that during the last drought many local water districts beefed up staff to monitor conservation and compliance.

The state also has a website where individuals can report their neighbors or others they see violating the rules. The complaints will be directed to the relevant local water agency. During California's last drought, people engaged in so-called "drought shaming," a process of publicly outing people who are wasting water by posting videos to social media.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.