On Tuesday, state officials approved a program to cut water usage across California by 10 to 20 percent, and this includes a blanket ban on the watering of ornamental lawns in common areas of subdivisions and on all commercial properties.

Facing the ongoing, unprecedented drought, and following a La Nina winter that dropped disappointingly low amounts of precipitation on Northern California and the Sierra Nevada especially, Governor Gavin Newsom warned us Monday that mandatory water usage restrictions were likely on the way for the whole state. Sierra snowpack statewide was at 35% of normal as of late April, creating an immediate shortfall in the amount of available water heading in to the summer months. And after Newsom called for all Californians to cut back their water use last summer by 15%, we only succeeded in cutting back by 4% in the last ten months.


So, the California State Water Resources Control Board on Tuesday officially adopted emergency regulations to cut back usage by 10 to 20 percent this year, pushing local water suppliers to enact their own guidelines to achieve this. And some communities will face some hard choices dealing with what's "needed in this new normal," as Laurel Firestone, a California State Water Resources Control Board member, said at Tuesday's board meeting, per the New York Times.

"We are in this unprecedented drought. We need to act like it," Firestone said.

These are the first mandatory water restrictions enacted at the state level since the previous drought, when then-Governor Jerry Brown issued a blanket 25% reduction order in April 2015. It was called a "new normal" then, and now, seven years on, it's still our new normal despite a few good and wet years in between.

Newsom is warning that more onerous restrictions on personal water use could be on the way if local agencies don't step and show progress.

"California is facing a drought crisis and every local water agency and Californian needs to step up on conservation efforts,” Newsom said in a Tuesday statement. “We all have to be more thoughtful about how to make every drop count."

And in a release on Monday, Newsom said, "Every water agency across the state needs to take more aggressive actions to communicate about the drought emergency and implement conservation measures. Californians made significant changes since the last drought but we have seen an uptick in water use, especially as we enter the summer months. We all have to be more thoughtful about how to make every drop count."

Those changes Newsom is referring to have led to decreases in water usage overall in some locals around the state, including the Bay Area. Overall, the Bay Area has been decreasing its water usage since before the last drought, which ended in 2016 — though the estimated amount of that decrease is not known because water data tends to lag behind by years. And while agriculture still accounts for 80% of California's water, residential water use, especially for exterior watering, has been consistently declining — with San Francisco using the least water, both residentially and commercially, than any other Bay Area county.

Thus, much like in the last drought, our local water agency — the SF Public Utilities Commission — is not likely to impose anything too onerous in the way of restrictions on the city. Though they may launch another ad campaign like this one to encourage shorter showers, front-loading washing machines, and less car-washing.

As we learned in March, the real water hogs in California are in the southeast, desert-y quadrant of the state — the Palm Springs area, the Inland Empire, and Imperial County — where water use shot up by 19% between January 2020 and January 2022, perhaps driven by more residents living there full time during the pandemic.

But coming next, in the next few weeks, we will hear local water agencies imposing restrictions on the watering of landscaping — like they did at the beginning of last summer — and the refilling of swimming pools. Parks and sports fields will not be left to whither, but there may be fines imposed for washing cars or watering lawns too often, and the like. Counties like Marin, which have especially limited water reserves, will likely see the harshest restrictions and potential fines. Stay tuned!

On Tuesday, Santa Clara County already issued restrictions that take effect June 1 that impose possible $500 fines on repeat water-wasters — and up to $10,000 for egregious repeat offenders who refuse to comply with the restrictions.

Previously: Newsom Threatens Mandatory Water Restrictions Across California If We Don’t Lay Off the Water Usage

Photo: Paul Moody