US & Canada

Sweeping California water cuts begin

A dry creek is seen in Northridge, California, United States 4 May 2015 Image copyright Reuters

California's water board has unanimously passed sweeping mandatory drought restrictions for the summer.

The new rules will limit watering on public property and impose cuts of up to 36% on water usage from 2013 levels.

The state board drew up the rules in response to Governor Jerry Brown's earlier order to cut water use state-wide.

California is in its fourth year of severe drought, believed to be the worst there in 1,200 years.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption In January of 2014, Governor Jerry Brown asked Californians to voluntarily reduce water usage by 20%

The board voted after five hours of public testimony on Tuesday.

Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said it was better "to prepare now than face much more painful cuts should it not rain in the fall".

Governor Jerry Brown has called for "unprecedented action" in response to the historic drought, but a previous voluntary cutback in 2014 did not result in significant usages.

A new survey of water agencies found only 9% savings in water usage since last summer and only several hundred notices sent to water wasters out of tens of thousands of complaints.

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Experts say Brown's tough love approach is necessary because so many people are apathetic towards water conservation. About 50% of water used in residential areas is outside the home.

Getting rid of grass will be a huge lifestyle shift for many, but it is the biggest single measure that individual Californians could take to ease the crisis, according to Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist with Nasa.

"Drought tolerant native landscape is beautiful - we just have to get over this grass thing," he explains.

"We live in an arid and semi-arid state and we need to start acting that way."

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Image copyright AP
Image caption Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains - which melts to supply a third of the state's water - is all but gone

The restrictions cover hundreds of local agencies of very different sizes, with water restrictions from 8% to 36% depending on the city.

It is unclear how the board will enforce penalties as many local agencies have declined to serve notices to those wasting water.

But board officials said they expected dramatic water reductions by June and were willing to add penalties for those lagging behind.

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Media captionWhy Californians are drilling for groundwater

Mr Brown said he would push for fines of up to $10,000 (£6,545) for extreme wasters, but he needs approval from the California legislature.

While the vote was unanimous, some cities criticised the targets. San Diego water agencies said they have significantly cut consumption and spent $3.5bn to prepare for dry periods.

"San Diego has lived the horror of what the state is going through right now," Mark Weston, chairman of the San Diego County Water Authority, told regulators.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Governor Jerry Brown said he will push for harsher penalties for wasting water

About 80% of California's water usage is through agriculture. The new restrictions do not cover farms but water deliveries from government reservoir systems have been slashed.

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