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Climate and Environment

What You Need To Know About California’s New Water Restrictions

In two images, water levels at Lake Oroville are low in the top image, with dry banks visible on either side with a bridge spanning the banks and the water reaching almost to the pylons. In the bottom image, very little water remains..
In this before-and-after composite image, an aerial view shows Lake Oroville water levels on April 27, 2021 and again on July 22, 2021.
(Justin Sullivan
Getty Images)
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It might seem counterintuitive after all that rain last month, but most of California remains in severe to extreme drought. That’s why state water officials adopted rules on Tuesday that restrict how we water our lawns and wash our cars.

Californians could face fines for hosing down sidewalks or driveways with drinkable water or watering grass within 48 hours of rainfall. Adopted unanimously by the State Water Resources Board, the regulations start as soon as January 15 and will be in place for at least a year.

Fines could be as much as $500, but enforcement will be at local governments’ discretion and likely rely primarily on complaints submitted by individuals. During the last drought, local governments relied less on fines and more on encouraging good water conservation practices, said James Nachbaur, the water board’s Director of Research, Planning, and Performance.

This winter had a wet start, but it is far from enough to ease the drought. Extreme heat and long-running dry conditions driven by climate change have left reservoir levels critically low, despite the recent record rain and snow. And the next few months are predicted to be drier than average, said Nachbaur.

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As the climate crisis worsens, we can expect longer and hotter periods of drought punctuated by rarer, but more intense, wet weather, so a variety of conservation strategies in all sectors will be increasingly necessary, Nachbaur said.

“The goal here is that everyone has a part to play in making water conservation a way of life in California,” he said.

The rules are similar to the ones put in place during the last drought, which lasted about five years and ended in 2017. They apply to individuals, residences, homeowners associations and businesses, but don’t apply to the state’s biggest water user: the agriculture sector.

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom called on Californians to reduce their water use by 15%, but we haven’t come close to reaching that goal. The state’s water usage went down about 6% between July and November.

Overall, Californians are using less water than they did during the last drought, Nachbaur said. But much more needs to be conserved, especially in the driest areas, like Southern California. In November 2021, homes and businesses in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties used about 1% more water than the same time in 2020, according to state data.

Here are some of the main water uses that will be prohibited under the new rules:

  • Overwatering that results in excessive runoff into the street and sidewalks
  • Using water for landscaping and irrigation during the 48 hours after storms that bring at least a quarter-inch of rain
  • Washing cars with hoses that don’t have shut-off nozzles
  • Using potable (drinkable) water to wash hard surfaces like driveways, sidewalks, buildings and patios, for street cleaning or to fill decorative fountains or lakes.
  • Running ornamental fountains that don’t recirculate water
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