California's state water board yesterday approved emergency drought regulations aimed at cutting water use in urban areas by 25 per cent.
Under the new measures, cities and water agencies would be required to cut water usage by amounts ranging from 8 per cent to 36 per cent.
The rules were introduced by the State Water Resources Control Board to meet governor Jerry Brown's order for a 25-per cent cut in urban water use statewide.
It is the first time in California's history that the state has placed mandatory restrictions on water use. The plan reflected the dire conditions in the state with the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada shrinking to a record low.
Groundwater levels have dropped precipitously across much of California, and a number of areas of the Central Valley, while the wells on hundreds of properties had run dry.
As California braces for a fourth consecutive year of drought, Governor Brown and legislative leaders prepared a $1-billion relief plan in March (See: California prepares $1-bn package for drought relief).
Chair of the water board Felicia Marcus described the cutbacks as a "a collective issue that we all need to rise to in this time of emergency."
According to Max Gomberg, a senior environmental scientist with the state water board, the new mandatory measures were a "desperate times approach."
The state water board has been authorised to levy fines of up to $10,000 against cities or water districts that failed to reach their targets and that violated state orders.
Californians failed to conserve much water in March and local officials were lax in cracking down on waste, state regulators reported yesterday as they discussed tough measures to force savings in the midst of continuing drought.
According to Governor Brown the voluntary targets in place since early 2014 had failed to motivate Californians to take conservation seriously.
A survey of local water departments revealed water usage was down less than 4 per cent in March as against the same month in 2013. Overall savings had been only about 9 per cent since last summer, even though Brown had set a voluntary 20 per cent target.
The water board yesterday took up new regulations to increase the targets.
Under the rules, cities would be barred from using drinking-quality water on street median grass and encourage homeowners to allow lawns to turn brown to meet local mandatory water reduction targets.
Some local water departments who view the proposal as unrealistic and unfair, say achieving steep cuts could hit property values, in addition to placing restrictions on filling pools and washing cars. The measure could also lead to higher water bills.
Data from NASA shows that water storage has been in steady decline in California since at least 2002, before the drought began.
In an editorial in the Los Angeles Times published in March, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory senior water cycle scientist Jay Famiglietti warned that the state has only about one year of water left (California will run out of water in a year, warns NASA expert).