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Riverside Press Enterprise


Drought: A Puddle Of Failed Policies

July 31, 2014

By Ben Boychuk

My lawn is dying. Truth is, one side has been dying for quite some time, despite my best efforts to save it. But it's really dying now that we've cut back watering. And with the West Valley Water District joining other local agencies in pressuring everyone to slash water use by 10 percent or better, I expect my whole yard will be a depressing golden brown by Labor Day.

I'm not complaining exactly. Paying a fortune to keep grass green in the third year of one the worst droughts on record doesn't make much sense, fiscally or environmentally.

But it's difficult to imagine a more profound failure of state government than this.

Don't misunderstand. I'm not blaming Gov. Jerry Brown for abetting the death of my grass in an election year. Droughts are simply a fact of life in California — predictable in the sense we have reams of historical data that show dry spells spanning years or even decades here.

Government cannot control the weather. But government does have more than a little say in setting policies that make our inevitable droughts easier or more difficult to manage. What we're experiencing right now is much worse than it needs to be.

We're reviving '70s-era conservation measures — say it with me now: “If it's yellow, let it mellow. If it's brown, flush it down”— while relying for the most part on '70s-era infrastructure. The state completed its last major reservoir — Castaic Lake, just north of Los Angeles — in 1973. The federal government completed its last reservoir in the state in 1979.

Imagine where we'd be without Diamond Valley Lake in Hemet, which was completed in 2003. The reservoir was the work of the Southern California Metropolitan Water District, and it nearly doubled the region's surface water storage.

Statewide, however, our storage is sadly lacking. We don't recycle water very well. And we're dumping perfectly good water into the Pacific Ocean and resisting desalination in the name of environmentalism.

In lieu of infrastructure, we have regulation. We're not to the point of rationing — yet. Draconian measures have only just begun. You might have read something about “voluntary compliance.” For example, Kevin Milligan, Riverside Public Utilities assistant general manager for water, explained to the P-E the other day that his agency's goal “is voluntary compliance, the community pulling together and conserving for the benefit of everybody.”

That's a lovely sentiment, but there's nothing voluntary about the new rules the state Water Resources Control Board passed earlier this month. Starting Friday, if you water your lawn too much, or hose down your driveway, or wash your car without a shutoff nozzle on your hose, you're looking at fines of $500 a day.

Here's the problem: Most cities require property owners to replace dead or dying landscape and to irrigate on a regular basis.

Water more than twice a week? That'll be $500. Let your grass go brown? That'll be $500.

Governor Brown last week signed Assembly Bill 2100, which prevents homeowners associations from fining people who don't water their lawns. Unfortunately, the bill doesn't apply to city codes. It's a classic catch-22, courtesy of your state and local government.

And how exactly will these new rules be enforced? It's difficult to imagine, for example, San Bernardino cops handing out tickets to homeowners over-watering their lawns when the bankrupt city is cutting services — including code enforcement — and struggling to combat a sharp rise in violent crime.

Local government agencies are supposed to comply with the state regulations, too, or face fines of $10,000. Good luck collecting.

If police and code enforcement officers won't be prowling the streets looking for water scofflaws, then what? That leaves you and me.

Oh, just think of the mischief. Got a beef with your neighbor? Maybe his dog barks too much or his kids are obnoxious or he snubbed you at the July 4 block party this year. Call your local water agency, sit back, and watch what happens.

This is what government failure looks like: brown lawns, fallow fields, new criminal penalties, neighbors reporting neighbors, and — if the drought persists — water rationing. Such a crisis presents an opportunity to get California's water policy right. If we're lucky, our children and grandchildren might live to see the benefits.

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