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Editorial: Overwatering is a crime – except for state’s biggest water user

Use a hose, go to jail.

California hasn’t quite come to threatening unrepentant water wasters with time in the big house. But emergency rules adopted by the State Water Resources Control Board Tuesday do take the state a lot closer to criminalizing the squandering of a precious resource.

It’s an unpleasant but necessary measure. As a study by UC Davis makes clear, the ongoing drought hurts the state’s economy. It’s a pain that trickles down to all of us, even those already doing their part to cut back.

But it is frustrating that agriculture has been let off the hook.

The state water board’s rules require urban water agencies that haven’t yet done so – Sacramento already has – to crack down on their water wasting users. That means levying fines on residential and commercial users as high as $500 a day for hosing down the sidewalk, running potable water through the decorative fountain or washing the car with a hose that doesn’t have a shut-off nozzle. Water agencies that fail to police their users face fines themselves, up to $10,000 a day.

No one’s going to be inspecting houses for running faucets, long showers or old, wasteful commodes – at least not yet. But that could be next if the stiff fines don’t accomplish Gov. Jerry Brown’s goal of reducing residential and commercial use by 20 percent. Since Brown issued his decree, water usage in the state has actually increased slightly, thanks mostly to our south state neighbors and high temperatures.

To be fair, users in Southern California started cutting back water usage years before the drought. For example, Los Angeles uses just 138 gallons per person per day compared to the 279 gallons used on average by Sacramentans each day.

It’s unfair to put the entire conservation onus on residents, who have done so much. Just look at Sacramento’s brown lawns.

Yes, there are still people watering lawns more than twice a week and others using a hose where a broom would suffice. But even the stiffest fines can achieve only a fraction of the necessary water conservation if they exempt the industry that uses more than three-fourths of the water in the state.

In fact, the ag industry has put an even greater burden on the state’s dwindling water supplies by overdrafting groundwater to sustain water-sucking permanent crops like almonds and growing alfalfa for export. Many water-conscious farmers have adopted voluntary conservation measures and should be commended, but they are the exceptions.

Meanwhile, water agencies must be judicious in issuing fines. There also must be some room for leniency. Yes, most water pooling on the sidewalk and in gutters is a byproduct of sloppy yard irrigation. But there are times when it is not only appropriate, but necessary for the sake of public health to use water on gutters and sidewalks. Think about dense urban areas where there are great concentration of people – and animals – using and often abusing the pavement.

Those exceptions are few, however. The rest of us must do our part. Overwatering is now a crime, for most of us.