Three years of below average rainfall and the ongoing drought has left Californians in a serious pickle: Many have chosen to let their lawns go brown in an effort to conserve, but some homeowners are being hit with big fines for failing to maintain their landscaping. On the other hand, the state is cracking down on excess watering and, beginning August 1st, it will impose a $500 fine on anyone caught overwatering their lawn. How did this catch-22 come about - and what can you do if you’ve found yourself caught in the middle? Read on to find out.
The worst drought in 500 years
Most authorities agree that this is the worst drought in the last 500 years, and many believe that it will continue for at least another year – though there is evidence that it may be the beginning of a very, very long period of very, very dry weather in the state. Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency back in January and set a target of reducing statewide water consumption by 20 percent this year. However, a recent study found that water use has actually increased by 1 percent compared to the summer of 2011 when the drought officially began.
With this dismal news and the two biggest reservoirs in the state at 40 percent capacity, the State Water Resources Board is bringing down the axe on water wasters by establishing a $500 fine imposable by any law enforcement officer. The first thing that should be clarified about the new rule is that it does not prevent people from watering their lawn or any other plants – it only prevents excessive watering, i.e. sprinkler systems that are not programmed properly and are spewing water onto the sidewalk. It is also aimed at people that leave the water running when they wash their car or those that like to use power washers on their patios, decks and walkways. If anything, it is a very gentle axing of wasteful water use that should probably be even more severe, given the length of drought that is forecast.
Photo from Shutterstock
So, in reality homeowners have nothing to fear in turning on the sprinkler a couple times each week to keep the lawn green. But it’s understandably vexing that people who are voluntarily choosing not to water at all are being fined by their local municipality. This stems from local codes that are common in every part of the country aimed at keeping property values up by ensuring that every home landscape is trim and tidy. The effort to avoid urban blight typically extends to irrigation requirements to avoid the dead-lawn look, but these are clearly irrelevant in the current context in California. Yet, the rules are on the books, so they are being enforced by bureaucrats that are ‘just doing their jobs’.
What is needed, perhaps, is state level legislation – like the rule that was just passed – that (at least temporarily) blocks municipalities from enforcing any codes that require water use that is not absolutely essential. Democratic Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown in San Bernardino recently has actually proposed such legislation, but thus far nothing has been passed to this effect.
In the meantime, what can you do?
At least one company provides an artificial ‘greening’ service, using a non-toxic substance to paint you dead lawn with green pigment. You could also consider removing your lawn and replacing it with drought-tolerant species, like cacti, succulents, and the hundreds of exquisitely beautiful native California plants that are adapted to drought and require no irrigation whatsoever once established. Simply look up your local native plant nursery for ideas – they are common in virtually every corner of the state.
In lieu of reducing your landscape’s water needs, you could also consider using alternative sources of water, rather than the municipal supply. This would be a great time to invest in a roof water catchment system, for example, as it will probably rain at least a little bit this winter in California and you can store that water for use next year. For every inch of rain that falls on a 1000 square foot roof, you’ll harvest 625 gallons of water – so even a modest size house will collect enough water for modest irrigation use with only ten inches of rain.
Rainwater catchment won’t be of any help until next year, so in the interim you may want to consider a greywater system to recycle your household water for irrigation purposes. This can be as simple as washing your dishes in a basin and then using the dirty water on your plants (who will appreciate the little bit of nutrient found in the greywater, as long as you’re using biodegradable soap). Or, you can install a more elaborate underground greywater system that takes all the water from your house (except what goes down the toilet – that’s called blackwater) and recycles it in the landscape. In the past, household greywater systems were illegal virtually everywhere, but there are many pioneering communities in California that now allow them. They do need to be built to code, however, so you’ll likely need to pay a licensed plumber to do the job for you.
There are many other options out there to take your water consumption into your own hands, such as low-flow fixtures and composting toilets. However, the California drought is such a complex and massive issue that politics are inevitably going to be involved in working out the solutions that will really make a difference on a large scale. So whether or not you’re one of those that have come home to a code violation notice in the mailbox, it’s essential for all caring Californians to get involved: write letters to your state level representatives in support of conservation measures, go to your town hall meetings to advocate for local responsibility in water use, try to direct your shopping dollars toward products that come from water-wise companies and do your best to spread the word about all the ways individuals can contribute to water conservation – conveniently collected here on Inhabitat.