Amid Drought, CA Couple Faces Fine for Not Using Enough Water

California is in the middle of a historic drought that is straining water supplies so much that the state has now ordered mandatory restrictions on unnecessary water usage. At the same time, cities are fining people for not using enough water to keep their lawn green.

On the same day the state approved the mandatory water restrictions, Whitney and Korte received a letter from the city threatening a fine for not sufficiently watering their brown lawn.

“Despite the water conservation efforts, we wish to remind you that limited watering is still required to keep landscaping looking healthy and green,” the letter reads. The couple were given 60 days to restore the lawn or be slapped with a fine ranging from $100 to $500, Reuters reported.

“My friends in Los Angeles got these letters warning they could be fined if they water, and I got a letter warning that I could be fined for not watering,” Whitney told the Associated Press. “I felt like I was in an alternate universe.”

According to the Contra Costa Water Board, lawn care is typically the single biggest water user for the average property and a 500-square-foot lawn can use more than 18,000 gallons of water per year. Among their tips for maintaining a lawn while in the midst of drought conditions: “Be willing to accept a less than lush lawn during the drought.”

Similarly, state water board Chairwoman Marcus told residents this week that “a brown lawn should be a badge of honor because it shows you care about your community.” However, Glendora City Manager Chris Jeffers told Reuters that Whitney and Korte’s lawn had deteriorated so severely, the city was receiving reports of a possible abandoned property.

And instead of telling the people making those reports that they’re wrong and the property isn’t abandoned, you decided to order the people living there to use more water? Is there an adult in charge, by any chance?

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  • Sometimes I can almost see the point of view of libertarians…

  • So probably not a good idea to try xeriscaping there?

  • @1 Tabby Lavalamp.

    Join us left-libertarians. We’re basically just Norwegian-style ‘socialists’ who think drugs, prostituion, etc. are fine and shouldn’t be illegal.

  • eric

    Contra Costa is bay area, north and on the Oakland side of San Francisco. Different watershed from LA so saving water there would not help LA’s drought. This is roughly equivalent to complaining that because NYC is in a drought, people in Pittsburg shouldn’t water their lawns. However, having said that, I believe that the bay area watershed(s) are also experiencing drought conditions so this is still stupid.

  • Perhaps the city should start mandating the replacement of standard lawns with some other form of plant life that needs less water to stay green.

    Or perhaps we should all take this as another hint that we need to spend more effort finding alternative sources of water, such as rainwater-collection.

    These blatantly contradictory legal mandates are a serious injustice; but maintaining green space is a legitimate ecological interest, because it’s good for the neighborhood and the biosphere as a whole.

  • D. C. Sessions

    The same thing happens in Arizona, except with HOAs (there may not be a god, but HOAs are proof that there is a Devil.) Quite a few around here require that people not only keep their properties neat and all that but also that they maintain lush green landscaping of exotic water-hogging species. Native plants such as mesquite, desert willow, hesperaloe, yellow bells, etc. need not apply.

    Oh, and no clotheslines or solar collectors, regardless of visibility.

    $HERSELF is hoping that a court will toss those as contrary to public policy since there’s zero chance of the Arizona legislature doing anything to block them. Actually, with our legislature I’m surprised we don’t have a statewide ban on xeriscaping, plus a declaration of minimum water use and maximum fuel economy.

  • DC: has your state delegated more local-government powers to HOAs, in order to justify paying less in taxes to county governments, and keeping more rich people’s money in rich neighborhoods? IANAE, but from what I’ve read so far, that seems to be a major part of problems like this. HOAs have more power to act as NIMBY-patrols and resist any policy changes for any greater good.

  • gog

    That solar collector one in AZ is particularly evil. What justification do they have? Electric companies not wanting small-timers eating into their profits? If so, that’s racketeering.

  • Scientismist

    Eric @ #4 — Not only does the drought directly affect most of the state, the state shares its water. Look up the California State Water Project. Water from the Sacramento Delta watershed flows (and is pumped uphill, and generates power when flowing downhill) as far south as Lake Perris, which is east of, and actually a bit further south than Los Angeles.

  • Phillip IV

    The situation reminds me of agricultural policy in the Third Reich, where the scarcity of approved types of feed often meant livestock-farmers could only choose whether they preferred being fined for wasteful feeding or for insufficient feeding. (Does this count as a Godwin?)

  • regexp

    I live in San Diego. What’s more amusing (or sad) is that while we are being asked to conserve water – there are no less than five apartment buildings under construction a couple of blocks from where I live (the shortest being five stories and the tallest being 12). So most here feel the calls to conserve water as a big joke.

  • StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    What the fuck?

  • vereverum

    Perhaps the city should start mandating the replacement of standard lawns with some other form of plant life that needs less water to stay green.

    Perhaps Kudzu?

  • D. C. Sessions

    The HOAs don’t really have any delegated powers aside from the usual stuff in the covenants etc. It’s just that in Arizona there’s such a rich field of possible abuse — such as requiring Midwestern landscape plants that barely survive here and only if given incredible amounts of water.

    And then there’s the expansive definition of “eyesore.” Such as having solar collectors (water or electricity, either one) or clotheslines in the back yard.

    My tragic lack of an HOA apparently adds at least 10% to the sale value of my house. Not a bad thing, given that I’m selling it — complete with solar hot water, clothesline, and half an acre of mature desert native landscaping that requires zero supplemental water.

  • emc2

    Glendora is in Los Angeles County, in the foothills about 10 miles east of Pasadena. I have no idea why they would be quoting the Contra Costa Water Board.

  • anne

    DC Sessions: check out Arizona Revised Statute section 33-1816.

    Solar energy devices; reasonable restrictions; fees and costs

    A. Notwithstanding any provision in the community documents, an association shall not prohibit the installation or use of a solar energy device as defined in section 44-1761.

    B. An association may adopt reasonable rules regarding the placement of a solar energy device if those rules do not prevent the installation, impair the functioning of the device or restrict its use or adversely affect the cost or efficiency of the device.

    C. Notwithstanding any provision of the community documents, the court shall award reasonable attorney fees and costs to any party who substantially prevails in an action against the board of directors of the association for a violation of this section.

    Even a blind pig finds a truffle now and then. My solar panels are being installed on my townhouse (in an HOA) tomorrow. Forecast high is 112!

  • As ridiculous as this is, getting on the backs of homeowners for using too much water really misses the point. Agriculture consumes the vast majority of water (up to 80% of the Colorado river) and it does so very wastefully. Water rights are a complete mess of various laws and customs that go back centuries, and farmers simply take it for granted that they get to use as much water as they want, screw everyone else.

    I was visiting the Gunnison river (a major tributary to the Colorado, and hence a source for CA and AZ) a couple of weeks ago, and a big theme there is how precious the water is and how everyone depends on it. In the park, there was no running water and signs told you to be careful with the water you used because it had to be trucked in from 12 miles away. But then you drive immediately outside the park, and what do you see? Some farmland with open ditch irrigation, watering the ground in the middle of the day using sprayers that lose half the water to evaporation. The vital crop they were growing is hay.

  • D. C. Sessions

    THX, anne — that’s news. I can see why our Legislature wouldn’t want us to know about that one passing.

    You must be in a cold channel — I’m looking at 114F. Of course, $HERSELF is looking at 95 with a low of 70. Now if I can only make an excuse to join her …

  • JustaTech

    Ha! You want beautiful, green grass that doesn’t require water? It can be done! It’s called artificial turf. My in-laws installed in at their house in San Diego after one year of paying to water the lawn at residental rates (they’d had ag rates in their previous house). They got the dog-friendly kind, so they do have to hose it off occasionally to clean it, but nothing like what you need to keep real grass green. I bet it’s expensive, even with all the money you save on water and maintance.

  • zenlike

    As a filthy socialist European I can’t even conceive of being fined for having a not-green-enough lawn, regardless of any water shortage.

    It’s stuff like this that always makes me laugh uncontrollably whenever I hear an American exclaim the ‘land of the free’ bit with a straight face.

  • gridlore

    In a moment of sanity, the Assembly and Senate have passed, and Gov. Brown has signed, legislation forbidding HOAs from imposing these sorts of fines for the duration of the drought.

    Sadly, it doesn’t apply to the Glendora case. But the idiots in the Southland need to understand that we are in a drought, and they can’t drain NorCal dry for their lawns and swimming pools.

  • D. C. Sessions

    But the idiots in the Southland need to understand that we are in a drought, and they can’t drain NorCal dry for their lawns and swimming pools.

    Why not? It is, after all, a longstanding tradition.

    Besides, who will buy their houses when they flip them if the grass isn’t lush and the golf course nearby well-manicured?

  • Chiroptera

    … the city was receiving reports of a possible abandoned property.

    lol wut?

    Brown grass is not a sign of abandoned property. Besides, don’t the neighbors notice people leaving and returning home?

    Now weeds that have gotten to knee high, that starts getting to be a possible sign of abandoned property.

  • Richard Smith

    gridlore (#21):

    In a moment of sanity, the Assembly and Senate have passed, and Gov. Brown has signed, legislation forbidding HOAs from imposing these sorts of fines for the duration of the drought.

    I’m sure the governor is particularly happy, but must still get lots of complaints about his own lawn the rest of the year…

  • abb3w

    This is idiotic.

    Contrariwise, sometimes the law recognizes such idiocy can happen, and copes. As I recall from discussion when the budget default was impending, one affirmative defense against breaking the law in some cases is “necessity” — essentially, a situation where either of the available choices involves breaking one or another law.

    Nohow, I’m not a lawyer; it may not be mountable as a defense here — say, if this is considered civil rather than criminal.

    And regardless, the people affected should certainly get in touch with their state legislator; the state law should be amended to penalize municipalities which attempt to impose such fines when water controls are in effect. I think an amount three times each fine the municipality attempts to impose, plus six times any amounts actually collected… that sounds good.

  • freemage

    Tabby: Except most American libertarians don’t so much want to eliminate government interference as move it more locally. So they want to take Federal powers and push them down to the states, and state powers and push them down to the municipal level. While this can prevent the temptation to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to a complex issue, it also tends to promote short-sighted and narrow thinking that often misses the forest for the trees. This column is actually a perfect case in point–it’s a local government, the one that’s supposedly the most responsive to the people, pulling this crap. (Of course, the libertarian ideal is the HOA; comments about those may be found elsewhere in these comments.)

  • D. C. Sessions

    So they want to take Federal powers and push them down to the states, and state powers and push them down to the municipal level.

    Unless the local (or State) level get the result wrong, in which case it needs to be overridden by the higher level.

  • Matrim

    That was on thing that always really bugged me about living in SoCal. There we were, in the middle of the Mojave Desert, and people had lush, green lawns. The amount of water wasted on lawns was simply staggering. Personally, I’d welcome the chance to not have to mow a frigging lawn every week. You live in a desert, embrace it.