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Sweeping water restrictions begin in Southern California in ongoing drought

Households are now forbidden to water their lawns more than once a week in many jurisdictions.
Image: one day a week watering restrictions starting June. 1
Paul Ramirez waters the front lawn May 11 at his home in Boyle Heights, Calif., as his dog Bandit, a 2-year-old Yorkshire terrier, jumps for joy.Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file
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Sweeping restrictions on outdoor water use go into effect on Wednesday for more than 6 million residents in Southern California as officials work to conserve water during a severe drought.

The conservation rules, among the strictest ever imposed in the state, were set by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, one of the largest water distributors in the country.

Households are now forbidden from watering their lawns more than once a week in many jurisdictions. The goal is to slash water use by 35 percent as the state enters its third straight year of drought.

The rules come after California officials in March announced they were cutting State Water Project allocations from 15 percent to 5 percent of normal amid declining reservoir levels and reduced snowpack. California’s two largest reservoirs have already dropped to critically low levels, and the state this year experienced its driest January, February and March on record.

“The amount of water we have available to us right now is not going to be enough to carry us through the entire year unless we do something different,” MWD general manager Adel Hagekhalil said at a news conference in April. “This is a wake-up call.”

The megadrought in the U.S. West has produced the driest two decades in the region in at least 1,200 years. Conditions are likely to continue through 2022 and could persist for years. Researchers publishing in the journal Nature Climate Change have estimated that 42 percent of the drought’s severity is attributable to human-caused climate change.

As the summer months approach, curbing outdoor water usage is the most effective way to conserve water. Landscape watering represents about half of all urban water use in California.

During the state’s drought from 2012 to 2016, former Gov. Jerry Brown ordered a mandatory 25 percent cutback in water use, during which many residents responded by switching to drought-tolerant landscaping.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has not imposed such mandatory restrictions, but requested last year that residents curb household water consumption by 15 percent. Officials also have urged people to use recycled water for outside projects, take shorter showers and only run dishwashers and washing machines when full.

But the measures haven’t worked so far in getting residents to conserve water. In fact, the state’s average urban water use rose nearly 19 percent in March compared to the same month in 2020, according to State Water Resources Control Board data.

Officials have warned that if water use doesn’t decline significantly — or if drought conditions grow even more severe — they could impose a full outdoor watering ban as soon as September.

Newsom, during a meeting last week with leaders from the state’s largest urban water suppliers, warned California could be forced to impose mandatory cutbacks.

“Californians made significant changes since the last drought, but we have seen an uptick in water use, especially as we enter the summer months,” Newsom said in a statement. “We all have to be more thoughtful about how to make every drop count.”