Lakes have run dry, lawns have turned brown, and farmers have left land unplanted. The problems are a result of an extreme drought that has taken over nearly 80% of California. It is the state’s worst drought in nearly 40 years. The conditions have led to wildfires and damage to animals’ habitats. But too many residents are still not taking their state’s drought seriously.
Water regulators decided Tuesday to fine California residents up to $500 a day if they are seen wasting water. The fines will apply only to wasteful outdoor water use, such as washing a vehicle with excess water or hosing down sidewalks and driveways.
“Outdoor water waste is unacceptable in a time of drought,” Felicia Marcus told TIME. She heads the State Water Resources Control Board. “We don’t know when it’s going to rain again…this is a dramatic action, but these are dramatic times.”
Three Years and Counting
California has had a drought for three years. In January of this year, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency. Residents were told that if it doesn’t rain this winter, conditions in the state could get worse. Some farmers could see their wells run dry next year and communities could run out of drinking water. Yet too many California residents are not heeding the warnings. Water consumption in the state actually rose by 1% in May, according to a report from the board.
The board estimates that the new rules about water usage could save enough water to supply more than 3.5 million people for a year. Cities are free to decide how they will fine residents. Repeat violators could face the full $500-a-day fine. Others might receive warnings or smaller fines. The regulations will go into effect in early August.
Marcus says the rules will send a message about how serious the situation is. “We were hoping for more voluntary conservation,” she says. “We hope this will get people’s attention.”
The Problem Spreads
ETHAN MILLER—GETTY IMAGES
Lake Mead in Las Vegas, Nevada, has dropped to low levels because of the drought.
California is not the only state affected by the drought. States in the southwestern part of the U.S. are seeing problems too. Lake Mead in Las Vegas, Nevada, has reached its lowest level since the 1930s. When the lake is full, it is about 1,296 feet above sea level. On Tuesday, the lake was about 1,082 feet above sea level, and the reservoir was about 39% full, according to Rose Davis. She is a spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, a water-management agency, in Boulder City, Nevada.
"We projected this was coming," says Davis. "We are basically where we expected to be, given the dry winters in 2012 and 2013."
Las Vegas depends on Lake Meade for drinking water for its 2 million residents and 40 million tourists each year. If the lake drops 7 feet more, Nevada and Arizona could face cuts in their water delivery. But Davis does not expect that to happen. The bureau predicts there will be a small increase in the water level by January 2015.