Editorial:  Punished for saving water: A drought Catch-22

Michael Korte and his wife Laura Whitney of Glendora received a letter from the city warning that they could face fines if they don't get their brown lawn green again.
(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

Talk about mixed messages: While Gov. Jerry Brown is warning that California faces its worst drought since record-keeping began and regulators have approved fines of up to $500 for wasting water, some Southern California cities are continuing to issue warnings and citations to residents who let their lawns go brown.

After a Glendora couple decided that they’d water their lawn only twice a week, which left it with brown patches and bald spots, they received a letter from the city’s code enforcement unit warning them to turn their grass green again or face $100 to $500 in fines and possible criminal action, according to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune. The letter said that despite the need to conserve water, “we wish to remind you that limited watering is still required to keep landscaping looking healthy and green.” And the city helpfully included some pictures of bad and good examples: a dead lawn with a red line through it and a lush, green lawn with a sprinkler running.

Glendora isn’t the only city cracking down on brown lawns. Anaheim residents have also received warnings to keep their grass green. Apparently these cities didn’t get the memo: California is in a severe drought after three consecutive dry years, and there’s no telling when it will end. Despite Brown’s calls for a 20% cut in water use, some Southern California communities have consumed more water in recent months. (Perhaps residents worried they’d be prosecuted for letting their grass die?)


This week, the State Water Resources Control Board passed emergency regulations that outlawed blatant water waste, such as spraying down sidewalks or allowing sprinklers to overflow lawns, and authorized fines fines of up to $500 for profligate use. Board chairwoman Felicia Marcus said a brown lawn should be a “badge of honor” during dry times. But what’s a homeowner to do if that badge of honor results in a fine or criminal action from the city?

Certainly, the drought is no excuse for four-foot-tall weeds or dry, flammable shrubs in a fire zone, and cities have a right to go after true blight or threats to public safety. But it’s tone deaf and irresponsible to preach conservation and then slap people with penalties when they actually conserve water. In the long term, Southern Californians need to rethink the way they use water even in wet years, and that will mean reconsidering their love affair with lawns. Incentives to plant drought-tolerant landscapes can help and should be expanded. In the meantime, cities should relax their standards on green grass while mandatory water conservation rules are in effect.

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