City Undeterred by State Drought Restrictions, Threatens Couple with Fine for Brown Lawn

Monday, July 21, 2014
Laura Whitney and her husband, Michael Korte (photo: Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News)

Last Tuesday, the same day state regulators OK'd a drought-inspired $500 fine for water wasters, a Southern California couple received a municipal notice that they could be fined the same amount for letting their lawn turn brown.

Laura Whitney and her husband, Michael Korte, weren't quite sure what lesson to draw from the dual warnings. “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.”

The Glendora couple has taken to heart the appeals for conservation coming from all quarters as California enters the third year of arguably the worst drought on record. They cut their showers short, are more selective about doing laundry and water their lawn just twice a week.

When the State Water Resources Control Board announced its new regulations, Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said, “a brown lawn should be a badge of honor because it shows you care about your community.” But one person's badge of honor is another person's warning sign. The letter from Glendora Police code enforcement to the couple reminded them that “limited watering is still required to keep landscaping looking healthy and green.” 

The letter called dead and dying lawns a potential public nuisance. “It is telling me I’d better get my lawn green and I have 60 days to do it,” Whitney told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune. She told the newspaper she was thinking about killing what's left of the brown crabgrass, cover it with mulch and reseed with a more drought-tolerant form of grass.

The couple said the affluent city, in the foothills northeast of Los Angeles, might take a bit of its own advice and stop watering its Big Tree Park every night, sending streams of water into the gutters.

A subsequent “water conservation update” letter sent by Glendora to homeowners a few days later made no mention of fines and took a more conciliatory approach: “In extreme drought conditions, the City understands that lawns will have brown color. Conserving does not mean property owners should allow vegetation to die or go unmaintained.”  

Whitney and Korte appear to be doing a much better job of water conservation than the state in general. When the water board announced its emergency measures last week, it updated estimates of how well the state was doing on meeting Governor Jerry Brown's goal of a 20% voluntary reduction in water use. It was not an upbeat assessment. Water use had increased 1%.

Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown (D-Rialto) introduced legislation in March, Assembly Bill 1636, that would “prohibit a city or county, during a drought emergency declared by the Governor, from enforcing a law or ordinance requiring a resident to water his or her lawn.” Brown told the Associated Press that she dropped the legislation in May after receiving assurances from cities in her 47th District that they wouldn't penalize people for brown lawns.

“It seems to me those cities aren't using common sense," Brown said. “It's too bad you need a law.”

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Glendora Now Says It's Fine to Conserve Water for Lawns (by Anna Iliff, Orange County Register)

California Couple Threatened with Fine for Brown Lawn Even as State Gripped In Drought (by Christopher Weber and Fenit Nirappil, Associated Press)

Glendora Residents Urged to Keep Lawns Green while Saving Water (by Jeanne Kuang and Kate Larsen, NBC Southern California)

California Couple Threatened with Fine for Water-Saving Effort (by Steve Scauzillo, San Gabriel Valley Tribune)

State Adopts $500 Water Penalty, while Revising May Use from Down 25% to Up 1% (by Ken Broder,  AllGov California)

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