Bathroom Bandits

Law-breaking urinals? California's water rules will force new fixtures to toe the water line.

April 13, 2015

Photo: Terry Johnston/Flickr

California is trying to take the water out of “water closet,” demanding better toilet tech as a way to conserve in these dry times. On Thursday, the California Energy Commission voted to adopt stricter standards for water-using products, such as toilets, urinals, and faucets. 

As of January 1, 2016, older kitchen and bathroom fixtures will be illegal, but you don’t have to rush to remodel just yet. The new rules apply only to newly installed infrastructure—your old john wouldn’t violate the law.

The new rules come on the heels of Governor Jerry Brown’s announcement by that by next February, the state’s local water suppliers must cut their output by 25 percent. Reducing water use at the loo from 1.6 gallons to 1.28 gallons per flush will help water districts reach that goal. New urinals will ease water demand, too, guzzling just 16 ounces (down from up to a gallon) with each use. Then, when you wash your hands at the sink, faucets will pour at a rate of 1.2 gallons per minute instead of the current 2.2 gallons. Golf courses, parks, and cemeteries will also face water cuts. 

It will eventually cut California water use by 100 billion gallons per year,” says Noah Horowitz, a senior energy scientist at the NRDC (disclosure). “That’s equivalent to three times the amount of water San Francisco uses.”

Each local supplier will implement different limits, with lower restrictions for those districts that have already reduced their water consumption. Fines for a district that goes over the limit could be up to $10,000 a day. Penalties for individuals would also depend on where they live and past behavior. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, for example, can issue fines from $100 to $200, depending on whether the household is a repeat offender.

Now in the fourth year of drought, some concerned citizens have already begun to take shorter, colder showers and cut back on their laundry loads. Green lawns have been pretty much out of the question for a while now (unless you paint them, of course).

Even if Californians are willing to do their part, many can’t help but notice that two major industrial sectors—farming and fracking—are left untouched by Brown’s mandate.

Fracking operations used close to 70 million gallons of water last year—and have been known to inject drilling wastes into aquifers, contaminating groundwater. But the biggest water user by far is agriculture, which accounts for 80 percent of the state’s water use. Many farmers argue that their $40 billion industry provides 420,000 Californians with jobs and much of the country with produce—all those tomatoes, avocados, broccoli, and almonds need hefty amounts of water to grow. They also point out that farmers have already experienced mandatory cutbacks when it comes to the wet stuff.   

Even so, if the drought continues to run the state dry (as it’s expected to do), California may have to put the lid on other water wasters as well.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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