U.S. News

California drought: New water rules may not work

California is adopting unprecedented, statewide water conservation rules for its nearly 40 million residents.

But some experts say the regulations will be tough to enforce and don't address the state's primary problem—that California's water rights and rules systems are broken and obsolete.

A worker uses a power washer to clean the sidewalk in front of a building on May 6, 2015, in San Francisco. The California State Water Resources Control Board approved California Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed emergency drought regulations that will slash water use in urban areas by an average of 25 percent.
Getty Images

The State Water Resources Control Board—the agency that implements conservation rules and ensures that local water suppliers meet conservation targets—announced this week an "emergency regulation" that requires a mandatory 25 percent reduction in water use. The rule came in response to an order Gov. Jerry Brown made on April 1.

The voluntary conservation efforts adopted last July cut water use by only about 9 percent, compared with the governor's target of a 20 percent reduction. California used only 3.6 percent less water in March than it did in the same month in 2013. That's also a less than 1 percentage point increase in saved water over February's number.

What the new rules look like

The new regulation is unprecedented in California history, according to a press release from the State Water Resources Control Board.

The target, if met, will amount to about 1.2 million acre-feet of water saved over the next nine months—roughly the amount currently in Lake Oroville, the statement said. The lake is California's second-largest reservoir, though its current water level is roughly half of its total capacity of 3.5 million acre-feet, according to the Association of California Water Agencies.

The regulations divide all the communities in the state into nine tiers. Those in higher tiers are required to conserve more. The city of Arcata, for instance, far north in the state's wetter redwood forests, has to conserve only 8 percent of its total residential use.

Cali drought: Farmers scapegoated?

However, Myoma Dunes Water Co., the local water agency for many communities in Southern California's Riverside County, falls into tier nine, and thus has to cut its water use by 36 percent.

The State Water Resources Control Board says the average California resident should require no more than 55 gallons of water per day for "indoor use," which includes needs such as bathing, washing and cooking.

Residents in some parts of the state currently use several times that—between 216 and 614 gallons of water per person per day during the months of July, August and September. The water board says outdoor water use accounts for about half of the residential total, and it can run as high at 80 percent.

Read MoreTesla-linked stock soared 10,000% in hours

Even the relatively stiff 36 percent cut will still leave those residents with a minimum of 138, and as much as 393 gallons of water per person per day, "far more than the accepted standard of 55 gallons per person per day," according to the agency.

"Today we set a high but achievable bar, with the goal of stretching urban California's water supply," said Felicia Marcus, State Water Resources Control Board chair, in a press release issued by the agency. "We have to face the reality that this drought may continue and prepare as if that's the case."

Why they may not work

But Michael Wara, a professor of environmental law at Stanford University, doubts the new rules can be enforced effectively. Any meaningful solution to an increasingly desperate drought, he said, will have to overhaul California's legal structure for allocating water, provide incentives for users to cut water use and build cooperation among the state's many local water agencies.

The state's system for choosing who gets how much water is antiquated, Wara said. It lacks a system for monitoring how much water is being used by many users—especially agricultural ones. Moreover, water consumers lack real incentives to conserve water the same way they conserve other resources, such as gasoline.

Water "is somewhat similar to electricity, where prices don't go up even when you have scarcity," he said, "and that is like almost nothing else that we have in limited quantities and that is so valuable."

Read MoreCan Tesla's home battery lower your electric bill?

Others have expressed similar misgivings about whether Californians are inclined to conform to new, aggressive rules. Dave Bolland, who manages special projects for the Association of California Water Agencies, this week told California NPR affiliate KQED that he doubts people will embrace a "new water use ethic."

Another problem is that the responsibility for managing water across the state is spread out among a fragmented collection of agencies, with varied levels of funding.

Large cities such as Los Angeles have made progress in cutting water use over recent decades, but many smaller water agencies lack the resources to take the same kinds of steps, he said.

"I am very skeptical that the water agencies and the State Water Resources Control Board can enforce any of this," Wara said.

Read MoreAs more rent instead of buy, the wealth gap widens

In theory, any peace officer can cite violators, according to the State Water Resources Control Board statement. Fines for violations can run up to $500 a day for individual residential users and $10,000 a day for water suppliers.

The state is handing out big fines for users it says are not complying with existing regulations. Public records show, for instance, that state authorities fined a dairy in Turlock $73,000 last week for failing to provide annual water usage reports.

But Wara points out that the state is putting the mandatory cuts in place largely because the voluntary cuts did not work at all. That suggests many Californians either don't care enough to conserve, or don't want to make the cuts for some other reason.