They’re coming for your grass, flowers and gardens.
The City of Thousand Oaks told The Conejo Guardian in July that its goal is to eliminate all private lawns in the City, which it says is “the most effective way that the city as a whole can reduce its water needs.”
Some residents are already receiving letters from the County threatening “discontinuation of water service” if a household does not severely restrict water usage and allow landscaping to die.
“If a customer’s not willing to rip out all their grass, maybe some of it,” Joseph Pope, director of water and sanitation for Ventura County Public Works, told the Guardian. “we’ll take what we can get, but we’re really trying to harvest long-term savings. … There’s a lot of lawns out there that can be converted to drought-tolerant landscaping.”
If the County believes a household is using too much water, “We would likely restrict their flow” with “a little washer that we put in right at their meter, and it would essentially make it almost impossible for them to do any outdoor watering, but it would still be enough water supply to meet their basic human health and safety needs indoors — so showering, cleaning, cooking,” says Pope. “But the flow would be significantly reduced, so you couldn’t have, like, two people taking a shower at the same time, and you definitely couldn’t have your irrigation sprinklers on.”
Alexandra South, Thousand Oaks City’s strategic communications and public affairs director, told the Guardian in response to emailed questions that “the most effective way that the city as a whole can reduce its water needs is to eliminate turf/lawns in any areas of the city where it is not being used for active recreation.” The City’s Recreation and Park District has placed signs at park entrances that say, “Protect Your Parks; Lose Your Lawn.”
Thousand Oaks is currently at Level 4 of 6 in the scheme of conservation levels, with 6 being the most severe. The city had been at Level 2 since November 2021, then skipped suddenly to Level 4 in May 2022 when the City of Thousand Oaks imposed one of the most severe water restriction programs in its history, with 16 rules monitoring activities from car washing to “dust suppression.” Residents have been instructed to water their lawns once a week for no more than 15 minutes, to cover pools when not in use, to refrain from washing vehicles and driveways with potable water and to replace their sprinkler systems with low-volume alternatives, among other guidelines. Surrounding areas, depending on where households source their water, are falling under similar restrictions.
Kevin McNamee, Thousand Oaks City Councilman, calls the water shortage “one hundred percent human error” and “lack of foresight.”
“In the last 50 years, the Sacramento legislature has been asleep at the switch,” says McNamee. “Our population has doubled in that time, and yet we have not built any additional reservoirs or dams to hold water for our population. … It’s equivalent to standing on the train tracks and seeing a train two miles out coming towards you. You know that train’s going to get to you, but they are now responding where it’s five feet from them and trying to figure out what to do. That’s what’s occurred.”
In 2014, California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 1, a $7.12 billion bond measure, for the purpose of funding water supply infrastructure projects, with $2.7 billion dedicated to dams and reservoirs. Eight years later, there has been zero progress on water storage.
State Senator Jim Nielsen (R-4), who represents the Sacramento Valley up through Red Bluff, including the Oroville Dam, led the effort to secure Proposition 1 funding. He says that “in nearly a decade since the passage of Prop. 1 by more than 60 percent of the voters in California, not one shovel has been turned.” Why? “Bureaucratic stasis, meaning nothing happens,” Nielsen told the Guardian.
“The regulatory agencies have dragged their heels, and environmentalists have done everything they could to impede water storage,” Nielsen said. “They want it to be all about conservation. That is incredibly short-sighted. They are ignoring our grandchildren when they think that our water policy can be predicated only on conservation. It cannot be. It’s got to be a balance.”
‘They’re going to shut off your water if you don’t comply with these orders … and now
there’s no recourse for us.’
Water doesn’t mean just greener lawns but electricity. Lake Orville, a reservoir, is so low that its hydropower generators cannot operate. Water storage “isn’t just about supplying water,” says Nielsen. “It’s also about the generation of energy, and that is often ignored.”
The state’s decades-long neglect of drought management now forces everyday Californians into strict conservation mode to avoid another crisis — at the risk of losing water flow to their homes and being fined.
“While some property owners have installed drought-tolerant landscapes and reduced their irrigation demand, a significant portion of local residents and businesses have not yet made that transition,” the City told the Guardian. To facilitate that “transition,” the City is conducting 24-hour water surveillance, with newly assigned patrol staff reporting water violations. Residents are also being encouraged to snitch on each other. First-time water violators receive a warning. Fines start at $100 and increase to $500 for a fifth violation. Violators are entered into a special tracking system for ongoing monitoring.
Water districts are even empowered to install flow restrictors on a household’s water supply, allowing “only that which is needed for health and safety purposes.”
Some Ventura County residents have received letters informing them in ominous tones, “the District has reason to believe that the service address above may be in violation of the District’s current mandatory conservation measures,” giving a date when “[t]his violation was observed” and threatening “discontinuation of water service for a fifth violation.”
“Neighbors are turning on each other and ratting each other out, saying, ‘That guy is watering his lawn. How dare he,’” says one Moorpark resident who received such a letter. “They’re going to shut off your water if you don’t comply with these orders and stop watering your lawn, and now there’s no recourse for us. Landscaping is going to die. That’s our labor and effort we put into beautifying our homes and neighborhoods. They’re making this choice to destroy our way of life. It’s continual mismanagement by our bureaucrats. We’re the ones that suffer for their decisions, bad planning and irresponsible behavior.”
Pope told the Guardian that although warning letters threaten a “discontinuation of water service,” the County “probably wouldn’t shut them off completely.”
McNamee, who is also a waste science professor at Ventura College, attributes the crisis entirely to government mismanagement. He points to the fact that millions of gallons of usable water rush continually into the San Francisco Bay because the Jerry Brown administration began building two tunnels that would allow trout to swim upstream during mating season. But the slow-moving, never-completed project leaves viable water rushing into the ocean, rendering California even drier.
The Sacramento Delta, through which Sierra mountain water rushes to the bay, is caught in its own water woes. Declining water levels invite sea water into the delicate water system, necessitating rock barriers, which in turn make it difficult for spawning fish to move upstream – the very fish environmentalists are trying to protect by redirecting water away from human use.
While McNamee says the state’s extreme measures may be necessary to avert immediate catastrophe, California’s leaders must develop a long-term, proactive solution to avoid permanent drought conditions.
“If our legislators and the governor were wise, they would put [funds] into water infrastructure to build those reservoirs, dams to avert this crisis in the future,” he says. “They would put money into developing reverse osmosis plants to treat the water that comes out of the wastewater plant and then reuse that water. They would build stormwater capture basins to be reused. I don’t know if there’s political will and enough wisdom of that kind of vision in Sacramento.”
McNamee advises residents to consider water management when heading to the ballot box and to elect representatives who will break the half-century of neglect.
“We are way behind the curve because of inaction for the last 50 years by Sacramento not to build more reservoirs or dams,” he says. “Elect people who have vision and can see how to be proactive and avoid these crises in the future instead of being reactive as they are right now.”
Thousand Oaks mayor Bob Engler told the Guardian that for reasons including drought and “lack of infrastructure, State water has become less reliable.”
“The city recognized this several years ago and has been actively seeking a groundwater source to supplement imported water using both federal and state grants to develop this resource that promises to provide 10% of our water,” Engler wrote by email.
The following politicians did not respond to requests for comment from the Guardian: County Supervisor Linda Parks, Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin and State Senator Henry Stern.