WEST COVINA, CALIF. -- The citation that arrived in his mail last month was clear enough, but suburban Los Angeles homeowner John M. Connors was so astonished that he read it several times to make sure he had it right.
In the fifth year of the worst California drought in 60 years and with many municipal governments threatening to impose severe water restrictions, the city of West Covina was ordering Connors to water his lawn.
He knew the grass in front of his home 18 miles east of Los Angeles was miserably dry and yellow, killed off by a summertime fungus. But the note from the city, which carried the force of a $1,000 fine or six-month jail term if he failed to comply, seemed an inexplicable anachronism, a sign that someone in City Hall was not paying attention to the cloudless skies and hot, dry Santa Ana winds.
"In Santa Barbara if you even water your lawn once they'll send you to jail," said Connors, exaggerating somewhat the power of drought police now roaming that coastal California city, "but here I get this."
After four years of thin snows on the Sierra Nevada and feeble rains up and down the coast, Californians are hoping for one good, wet winter to replenish their reservoirs and refill their mountain streams.
In the meantime, a reluctance to make sacrifices, and some resilient legal California lifestyle preservers like the West Covina lawn ordinance, have hampered conservation efforts and increased the chances for a difficult summer if the rain and snow do not come.
Like stubborn gamblers on a losing streak, Californians have no intention of abandoning the semiarid state where they have built a thriving economy and often comfortable lives.
Even some of their most wasteful obsessions, like a pea-green lawn, are proving hard to kill.
West Covina's landscape maintenance code, in place since 1985, has proved popular with homeowners who know a scraggly neighbor's yard can cut into their house's resale value.
When a local newspaper reported Connors's plight, West Covina city spokesman Tom Manheim said, "We got calls from people saying, 'My city doesn't have a law like that but I wish they did.' "
At least 17 of 30 other cities in the bone-dry suburbs east of Los Angeles told West Covina officials they had similar rules.
Such findings have state water officials grimacing and shaking their heads. "In a drought situation," said Lawrence Mullnix, deputy director of the state water resources department, "such ordinances will have to be modified."
For the moment, lawn sprinklers still gush throughout the Los Angeles basin, and gutters still take the wasted runoff to the sea. Voluntary compliance with new water restrictions has slumped in Los Angeles.
But the Metropolitan Water District (MWD), which provides water from several reservoirs and other sources, is waiting until February to see if it needs to impose harsh new rules on the city and suburban population.
The opening weeks of the fifth drought year, which officially began Oct. 1, have not been encouraging. Bob Fingado, a spokesman for the state drought center, said October provided only 2 percent of average annual precipitation, instead of the 6 percent it should.
If the five months from November through March do not provide at least their average share of water -- 77 percent of annual needs -- the state will have to cut back further on cheap water to farmers and most municipal and industrial customers will begin for the first time to feel a real bite.
MWD officials have already warned of a permanent statewide water shortage, caused by unrestrained population growth and cutbacks in allotments from the Colorado River.
Water officials throughout the state are suggesting changes in lifestyle and gardening practices, including drought-resistant plants and new drip irrigation.
Keith Watkins, chief of the urban water conservation section of the state water resources department, has nothing but dirt in the yard of his new Sacramento-area house while he plans what he calls "water-efficient landscaping."
He said some officials are drafting model ordinances to help guide cities that want to conserve. The idea is to avoid mixed messages and achieve "a uniform approch to lawn watering," he said.
But there have been no efforts yet to amend the lawn-watering ordinance in West Covina, and even MWD water conservation manager Ed Thornhill noted with some sympathy that pleasant green plants and grass around a house "can add $15,000 to $20,000 to its value."
Connors, an attorney no less appreciative of this argument than his neighbors, said he had always planned to revive his lawn in the spring.
But last week he bowed to the city demand and poured on new seed and manure. "Now I water and it runs down the street like everybody else's," he said.
A few days ago he saw the city code enforcement officer driving slowly past his house, making what he was certain was a careful inspection of his renewed commitment to water-fattened grass on the dry southern California plain.
"The car went around the corner and I could see him parked over there," he said, "and then he came back again slowly, but when I came out front he took off."