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What kind of laws are you supposed to pass to convince 38 million people to conserve water during a drought?

The lawn in front of the California State Capitol is seen dead in Sacramento on June 18. As the California drought continues, the grounds at the California State Capitol are under a reduced watering program and groundskeepers have let sections of the lawn die  in an effort to use less water. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

As California continues to face the driest period in its history, lawmakers are grappling with the best way to encourage water conservation in a state of 38 million people.

On Monday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill barring homeowner’s associations from enforcing requirements to keep lawns green during a drought-related state of emergency.

“Many homeowner’s associations might not realize how serious this drought is,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the state Water Resources Control Board. “Many urban areas don’t seem to realize it.”

Although water-use restrictions could become more extreme based on the severity of the drought in the coming months and possibly years, right now, raising awareness is a top priority for policymakers and the legislature. “It’s hard to get the message out,” Marcus said.

Last week, the board approved fines of as much as $500 a day  for certain water uses like hosing down driveways. The measures don’t go into effect until August, but the media attention and increased spotlight on the situation were valuable for water conservation efforts.

“The goal of doing this is not to fine people, it’s to get people to conserve more water,” Marcus said. “The fines are just a tool.”

Other moves, like letting the Capitol lawn in Sacramento die and publicizing a 17-second water conservation PSA Lady Gaga filmed (which was part of an agreement so she could fill up a swimming pool at a California Historical Landmark and film a much more elaborate and interesting 12-minute music video), contribute to the state’s campaign to educate.

“We need every drop of water we can possibly save,” said Sailaja Rajappan, a spokeswoman for Assemblywoman Nora Campos (D), who sponsored the HOA bill Brown signed Monday.

Michael Korte and his wife, Laura Whitney, pose outside their home lawn in Glendora, Calif., on July 17. The Southern California couple, who scaled back watering due to drought, received a letter from the city of Glendora warning that they could face fines if they don’t get their brown lawn green again. They are told if they don’t revive the lawn they could be hit with up to $500 in fines and possible criminal action. City Manager Chris Jeffers says the couple has not been cited and called it a friendly letter prompted by a neighbor’s complaint. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

The bill does not mention penalties municipalities can impose for brown lawns, and came on the heels of a couple from Glendora who received a warning from their city over their dead lawn last week. Since receiving the warning, which Glendora Mayor Judy Nelson said was only delivered because of an anonymous complaint filed by a resident who believed the home was vacant and not because of city officials going “door-to-door,” the city has revised warning letters.

“It still asks people to maintain the appearance of their yards,” Nelson said. “It does not mention fines.” The city suggests residents look into drought-friendly landscaping that can save water without hurting home values, she said.

Assemblywoman Cheryl Crown (D), who introduced legislation prohibiting municipalities from fining over brown lawns but dropped it to put her support behind the HOA bill on suggestion from her staff, said she’s considering reintroducing the bill after hearing of other homeowners across the state in similar dilemmas, including one who spoke at a San Bernardino town hall this week. “I can see that my bill should have gone forward,” she said. “The reason I brought it up is I knew there were cities that were doing it.”

Marcus, the state Water Resources Control Board chair, characterized the state’s first steps as “a bottom line,” and is optimistic Californians will go beyond suggestions to cut back their water use.

“Hopefully now, we’ve rung the bell,” she said.

Hunter Schwarz covers the intersection of politics and pop culture for the Washington Post

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