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A homeowning couple in drought-stricken California is facing an apparent legal Catch-22: the state will fine them $500 if they water their lawn, but their city will fine them up to $500 if they don't.

Last week, on July 15, California passed into law a set of mandatory statewide water restrictions, with high fines and penalties for violators.

On the same day, Glendora residents Laura Whitney and Michael Korte got a letter from the city, threatening to fine them for letting their lawn turn brown. Whitney and Korte told the Associated Press that their lawn had browned because, in an attempt to reduce their household water use, they had only been watering it twice a week:

They're encouraged by the state's new drought-busting, public service slogan: Brown is the new green.

The city of Glendora sees it differently.

"Despite the water conservation efforts, we wish to remind you that limited watering is still required to keep landscaping looking healthy and green," says the letter, which gives Korte and Whitney 60 days to restore their lawn.

Whitney also said: “My friends in Los Angeles got these letters warning they could be fined if they water, and I got a letter warning that I could be fined for not watering … I felt like I was in an alternate universe.”

Alternate universe

The AP story first ran on July 17. That same day, at 10:21 AM (Pacific time), the city of Glendora posted the following “Water Conservation Update/Information” on its website:

The City of Glendora takes the challenge of drought conservation seriously.  Our efforts have reduced water consumption by nearly 12% since we implemented Stage One regulations in 2008.  In extreme drought conditions, the City understands that lawns will have brown color.  Conserving does not mean property owners should allow vegetation to die or go unmaintained.   We offer financial incentives to ratepayers to undertake conservation steps like turf removal, low flow toilets and smart controllers. 

This seems to imply that the city has backed down from its previous demand that lawns look “healthy and green.” But by July 20, when Whitney and Korte's story made CBS Evening News, the couple said they weren't sure what would happen next – though the city website now admits to “brown lawns” and no longer mentions fines, they haven't heard whether the July 15 warning from the city still applies.

Whitney and Korte aren't the first Californians to face legal paradoxes as a result of the drought. In April, state legislators proposed a bill which, if passed, would ban homeowners associations from requiring water-intensive lawn conditions during a drought, or punishing residents who complied with state or local drought regulations. But that proposed bill, if passed, would only apply to HOAs in California.

When news of Whitney and Korte's plight first made headlines, state assemblywoman Cheryl Brown told the AP that she'd previously introduced a bill that would put similar restrictions on municipalities in the state, but dropped it after cities in her district promised they'd never punish residents for defying state drought restrictions. Now, though, she says she might revive the bill in 2015, and said: “It seems to me those cities aren't using common sense …. It's too bad you need a law.”

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