FREMONT -- Use a water hose, go to jail.

That could be southern Alameda County's stark new reality as people who water lawns too often could get slapped with a misdemeanor if the Alameda County Water District board declares an emergency water shortage Thursday with mandatory limits on landscape irrigation.

The measures might seem extreme, but agency leaders say mandatory conservation has become necessary because rainfall statewide remains frightfully light, even after several storms splashed the East Bay.

"It probably won't come to that, but we're hoping that people understand the severity and comply," said Alameda County Water District spokesman Frank Jahn.

A man and his daughter take a moment to watch the fast moving waters of Alameda Creek in Fremont, Calif., on Friday, Feb. 28, 2014. Heavy rains during the
A man and his daughter take a moment to watch the fast moving waters of Alameda Creek in Fremont, Calif., on Friday, Feb. 28, 2014. Heavy rains during the early morning hours made for heavy run-off into the creek. (Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group)

If approved at next week's meeting, the ordinance would take effect immediately. It would ban residents and businesses from irrigating lawns and other landscaped areas on consecutive days, the district's staff said. In addition, landscape watering would be permitted just one day a week from April 1 to May 31 and from Oct. 1 to Nov. 30; and two days a week from June 1 to Sept. 30. From Dec. 1 to March 31, irrigation would be limited to one day per week and banned on rainy days.

The ordinance has several exceptions for nurseries and other businesses that must maintain vegetation. Also, the rules are looser for Tri-City school districts and cities, which will receive an extra day per week from June 1 to Nov. 30 to irrigate public parks, school grounds, playing fields and day care center landscaping.

Residents or businesses caught exceeding the landscape watering limits first would receive a district letter in the mail, Jahn said. A second violation would lead to a second note, this time hand-delivered by a district employee, who could issue a $30 service charge for the visit.

A third violation could result in serious punishment, Jahn said -- termination of water service and a misdemeanor citations that could result in a 30-day jail sentence and a $600 fine.

"It would only be the most egregious cases and we would work with customers to prevent it from getting that far," he said, noting the Fremont-based agency lacks the staffing to seek and catch offenders.

Instead, district leaders would rely on its repair crews or Tri-City customers to report offending neighbors and businesses.

"There are many conscientious residents following the rules but see others who aren't," Jahn said. "We get calls like that at the district even during non-drought periods."

Formed in 1914, the Alameda County Water District supplies water to 336,000 people in Fremont, Newark and Union City. About 40 percent of the district's supply comes from Alameda Creek watershed and it buys 20 percent from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission's Hetch Hetchy water system. The district's remaining 40 percent of water usually comes from the State Water Project, but that agency last month cut off its farm and city customers.

As of this week, southern Alameda County has had less than 5 inches of rainfall, little more than a third of normal for this time of year, Jahn said. A normal rain year brings about 18 inches.

The average Tri-City home uses 112 gallons per day -- 40 percent of its total daily usage -- on lawns or other landscape irrigation, the kind of water use the district hopes to reduce. Meantime, residents are encouraged, but not required, to cut back on indoor usage by taking shorter showers, running dishwashers less often and fixing leaky pipes. Restaurants are urged to serve water only upon a customer's request.

Jess Loya, a Fremont retiree who installed a drip system four years ago to save money and conserve water, said he has no problem with the proposed limits because "water use has to be controlled." Loya, 71, said he probably would not report a neighbor but would understand if others did.

"Those who don't care about water running down the street are the ones you have to penalize," he said.

Regan Nursery in Fremont would be exempt from the ban, but its manager, Mark Potts, said he would favor even more restrictions.

"I'd like to have seen it come sooner because this water thing did not appear overnight," he said. "We've advocated conservation for a long time."

Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.

If you go
A public hearing on a proposal to declare a water shortage emergency in the Tri-City area will begin at 6:45 p.m. Thursday at the Alameda County Water District office, 43885 S. Grimmer Blvd., Fremont. For information, call 510-668-4200.