Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday announced what had been long expected in parched California: there will be indefinite mandatory water restrictions.
Brown has ordered cities to cut water use by 25 percent compared with 2013, a move that essentially affects everyone from Beverly Hills mansion owners to homeowners with small backyard gardens. The order is expected to go into effect in mid-May.
“It’s a different world,” Brown said while strolling through a dry patch of grass in the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Lake Tahoe. He further explained that the melting snowpack—which provides about one-third of the state’s fresh water—would ordinarily flood this area in the late spring.
“We’re standing on dry ground, we should be standing on five feet of snow. We have to act differently. The idea of your nice little green grass getting lots of water everyday, that’s going to be a thing of the past,” the governor added.
Brown said the state will provide financial incentives to help replace 50 million square feet of lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping that uses less water. He also wants to increase the use of recycled “gray” water for irrigation.
Rebates will be offered to consumers to replace old appliances such washing machines and dishwashers with new models that are energy efficient.
Watering ornamental grass on roadway medians is banned. Golf courses, cemeteries, sports fields and other large landscapes must reduce water use immediately. New construction developments cannot use potable water without first installing special water-efficient drip irrigation systems. Agricultural operations will reportedly not be affected. The state’s Department of Food and Agriculture said farming areas have already been hit hard with more than 400,000 acres laid fallow last year, and at least 17,000 workers laid off.
Local water suppliers can expect fines of $10,000 per day for failing to meet the 25-percent reduction. The State Water Resources Control Board said the fines can be passed on to individual violators, who could be subject to penalties of $500 per violation.
In 2014, Brown called for a 20-percent voluntary water-use reduction by all Californians, but residents and business owners failed to meet that goal. This year, he said, tougher measures were needed to reach a goal of saving 1.5 million acre-feet of water over the next nine months, an amount equal to the volume of water that is currently in Lake Oroville a few miles north of Sacramento.
Between 2011 and 2014, the drought has cost California ratepayers a reported $1.4 billion more for electricity than in average years, because parts of the state have had to shift from hydropower to natural gas, according to a recent report by the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Oakland.
“In an average year, hydropower provides 18 percent of the electricity needed for agriculture, industry and our homes,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute. “Comparatively, in this four-year drought period, hydropower comprised less than 12 percent of total California electricity generation.”
People are trying to adapt to less water. Student groups, communities and social activists have organized awareness and action campaigns, while city governments have started rebate programs and sanctions aimed at encouraging conservation. But the water resources board has said these measures simply won’t be enough.
Also, Beacon Economics, a research firm, has said that the dry fields in the Central Valley have led to lower food production, which in turn have encouraged a drop in exports of non-manufactured goods over the last year.
Agriculture’s near unrelenting use of ground water, says Richard Walker, a professor emeritus of geography at UC Berkeley, has diminished the state’s ability to tap into this 20-million-old water source during dry years and to serve as a buffer against drought.
“The philosophy for 100 years was ‘supply engineering to provide water all the time, in all years,’” Walker explained. “It’s been ‘pump as you may’ and those with more money to drill deeper will out-pump the little guy whose wells have gone dry.”