Governor Brown Issues First-Ever Mandatory Water Reductions as State Nears Fifth Year of Record Drought

In response to an ever-shrinking snowpack and an unrelenting drought that has engulfed much of the state in extreme or exceptional drought conditions for the better part of four years, Governor Edmund G. Brown ordered California’s first-ever mandatory statewide water reductions today.

The governor’s address was not an April Fool’s joke, but a sobering reminder that the thirsty state didn’t receive the much-needed rain during its wet season, and now drastic measures must be taken. According to Drought Monitor, which uses data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the percentage of the State affected by exceptional drought conditions has climbed from zero percent in January 2014 to just over 40 percent in its last report issued March 24

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Map courtesy of NDMC-UNL.

The governor’s actions are aimed at saving water through increased enforcement against water wasters and enhancements in new technologies that will allow the state to streamline its drought response in hopes of making it more drought resilient. Speaking from dry field in Northern California that should normally be covered by snow at this time of year, Brown made his announcement.

“We’re in a historic drought and that demands unprecedented action,” Brown said. “For that reason I’m issuing an executive order mandating substatinal water reduction across our state. As californians we have to pool together and save water in every way we can.”

Brown’s announcement comes in the wake of a series of warnings that California’s drought conditions are worsening—a state of emergency was declared in January 2014—and will most likely carry into a fifth year and beyond. The governor cited dwindling water resources, limited rainfall and snowfall this winter and decreased water levels in state reservoirs and groundwater basins as the reasons behind his historic action today.

By directing the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to enact the reductions equalling 25 percent of the state’s current usage, it will be able to save approximately 1.5 million acre-feet of water by year’s end. That amount of water would mirror the amount currently in Lake Oroville, the state’s second largest reservoir next to Lake Shasta.

General Manager of the Long Beach Water Department (LBWD) said that today’s announcement has staff at the the LBWD pleased and he applauded the stage the governor chose to amplify the importance of his message.

“We at the water department are very very pleased that the governor has taken a personal involvement in this matter,” Wattier said. “It’s something that we’ve been suggesting for quite a while now and we’re pleased that he did that today. We’re pleased that he picked a very visual location to help educate the people of California about the severity of the crisis by being out in the middle of a dry field with brown grass which should be under several feet of snow.”

He praised the governor for including an initiative to replace nearly 50 million square feet of lawns and ornamental turf with drought tolerant landscapes, something that Long Beach has been a leader in over the past five years with its Lawn-to-Garden program, which pays up to $3.50 per square foot for lawn removal, the highest in the state. Brown also ordered that all systems using potable water to irrigate medians be turned off and left off with the dying landscaping serving as a reminder to passersby of the severe water shortage. According to the LBWD, the city has replaced nearly 2 million square feet of grass using the Lawn-to-Garden Program. 

Investing in new technology, like the smart meter program the instituted earlier this year, was a also a tenet of the governor’s address. Data provided by the meters led to the LBWD serving a McDonalds in the city with an $800 fine last week for continued violations of landscape irrigation water restrictions. The fine was the first to be given out by the LBWD despite hundreds of complaints being made previously against other properties in the city.

“All water utilities in California have ordinances and regulations and things like that on the books but there’s been virtually no enforcement of that here in Southern California to date,” Wattier said. “We at the Long Beach Water Department made a decision several months ago that the time had come when we had to start enforcing these prohibited uses of water.”

Wattier added that fines will not be constrained to businesses, noting that several residential units have been issued a warning, the first step of the department’s two-step process, with the next violation resulting in a fine. The results of enforcement will be included in a monthly report to the State’s water control board, a stipulation included in Brown’s announcement today that requires water usage, conservation and enforcement actions to be tracked and reported.

“These violators we’re going after are wasting huge amounts of water,” Wattier said. “We’re not talking about somebody running the hose for a five or ten minutes, we’re talking about huge amounts of water that’s being wasted.”

Last month Jay Famiglietti, a hydrologist, professor at University of California at Irvine and Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory Senior Water Scientist wrote in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that the State has approximately one year of water left in its reservoirs and that the groundwater—the State’s backup plan—is “rapidly disappearing.” Citing the support of one-third of Californians surveyed in a Field Poll, he stated that mandatory water rationing needed to be implemented.

“We're not just up a creek without a paddle in California, we're losing the creek too,” Famiglietti wrote.

Rationing is a term that is often used out of context according to Wattier, and regardless, it’s just not something that’s in the cards as of now. He stated that according to the baseline that the governor used in implementing his action today, Long Beach is currently trending down 5 percent from its water usage from 2013. He added that aside from creating a public health crisis, which would be illegal and shot down by the health department, the department lacks the means to physically ration water.

“Everyone uses the word rationing, and I think what people need to understand is that’s not what Long Beach or what anyone else I’m familiar with plans to do, because rationing means we’re going to take your use and establish some baseline, reduce it by some kind of percentage and then cut you off if you exceed that,” Wattier said. “We don’t have the ability to do that.”

What the city does have the ability to do, aside from fining people for wasting water, which it’s already started to do, is to educate the population on the crisis that’s actually playing out in California.

“The entire water conservation initiative is based on human behavior change,” Wattier said. “We’ve all read about Australia and we know that they’ve done miraculous things in Australia, so we know that there are things we can do much better than we’re currently doing. It’s because of awareness that they have a problem and everyone needs to step up.”

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