California Residents Face First-Ever Mandatory Water Restrictions, but Farmers Are off the Hook
Standing on a brown hillside in the Sierra Nevada mountains where there should have been five feet of snow this time of year, California Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday ordered a mandatory 25 percent cut in water use statewide as a record drought enters its fourth year.
“We’re in an historic drought, and that demands unprecedented action,” Brown said. “We have to pull together and save water in every way we can.”
The order came as officials announced that the snowpack hit a record low 6 percent of normal. That means there will be virtually no spring snowmelt runoff into streams and reservoirs that supply water to California’s 38 million residents and farms.
The goal is to save 489 billion gallons of water over the next nine months through water rationing.
But the pain won’t be shared equally, as most restrictions apply only to urban residents and not farmers.
Among the limits on water use:
—Water rationing for golf courses, landscaping and even cemeteries
— A ban on watering of lawns on public street medians
— Limits on lawn watering
— Replace public ornamental landscaping
— Require water agencies to raise water rates for resident and building owners who are “excessive users.”
—Restaurants are only to serve water when customers request it
While the rules sound arduous, many municipal water districts in the state have already put most of the mandates into action.
Conservation and environmental groups like the National Resources Defense Council and the Union of Concerned Scientists are touting the governor’s mandate as a win for a state suffering through its driest period in 1,200 years. Still, others questioned whether Brown had gone hard enough after the real target in his water-saving crusade: the agriculture industry.
Adam Scow, California director of Food & Water Watch, said Brown’s announcement—which included stricter monitoring of agriculture water consumption—lacked any real cutbacks for an industry that consumes about 80 percent of the state’s developed water supply but only generates 2 percent of its economic output and 4 percent of jobs.
“In just one water district in the Central Valley, they’ll have pumped more than 1 million acre feet of groundwater for irrigating crops in the past two years,” Scow said. “That’s more than Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco pumped last year combined.”
Requiring cutbacks on water-intensive crops like almonds, alfalfa, and pistachios in drought-prone regions like the San Joaquin Valley is also an option, but one Scow doesn’t believe Brown will make, given the power of the agriculture lobby.
“Governors in this state tend to bow to those interests, so it’s not surprising there’s not teeth on the agriculture side,” Scow said.
The Westlands Water District in California’s Central Valley, for instance, boosted spending on lobbyists from $20,000 in 2003 to $730,000 in 2014, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets.org.