Drought: California taking sweeping steps to conserve water


Frank Gehrke, left, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program for the Department of Water Resources, and Gov. Jerry Brown walk across a dry meadow that is usually covered in several inches of snow as conducts the snow survey, near Echo Summit, Calif., Wednesday, April 1, 2015. Gehrke said this was the first time since he has been conducting the survey that he found no snow at this location at this time of the year. Brown took the occasion to annouced that he signed an executive order requiring the state water board to implement measures in cities and towns to cut water usage by 25 percent compared with 2013 levels.

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Gary Whitlock watched water run down to the sidewalk as gardeners hosed down a bed of marigolds outside an Orange County office building and questioned if California’s latest attempt to curb water use would be any more successful than previous ones in the drought-stricken state.

Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday ordered sweeping and unprecedented measures to save water in California. A survey that day found the snowpack, which supplies a third of the state’s water, almost completely vanished.

“We’re in a new era; the idea of your nice little green grass getting water every day, that’s going to be a thing of the past,” Brown said, standing on a brown field that would normally be covered in snow that melts its way into taps.

The governor’s order calls for cities and towns to cut water use by 25 percent, but many Californians like Whitman aren’t seeing a difference in their day-to-day routines or a hit to their wallets because of the drought.

“You see people that just run water all the time, people that are watering their lawns, parks that are not using recycled water,” Whitlock said. “This has been going on for years, and everybody that I talk to says, ‘Oh, well, you know, it’s going to rain, El Nino’s coming.”

Cities have developed local storage supplies to soften the blow of future dry years, which also insulates residents from the severity of the drought.

In 1977, Brown asked for a voluntary 25 percent cut in water use during his first term as governor. Nearly 40 years later, he warns that drought may be the new normal.

Surveyors on Wednesday found the lowest snow level in the Sierra Nevada snowpack in 65 years of record-keeping, marking a fourth consecutive year of vanishing snow that California depends on to melt into rivers and replenish reservoirs.

He signed an executive order ordering officials to impose statewide mandatory water restrictions and expand programs intended to reshape how Californians use water.

Cemeteries, golf courses and business headquarters must significantly cut back on watering their large landscapes. Local governments will tear out 50 million square feet of lawns for drought-tolerant plants. And customers will get money for replacing old water-sucking appliances with efficient ones under a temporary rebate program.

These initiatives tie back to a central goal of reducing urban water use by 25 percent compared with 2013 levels, the year before Brown declared a drought emergency. In January 2014, he asked Californians to cut water use by 20 percent, but he said they haven’t come halfway to meeting that target, prompting stronger action.

That includes directing local agencies to charge for high water use, such as extra fees for the highest water consumption. Water officials vowed to crack down on waste and illegal water diversions, acknowledging spotty enforcement of existing rules limiting outdoor water use.

The order also prohibits new homes and developments from using drinkable water for irrigation if the structures lack water-efficient drip systems. In addition, the watering of decorative grasses on public street medians is banned.

“We have to pull together and save water in every way we can,” Brown said.

Critics of the Democratic governor said his order does not go far enough to address agriculture — the biggest water user in California.

The order contains no water reduction target for farmers. Instead, it requires many agricultural water suppliers to submit detailed drought management plans that include how much water they have and what they’re doing to scale back.

After a drought in the previous decade, officials acknowledged that some suppliers did not submit similar required plans. Mark Cowin, director of the Department of Water Resources, said the state will provide money to make sure the plans are written and may penalize those who do not comply.

The state is not aiming to go after water-guzzling crops such as almonds and rice the same way Brown has condemned lawns.

Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau, said farmers have already suffered deep cutbacks in their water supply during the drought. Farmers have let hundreds of thousands of acres go fallow and laid off thousands of workers as the state and federal government slashed water deliveries from reservoirs.

Those reservoirs depend on snow melt, a key source of water that the survey found was vanishing.

“It is such an unprecedented lack of snow, it is way, way below records,” Frank Gehrke, chief of snow surveys for the California Department of Water Resources, said at the survey site about 90 miles east of Sacramento.


Associated Press writer Juliet Williams in Sacramento, California, and Ellen Knickmeyer in San Francisco and contributed to this report.



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