By Elke Weesjes
As California grapples with its fourth year of extreme drought and a full-blown water crisis, Gov. Jerry Brown has announced mandatory water restrictions for the first time in the state’s history.
In an executive order signed on April 1, Gov. Brown ordered the state water board to implement measures in cities and towns that cut usage by 25 percent.
Last year, Brown had asked residents to voluntarily cut water use by 20 percent but that effort consistently fell short, even as the drought worsened. February 2015 conservation statistics showed that water consumption was reduced by just 2.8 percent statewide.
To ensure compliance this time round, state officials said that they were prepared to enforce punitive measures, including fines for those water suppliers that failed to meet the reduction targets to be set by the state water board in the coming weeks.
"We're in a historic drought, and that demands unprecedented action," Brown said during a news conference at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada, where officials had gathered to measure snowpack. "People should realize 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 joined Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program, for the fourth manual snow survey, conducted when the snowpack is usually at its peak. The survey—done on bare grass for the first time in history—found that the snowpack was 5 percent of the April average.
The lack of snow will have devastating consequences for California’s summer water supply, since the Sierra snowpack, through runoff, provides roughly one-third of the water used by California’s cities and farms.
“We have to pull together and save water in every way we can,” Brown said in response to the survey result.
The question of whether truly everyone has to pull together remains, though. The mandatory restrictions largely spare agriculture—the one industry that uses more water than any other sector—and has led to observations that the state is perhaps not doing all it can to limit water use.
According to the Department of Water Resources, farmers in California—the nation’s largest farm state—use about 80 percent of available water, compared with 10 percent used in cities. So why is agriculture, which only accounts for two percent of the state economy, exempt from the mandatory water restrictions?
“Agriculture has already suffered major cutbacks,” Brown told reporters at the Phillips news conference. “A lot of people are letting their land go fallow. Trees are dying.”
Felicia Marcus, the state water board chair charged with crafting the details of Brown’s plan, also defends going easy on agriculture.
“Agriculture water goes to growing food, which is important to urban areas,” Marcus, told the Los Angeles Times. “Someone in L.A. may have more in common with a Central Valley farmer than the guy next door watering his lawn.”
By cracking down on lawns and expanding existing technology like water recycling and desalination, officials hope to meet the new restrictions. Others don’t think that urban conservation is enough and have called for a multifaceted approach that would include agriculture.
Absent that, say experts such as Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the mandatory measures will not fix the crushing combination of ongoing extreme drought and the increasingly higher water demands of a growing population.
“Desalination is part of it and sewage recycling is part of it,” Famiglietti told NPR. “More efficient irrigation, better water pricing, better crop choices — there's all sorts of things we need to include in our portfolio to bridge that gap between supply and demand.”