Snow survey chief Frank Gehrke and Gov. Jerry Brown in snowless Sierra Nevada meadow (photo: Randall Benton, Sacramento Bee)
Governor Jerry Brown, waving an executive order (pdf) more detailed than any he had ever seen, announced in a snowless Sierra Nevada meadow a crackdown on urban users of water. In the first mandatory cuts in California history, Brown demanded a 25% reduction through a range of restrictions for those responsible for approximately 10% of the state’s water use.
He didn’t have much to say about agricultural use, which uses between 80% and 90% of the water.
“Real reductions in a number of areas, that include golf courses, people’s lawns, universities’ campuses, all sorts of institutions, the medians with vegetation on our roads and highways, it affects all of that,” he said. As for farming, “We are requiring agricultural water plans that will actually be followed.”
A summary of the executive order from the governor’s office breaks his proposal into four categories. All the domestic use is in the “Save Water” section. Agricultural actions are addressed in “Increase Enforcement” and begin with an acknowledgment of the pain already felt:
“Agricultural water users—which have borne much of the brunt of the drought to date, with hundreds of thousands of fallowed acres, significantly reduced water allocations and thousands of farmworkers laid off—will be required to report more water use information to state regulators, increasing the state's ability to enforce against illegal diversions and waste and unreasonable use of water under today's order.”
“It is disappointing that Governor Brown’s executive order to reduce California water use does not address the state’s most egregious corporate water abuses. In the midst of a severe drought, the Governor continues to allow corporate farms and oil interests to deplete and pollute our precious groundwater resources.”
Scow wants Brown to direct the State Water Resources Control Board to put a “moratorium on the use of groundwater for irrigating crops on toxic and dry soils on the westside of the San Joaquin Valley.” He should also declare a moratorium on fracking and other extraction techniques to “stop the ongoing contamination of groundwater aquifers by toxic wastewater from oil and gas operations.”
Craig Wilson, former Delta watermaster at the Water Board, told the Sacramento Bee, “Ag is where the water is. Come up with a plan to cut their water use by 10%, 20%. I wouldn’t dictate to the farmers how to do it, but tell them to give us the plan that shows how you’re going to do it.”
Instead of putting the drought’s effect and the state’s response in a larger context of where the largest problem areas lie, the governor chose to relegate agriculture and corporate activities to footnotes in his executive order. The state is not considering any wide-ranging policy shift to efficiently manage the kind of crops farmers grow and where they grow them, settling for now on allowing questionable things like growing water-sucking almonds in the desert.
Around 500,000 acres of land were idled last year because of the drought and last month, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced for the second year in a row that the federal government would not be delivering any water to the San Joaquin Valley, the state’s agricultural heartland.
Brown said the 25% mandatory cut for residential users was necessary because his call for a 20% voluntary reduction last year only netted 9% in cuts. The meadow where he made his announcement is usually covered in several feet of snow by now, but the record-low area snowpack is 8% of normal. It had never been below 25% during 60 years of record-keeping. Snowpack provides around 30% of the state’s water needs.
Urban dwellers should get ready for a lot more brown in their lives, besides the governor. Brown ordered creation of a program to replace 50 million square feet of residential lawns with drought-tolerant plants; a ban on ornamental lawns on public street medians; and a ban on irrigating yards in new housing developments unless the water is recycled or drip irrigation is used. Campuses, golf courses and cemeteries will be required to immediately implement water efficiency measures.
The state will also implement an appliance-rebate program to replace inefficient devices and direct water suppliers to come up with ways to charge more money for water use “to maximize conservation.”
Brown did not talk about penalties for those who don’t meet the new conservation standards, but his director of the Department of Water Resources, Mark Cowin, did. “We are looking for success, not to be punitive,” Cowin told the New York Times. “In the end, if people and communities don’t comply, there will be repercussions, including fines.”
He didn’t mention corporate interests or agriculture.