A hard look at Jerry Brown's historic drought order

jc-mg-200-names.jpgMark Gold writes: Response to Governor Jerry Brown's historic executive order mandating for the first time ever a statewide 25 percent reduction in urban water use has been nearly universal support. There is no question that the order served as the biggest wake-up call to date for urban areas to take the drought far more seriously. The setting for the announcement--a bone dry Sierra Nevada meadow normally blanketed in five feet of snow--dramatically brought home the urgency of the situation.

Bass Lake.jpgIt remains to be seen how the requirements in the order will be translated into regulatory language by the State Water Resources Control Board in May. The order included the usual menu of conservation targets--lawns, golf courses, inefficient washing machines and dishwashers, median strips, and new development. There was nothing very innovative in the approaches that received most news coverage. The real story was the mandatory 25 percent reduction.

However, there were a number of statements the governor made in the declaration which could lead to tremendous conservation benefits. For example, the governor called on urban water suppliers to develop conservation based rate structures with penalties for excessive water use. The problem is an Orange County court ruling against tiered rates in San Juan Capistrano based on California's Proposition 218 has paralyzed such efforts in recent months. So the real question is: what can the state do to enable water providers to create rate structures that severely penalize water wasters? It will be very interesting to see if the state can get water suppliers to put real teeth in their rate structures.

The state also calls on agricultural water users to develop drought management plans as part of their 2015 agricultural water management plans. The requirement includes a more quantitative approach than before, but it only targets farms bigger than 10,000 acres and the governor has said nothing specific about what constitutes an adequate plan. The State Water Resources Control Board was tasked with increasing enforcement against illegal water diversions and wasteful and unreasonable use of water. This is a great opportunity for the board to tighten up its definition of wasteful and unreasonable use of water to enhance the use of recycled water.

The board has a similar opportunity with the governor's mandate to update its model water efficient landscape ordinance to increase use of stormwater capture cisterns, greywater systems, and efficient irrigation. The model ordinance also gives the state a chance to weigh in on needed requirements to plant climate appropriate landscaping.

As I wrote here last week, the state also needs to be more strategic in decisions about Proposition 1 water bond allocations to ensure that high priority projects that greatly reduce potable water demand--such as LA's proposed groundwater pump and treat project and the Tillman water recycling project in the San Fernando Valley--are funded as soon as possible.

All in all, the governor's executive order was dramatic and strong, but, in truth, only moderate in scope. There are some in the environmental community--Food and Water Watch, the Planning and Conservation League, the California Water Impact Network, and others--who were disappointed that the order largely let agriculture off the hook because growers have already experienced severe cutbacks from the State Water Project and Central Valley Project. Last year, growers received only 5 percent of their allocated water from the State Water Project, and this year they are expected to get only about 20 percent of their allocations. Junior water rights holders will see their allocations cut drastically or eliminated before senior rights holders. Final decisions on allocations should be made in the next month or two.

Environmental concerns center around the lack of mandated reductions for water intensive agriculture, an absence of an effort to rein in agribusiness owners who have brilliantly gamed the water rights system, the need to greatly accelerate groundwater management requirements to reduce growing aquifer overdraft problems, and the potential unintended environmental impacts of the order's numerous streamlining measures designed to reduce potable water use outdoors as soon as possible. In addition, some of these groups have correctly pointed out that there is a lot of Southern California agriculture outside of the San Joaquin Valley--in Ventura, Orange, and San Diego Counties, and in the Coachella and Imperial Valleys--that should be greatly reducing water use, and the order largely neglected these large users.

The true measure of the governor's executive order can't be determined right now. The State Water Resources Control Board, the Department of Water Resources, and the Public Utilities Commission will largely determine how effective Jerry Brown's historic drought response will be, in fact.

One thing is for certain, though, the flimsy excuse made by many that they didn't realize that the drought was this severe has definitely evaporated.

Photo of Bass Lake, Fresno, by Faith Her from "Children of the Drought" in
Boom: A Journal of California, which has collected seven of its finest pieces on water and the drought here.

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