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Following the lowest snowpack ever recorded and with no end to the drought in sight, Governor Jerry Brown has announced an executive order designed to save water by increasing enforcement of rules prohibiting wasteful water use, streamlining the state's drought response, and investing in new technologies to make California more drought resilient.

Following the lowest snowpack ever recorded and with no end to the drought in sight, Governor Jerry Brown has announced an executive order designed to save water by increasing enforcement of rules prohibiting wasteful water use, streamlining the state's drought response, and investing in new technologies to make California more drought resilient.(Photo: Kevin Cortopassi/flickr/cc)

Era of 'Nice Little Green Grass' Is Over as Calif. Imposes Strict Water Rules

Amid worsening drought, Gov. Jerry Brown signs far-reaching executive order designed to reduce state's water consumption by twenty-five percent

Jon Queally

Standing on dry grass in an area that would typically be covered by at least several feet of accumulated snow in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains on Wednesday, California Governor Jerry Brown on Wednesday announced his approval of emergency measures, including mandatory water restrictions, designed to help the nation's largest state cope with a drought that has been described as the worst in a millennium.

"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." —California Gov. Jerry Brown"Today we are standing on dry grass where there should be five feet of snow," Gov. Brown said at a news conference at Echo Summit in the Sierra Nevada mountains alongside state officials who released the grim results of a survey (pdf) about this year's snowpack. 

"This historic drought demands unprecedented action," Brown continued. "Therefore, I'm issuing an executive order mandating substantial water reductions across our state. As Californians, we must pull together and save water in every way possible."

Alongside Brown was  Mark Cowin, director of the California Department of Water Resources, who said that for his survey team to have found "no snow whatsoever" in the mountains spells severe trouble for the year ahead. "Today’s survey underscores the severity of California’s drought," Cowin said. "Water conservation must become a way of life during the worst drought in most Californians’ lifetimes."

Unprecedented in state history, Brown's executive order directs the State Water Resources Control Board to implement mandatory water reductions in cities and towns across California to reduce water usage by 25 percent. If the state can reduce consumption by that much it would amount to approximately 1.5 million acre-feet by year's end.

To save more water in the immediate term, the order will also:

  • Replace 50 million square feet of lawns throughout the state with drought tolerant landscaping in partnership with local governments;
  • Direct the creation of a temporary, statewide consumer rebate program to replace old appliances with more water and energy efficient models;
  • Require campuses, golf courses, cemeteries and other large landscapes to make significant cuts in water use; and
  • Prohibit new homes and developments from irrigating with potable water unless water-efficient drip irrigation systems are used, and ban watering of ornamental grass on public street medians.

"We're in a new era," Gov. Brown told reporters. "The idea of your nice little green grass getting water every day, that's going to be a thing of the past."

The location of Brown's press conference spoke to the importance of the annual snowpack on the state's water resources. As the Guardian explains:

The 1 April snowpack survey is an important indicator of the amount of water the state will have in its reservoirs as the state’s wet historically wet season winds down. “In what were considered normal precipitation years, the snowpack supplied about 30 percent of California’s water needs as it melts in the spring and summer,” the DWR said in a statement on Wednesday.

California relies on a series of massive storms during the winter months to drop snow on California’s mountain ranges. During the spring and summer months the snowpack melts and fills the state’s reservoirs. Historically, 1 April marked peak snowpack for the year. This year, the mountain runoff will likely be just a trickle.
David Rizzardo, chief of snow surveys for the California Department of Water Resources, said the previous driest condition on this date was 25%, in 2014 and 1977.

“We’re not only setting a new low, we’re completely obliterating the previous record,” he said on a conference call with reporters. “And this is the supply of 30% of the state’s fresh water.”

In response to the increasing lack of water and the persistent drought in 2014, Brown declared a state of emergency in California and urged residents across the state to take voluntary measures to curb consumption. Many of the directives contained in this new order, however, are mandatory. As the Huffington Post's Lydia O'Connor put it, "Conserving water in California isn't just a suggestion anymore."

Last month, Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a professor at UC Irvine, made headlines after he wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times warning that California's reservoirs could run out of water in as little as one year. Though the column received some pushback by those worried it mischaracterized the nature of the state's water supply system, there is wide agreement that California's drought is the most severe of the modern era. 

In September of 2014, researchers from Cornell University, the University of Arizona, and the U.S. Geological Survey warned that the chances of western states like California experiencing a decade-long drought this century is now at fifty-fifty, and that a drought lasting as long as 35 years—defined as a "megadrought"—has a twenty- to fifty-percent chance of occurring.

Last month, a Stanford University study led by Professor Noah Diffenbaugh concluded that California's current water crisis is primarily the result of human-caused climate change and will likely grow even worse. "We've seen the effects of record heat on snow and soil moisture this year in California, and we know from this new research that climate change is increasing the probability of those warm and dry conditions occurring together," Diffenbaugh added.

Last week, in a related effort to combat the state's water shortage, Gov. Brown approved $1 billion in funds designed to assist state residents and communities who are struggling amidst the drought.

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