By Doug Porter
California Gov. Jerry Brown called for mandatory water restrictions yesterday, telling state officials to put together a package of water saving incentives and limits to reduce use by 25 percent, compared with use two years ago.
While there appears to be broad political support for the governor’s intentions, we’ll see how that holds up when specific actions are announced. It is, after all, hard to deny the reality of mountains normally covered in snow absolutely bare. But denying reality seems to be in vogue these days, so who knows?
The drought –and extreme weather conditions in other parts of the world– are associated with climate changes occurring throughout the planet. Today we’ll look at both short and long term perspectives on what’s going on around us.
California Water: A Generational Story
The Washington Post has a story about the irony of the situation our current governor finds himself facing. Much of California’s water infrastructure and policy can be traced back to his father’s term in Sacramento.
It was Gov. Pat Brown who once justified moving lots of water from the northern to the southern part of the state by saying, “I don’t want all these people to go to Northern California.”
From the Post article:
In 1979, a balding man with a touch of gray at the temples and glasses like windshields was holding forth on his favorite subject: H2O. Pat Brown, former governor of California — and father of current California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) —was asking: What’s the value of water?
“You need water,” he told the University of California’s Oral History Program, as recounted in Marc Reisner’s “Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water.” “Whatever it costs you have to pay it. … If you’re crossing the desert and you haven’t got a bottle of water, and there’s no water anyplace in sight and someone comes along and says, ‘I’ll sell you two spoonfuls of water for ten dollars,’ you’ll pay for it. The same is true in California.”
This philosophy — unlimited water for every Californian at any price — was behind Pat Brown’s massive mid-century push for water projects in the Golden State. And it’s a legacy his son, who just announced California’s first mandatory water restrictions, must endure.
What We Know
The Sierra Nevada snowpack, which supplies about 25% of the water used in the San Diego region, is currently at 5% of its historic average, the lowest-ever level ever recorded.
The governor’s press conference was staged on bare ground at Echo Summit, where state water officials found no snow on the ground for the first time ever in their April manual survey of the snowpack. Normally there is more than five feet of snow at that location.
Here’s what is known about the program, from NBC7 San Diego:
The State Water Resources Control Board will implement the reductions, a move that will amount to approximately 1.5 million acre-feet of water saved over the next nine months, according to Brown’s office.
Brown’s order will:
- 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
- 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.
A story in the Los Angeles Times provided some insight on how these policies will play out:
Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, said the measure isn’t about “finger-pointing”…“It’s about everybody having to step up in these tough times.”
The water board will release draft regulations in mid-April to implement the order. It plans to approve the regulations in early May.
Marcus said local agencies will receive targets for cutting water use based on how well they’ve done so far
Local agencies that have been slow to conserve since then will feel the order’s effects most dramatically, Marcus said.
“You’re rewarding the early adopters … and you’re saying to the laggers, ‘You have to make a change,’” she said.
Most of the burden of enforcement will fall on local agencies.
KPBS ran with an Associated Press story, which summed up local reactions to the announcement:
Brown’s order was backed by Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, who said continued efforts for water conservation were needed.
“Our decimated snowpack shows that Gov. Brown is right to put these strong, mandatory steps in place,” Atkins said. “Getting through this drought and future droughts to come will take a combination of immediate, short-range and long-term steps. The governor’s order today is the right step at the right time.”
San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, meanwhile, said the governor’s order will require San Diegans to cut water use “like never before.”
UT-San Diego’s editorial board wondered if Gov. Brown had done enough:
Gov. Jerry Brown and state water officials hiked into the Sierra Nevada on Wednesday to one of the usual spots where the snowpack is measured every April 1. But there literally was no snow, for the first time in 75 years of measurements. It was no April Fool’s joke. Statewide, officials said, the snowpack is just 5 percent of its historical average, shattering the record of 25 percent set just last year. Brown commendably ordered the first-ever statewide mandatory water restrictions. We fear he did not go far enough.
This Year’s Weather
This morning the UT’s weather reporter noted on twitter “San Diego so far this year has been cooler than climatological norm 7 days, warmer than normal 84 days.
The Times of San Diego, reported on the weather so far this year:
March was the hottest on record in San Diego since record keeping began in 1874, the National Weather Service reported Wednesday.
March was San Diego’s 17th consecutive month with warmer than average temperatures. The 66.6-degree average last month surpassed the previous record, set in 1978, by 2.3 degrees. Four daily heat records were also set…
…This winter was also the warmest on record with an average temperature of 62.4 degrees — half a degree high than the prior record set in 1978, according to the NWS.
How Alfalfa, Almonds and Oil Fit In
Water used for suburban lawns and drinking is only a small part of the state’s consumption, and in coming days we can expect to hear lots of chatter about the impact our diet and lifestyle have on usage.
Quartz.com is out with an early look at what foods they think we should be cutting back on:
A 25% reduction doesn’t mean drinking water will become scarce, and a shorter shower won’t make that much of a difference. That’s because most of the water in your total water footprint—the amount of water you are responsible for consuming—is hidden. Most water is actually used in the process of making something else. For example, that liter (33 oz) of beer you drank on Saturday night actually required 300 liters of water (pdf) to produce…
The articles goes on to detail amounts of water needed to produce various beverages (they got the coffee part wrong as far as California’s drought is concerned because most of the water-intensive processing occurs before the product enters the local food system), commonly grown grains, fruits and vegetables. And then it gets to various animal proteins: a kilo of beef requires 15,415 liters of water to produce.
The biggest part of that agricultural usage is alfalfa, used to feed livestock. The water tied up in the exported 30% of California’s alfalfa hay amounts to 100 billion gallon a year. The second biggest part is almond production, which sucks down an amazing 10% of all water used in the state.
California almonds use a stunning 1.1 trillion gallons of water each year, or enough for you to take a 10-minute shower each day for 86 million years (using a low-flow showerhead, of course). Here’s the calculation: California as a whole diverts or pumps 43 million acre-feet of water each year to supplement its meager rainfall. In total, agriculture consumes 34 million acre-feet of that. (An acre-foot is just what it sounds like: the amount of water needed to cover an acre of flat ground up to a foot, or about 325,000 gallons of water.) In 2013, there were 940,000 acres of almonds in California, according to the USDA (PDF). Each acre of almonds uses three to four acre-feet of water each year, most of which are delivered via river diversions or groundwater.
Now, before you run out and start boycotting almonds or picketing stores that sell meat, you should know it’s not that simple. A lot of news media outlets will be running hair-on-fire stories in the coming days; the use of water in agriculture is tied to the larger economy. And, yes, we need to have that conversation. Just not in response to scary headlines. FYI- Here’s the almond farmers’ point of view.
Environmental reporter Dan Bacher, whose reports occasionally grace these pages, has an extensive body of work on California water issues, available here.
A more obvious concern is being expressed by environmental groups opposed to fracking. From a Sacramento Bee op-ed:
It’s California’s other water problem – and, like the drought, it poses a profound threat to our future. Every year the state’s oil industry produces some 130 billion gallons of wastewater. But where do oil companies put this dirty fluid, and how dangerous is it to human health?
We got some answers recently, and they raise troubling new questions about Gov. Jerry Brown’s support for fracking and his administration’s failure to protect California’s water from oil industry pollution.
Newly revealed documents and media investigations show that state regulators allowed the oil industry to drill more than 2,400 illegal injection wells for wastewater disposal or oil production into protected California aquifers, including some with water clean enough to drink or irrigate crops.
The Long View
It’s easy to get caught up in all the short-term ramifications of California’s water shortage.
The long view requires addressing the carbon-based fuel sources driving both modern and developing economies.
Right now we have Congressional leadership actively working to sabotage virtually ever initiative underway towards building a more sustainable economy. Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, refutes climate change science with biblical quotes.
And we have Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) telling other countries not to trust President Obama’s promise to significantly reduce the United States’ carbon emissions.
Here in San Diego the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing ‘bill mill’ (whose stances on the environment are so odious that even BP oil has withdrawn its support) is having their annual convention downtown in late July.
This gathering certainly provides local activists the opportunity to make a statement, something I’ll be beating the drum on frequently in coming months.
On This Day:1800 – Beethoven’s “Opus 21: Symphony No. 1 in C major” was first performed for Baron von Swieten. 1989 – An editorial in the New York Times declared that the Cold War was over. 1995 – Major league baseball players end a 232-day strike, which began the prior August 12 and led to the cancellation of the 1994 postseason and the World Series
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