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WaterCalifornia imposes first mandatory water restrictions in state history

Published 2 April 2015

Standing on a patch of brown grass in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which is usually covered with several feet of snow at this time of the year, California governor Jerry Brown announced the first mandatory water restrictions in state history. “Today we are standing on dry grass where there should be five feet of snow,” Brown said yesterday. “It’s a different world… we have to act differently.”About 30 percent of California’s water supply comes from the Sierra Nevada snowpack, so less snow means less snowmelt, which means less water.

Standing on a patch of brown grass in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which is usually covered with several feet of snow at this time of the year, California governor Jerry Brown announced the first mandatory water restrictions in state history. “Today we are standing on dry grass where there should be five feet of snow,” Brown said yesterday. “It’s a different world… we have to act differently.”

Brown directed the state Water Resources Control Boardto implement rules which would reduce water usage by 25 percent. The savings would amount to 1.5 million acre-feet of water over the next nine months. According to the Los Angeles Times, Brown’s orders would:

  • Require golf courses, cemeteries, and other large landscaped spaces to reduce water consumption.
  • Replace fifty million square feet of lawn statewide with drought-tolerant landscaping as part of a partnership with local governments.
  • Create a statewide rebate program to replace old appliances with more water- and energy-efficient ones.
  • Require new homes to have water-efficient drip irrigation if developers want to use potable water for landscaping.
  • Ban the watering of ornamental grass on public street medians.
  • Call on water agencies to implement new pricing models that discourage excessive water use.
  • Require the agriculture sector to report more water usage information to the state so that regulators can better find waste and improper activities.
  • Create a mechanism to enforce requirements that water districts report usage numbers to the state.

The Sierra Nevada mountains collect snow during the winter and release water or moisture during the spring as snow melts. The water is then collected in lakes and ponds which are controlled with dams. The Washington Post reportsthat the snow levels in the Sierra Nevada have declined each month since manual surveying began on 30 December 2014. That first reading showed the snow’s water content was 50 percent of normal for the date. Thirty days later, the water content was 25 percent of normal, and in March it was 19 percent of normal. Electronic readings taken earlier this week across the Sierra Nevada show the snow’s water content at about 5 percent of normal levels.

Thirty percent of California’s water supply comes from the snowpack, so less snow means less snowmelt, which means less water. “It is such an unprecedented lack of snow,” said Frank Gehrke, chief of snow surveys for the California Department of Water Resources(DWR).

Other water sources, including reservoirs and rainfall totals, have improved, but the state’s snowpack replenishes California’s reservoirs, so no snow means there will be no runoff this spring or summer when the rain stops and temperatures rise.

“This is sort of uncharted territory,” said DWR spokesman Doug Carlson, calling the situation “dismal.”

California’s rainfall since the current water year began in October 2014 has helped refill the state’s reservoirs. Lake Oroville delivers water from Northern California to the south and as of Monday was at 51 percent capacity, from 49 percent a year ago. Lake Shasta, the state’s largest reservoir, had 150 billion gallons more water in it Monday than it did a year ago.

This unpredictable situation might offer a glimpse of California’s new normal, with the current drought expected to worsen, along with the effects of climate change. “It does leave questions about where the water will come from,” Carlson said. “Will there be enough of it? It will probably have to come from groundwater again … and that brings in a whole other set of problems and complications since the groundwater seems to be over-tapped.”