Governor orders water reduction of 25 percent

Frank Gehrke of the California Department of Water Resources and Gov. Jerry Brown walk out into a snowless meadow during the annual snowpack survey in Phillips on Wednesday. For the first time since measurements began in 1942, there was no snow to measure on this date.
Frank Gehrke of the California Department of Water Resources and Gov. Jerry Brown walk out into a snowless meadow during the annual snowpack survey in Phillips on Wednesday. For the first time since measurements began in 1942, there was no snow to measure on this date. The Sacramento Bee

Gov. Jerry Brown ordered officials on Wednesday to impose statewide mandatory water restrictions for the first time in history as surveyors found the lowest Sierra Nevada snowpack in 65 years of record-keeping.

Standing in a brown meadow, which he said normally would be covered in snow this time of year, the governor announced he had signed an executive order requiring the State Water Resources Control Board to implement measures in cities and towns to cut the state’s water use by 25 percent compared with 2013 levels.

The announcement will affect residents, businesses, farmers and other users – and it means more restrictions for Modesto. But a water board spokesman said it may take until early summer for the state to implement the executive order.

“We’re in a historic drought and that demands unprecedented action,” Brown said at a news conference at Echo Summit in the Sierra Nevada, where state water officials found no snow on the ground for the first time in their manual survey of the snowpack.

The snowpack has been in decline all year, and Wednesday’s survey showed the snow’s water content at 5 percent of the historical average for April 1 and the lowest for that date since the state began record-keeping in 1950. Snow supplies about a third of the state’s water, and a smaller snowpack means less water in California reservoirs to meet demand in summer and fall.

Modesto has been working to reduce its water use ahead of the governor’s announcement. Utilities Director Larry Parlin said city officials have been revising the city’s drought contingency plan since the State Water Resources Control Board adopted additional urban water conservation measures March 17.

Parlin said Modesto is poised to go to the second stage of its drought contingency plan, and officials will bring that to the City Council for approval April 28. Under the second stage, Parlin said Modesto would reduce the number of days residents can water their lawns from three to two, as well as reduce the number of hours they can water.

The city also would increase fines for those caught violating the rules. A first offense still would result in a warning. But a second offense would result in a $150 fine. The fine would be $250 for a third offense and $500 for a fourth offense. The fines now are $50, $200 and $250.

Parlin said Modesto may send workers out at night to check for people watering lawns when they should not. He said watering lawns and other outdoor water uses account for about half of Modesto’s water consumption.

Parlin said Modesto has been steadily reducing its water use. It dropped 20 percent from 2003 to 2010 after the city adopted its drought contingency plan, he said, and fell 11 percent last year compared with 2013.

The governor’s order will affect other local cities.

For instance, Turlock Municipal Services Director Michael Cooke said in an email that officials in his city are “working on addressing the governor’s executive order as we speak. It will require – among other things – reductions in outdoor watering, as well as restrictions on the watering of city medians.”

According to a news release from the Governor’s Office, the executive order:

▪ Calls for replacing 50 million square feet of lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping, with the state working with local governments on this.

▪ Creates a statewide consumer rebate program to replace old appliances with ones that use less water and energy.

▪  Requires campuses, golf courses, cemeteries and other facilities with large landscapes to make significant reductions in water use

▪ Bans new homes and developments from using drinkable water for landscaping unless the homes and developments have water-efficient drip systems.

▪ Calls on local water agencies to implement tiered water pricing that charges higher rates as more water is used and requires agricultural users to report more water use information to state regulators. And the watering of decorative grasses on public street medians is banned.

Brown previously declared a drought emergency and stressed the need for sustained water conservation, but he has come under increasing pressure to be more aggressive as the state enters its fourth year of drought.

Wednesday’s order has fewer provisions addressing the state’s biggest user of water: agriculture.

There is no water reduction target for farmers, who have let thousands of acres go fallow as the state and federal government have slashed water deliveries from reservoirs. Instead, the order requires many agricultural water suppliers to submit detailed drought management plans that include how much water they have and what they’re doing to scale back.

After the previous drought, state officials acknowledge, some suppliers did not submit similar required plans in 2009. Mark Cowin, director of the Department of Water Resources, said the state will provide money to make sure the plans are written and may penalize those who do not comply.