For the first time in history, the California government has imposed mandatory water restrictions on its residents.
Governor Jerry Brown delivered this news to Californians on Wednesday while standing on a patch of dry grass in the town of Phillips in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In an average year, that patch of ground would have been buried by up to six feet of snow. This year, however, the California Cooperative Snow Survey Program announced that the snowpack is estimated to be about six percent its traditional volume.
The Sierra snowpack has supplied fresh water to Californians throughout the state’s history. This year, however, it is at a near-record low, surpassed only by 1991.
“People should realize we are in a new era,” said Gov. Brown. “The idea of your nice little green lawn getting watered every day, those days are past.”
California has been inching closer to this new era for almost half a decade. Now in its fourth year, California’s record-breaking drought has impacted nearly every facet of residents’ lives: From raising the price of honey to costing the state $2.2 billion in agricultural losses to depriving 28 small communities of any drinking water whatsoever.
California has a history of seesawing between drought and heavy rain, but the severity and longevity of the current drought is a rare occurrence. It hasn’t helped that 2014 saw the highest average temperatures ever recorded in the state; in a year that NASA, NOAA and the JMA all declared the hottest on record; and followed by a winter that was 0.05° F hotter than any before. This is part of a larger trend that will likely see a 35-year “megadrought” develop in the American Southwest before the century is over, according to a recent peer-reviewed study published in the journal Science Advances.
It is believed that climate change may be playing a role, as researchers from Stanford University have shown that higher concentrations of carbon triple the likelihood of high atmospheric pressure developing over the northeastern Pacific. This blocking ridge has diverted high-speed air currents that would normally flow over California and lead to the formation of snow and rain.
This year, San Francisco received zero rain in January for the first time in its history and NASA’s senior water scientist Jay Famiglietti recently warned that California only has a year’s supply of water remaining in its reservoirs. In December, Famiglietti estimated that California needs about 11 trillion gallons of water to recover from the current drought.
“It takes years to get into a drought of this severity,” said Famiglietti, “and it will likely take many more big storms, and years, to crawl out of it.”
For that reason, the Governor told reporters that this new era “demands unprecedented action.”
By executive order, Gov. Brown has imposed a 25 percent reduction on the state’s 400 local water supply agencies. The order will also cut water used on campuses, golf courses and cemeteries; prohibit new homes and developments from irrigating with potable water; ban watering public street medians; and replace 50 million square feet of lawn with drought-tolerant landscaping (perhaps in the manner of the xeriscape recently adopted by the Southern California Gas Company).
This order comes in addition to the $1 billion of emergency spending Brown introduced last month.
Unfortunately, while mandatory restrictions may cut down on urban water use, 80 percent of the state’s water is still flowing to its agricultural center. Nearly half of America’s homegrown fruits, nuts and vegetables come from California’s central valley, and this multi-billion dollar industry is sustained by pumping the state’s groundwater faster than it can be replenished.