Gov. Jerry Brown said Wednesday that critics of his twin tunnels water diversion plan should “shut up” until they spend more time studying it, defending the project and strict water conservation rules as California grapples with a fourth year of drought.
Brown’s remarks prompted laughter at a meeting of water agency officials in Sacramento, and his office said he made them in jest.
But they came amid heightened tension over Brown’s controversial tunnels plan and new statewide conservation requirements.
Brown last week announced major changes to his plan to build two tunnels to divert water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the south. The administration, while moving forward with a $15 billion conveyance, dramatically reduced the amount of habitat restoration originally proposed.
“Until you’ve put a million hours into it,” said Brown, estimating the amount of staff time devoted to the project, “shut up.”
Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, said in a prepared statement Wednesday that Brown “has his fingers in his ears and will not listen” to criticism.
She said, “We will not go away, and we will not shut up.”
The viability of the project remains uncertain, but the high stakes for Brown are clear. He has made a Delta conveyance a priority of his administration since he was governor before, from 1975 to 1983.
The Democratic governor’s earlier Sacramento River diversion plan, the peripheral canal, was defeated in a referendum in 1982.
Californians for Water Security, a group that includes the California Chamber of Commerce, farm and labor organizations, said this week that it released TV and radio ads supporting the tunnels project. A spokeswoman declined to specify how significant the ad buys were, except to say the group was spending “well into the six figures” on TV, mostly in the Bay Area.
On Wednesday afternoon, Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said in an email that the administration listens “to critics and supporters alike. That’s a big part of the million hours we’ve put into this project and we’ll keep the same open spirit in the coming months.”
Brown, speaking at a meeting of the Association of California Water Agencies, joked that if the current version of the project does not go forward, “I’ll just have to come back and run for governor 40 years later.”
Brown ordered a 25 percent mandatory reduction in urban water use statewide earlier this year, and the State Water Resources Control Board approved rules for achieving that goal on Tuesday.
Many local water officials have balked at the order, arguing the restrictions are overly burdensome and, in some cases, impossible to meet.
Brown said he was “sure glad you’re the ones who have to carry all of this restriction and restraint forward.
“We just kind of launch the missile, and then you particularize and talk to your neighbors and get them to do it,” he said. “And I really want to thank you for that.”
Each of the state’s 411 urban water agencies has been assigned a reduction target, based on existing water use. The cities with the heaviest per-capita consumption will have to save the most: 36 percent.
The new rules will hit the Sacramento area and other inland regions the hardest. Those cities had argued that they were being penalized for being located in the state’s hottest and driest regions. But state officials said those cities’ residents are using too much water on their lawns and have to cut back.
“It’s eminently doable,” water board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said on a conference call with reporters early Wednesday. “Is it easy? No. But it is doable.”
The city of Folsom said Wednesday that it will reduce watering in parks by one-third, as well as take other steps to meet its target.
Folsom has been ordered to cut water use by 32 percent.
Marcus said the key to surviving the drought this summer is “putting the lawn on a water diet.” State officials say outdoor use accounts for 50 percent to 80 percent of residential consumption.
Marcus noted that the expected savings are based on 2013 use figures. That means urban water agencies that already took conservation steps last year are closer to meeting reduction goals. For instance, a water district that faces a 36 percent cutback but has already achieved savings of 18 percent is halfway home.
“Those cities ... are already well along the way,” Marcus said. “Anyone who’s done something can rest a little easier.” She said several agencies in the Sacramento area are among those that have made decent strides already.
Marcus said the cutbacks will help ease the strain if the drought continues for another year or two. The situation will be “even worse to come if we don’t take action now,” she said, adding that it’s time to move from voluntary to mandatory programs.
“We’ve been encouraging folks to conserve for a long time,” she said. “With the end of the rainy season, or the so-called rainy season, it’s time to get real.”
Editor’s note: This post was updated at 4:50 p.m. to include additional information throughout, including from Brown’s office.