The drought shaming started at the top last month, when Gov. Jerry Brown, announcing water restrictions from a barren meadow in the Sierra Nevada, mocked “the idea of your nice little green grass getting lots of water every day.”
In the suburbs below, townspeople held their Lawn-Boys close. They looked beyond the city limits and became conversant, for the first time in their lives, about how much water it takes to make a grape or almond grow.
Farmers, in turn, blamed environmentalists for policies preserving water for endangered fish. Republicans denounced Democrats for blocking construction of water storage facilities. Pools and golf courses came in for a beating. Neighbors began reporting runoff from each others’ lawns.
Brown said recently that “everybody’s in it together,” and polling suggests concerns about water are broadly shared. But four years into California’s historic drought, animosities are flaring.
Never miss a local story.
“We’re fighting over a limited amount of water,” said Ted Sheely, who farms pistachios, wine grapes, tomatoes and onions in Kings County. “And when it’s this tight, it’s real serious.”
California’s water wars have traditionally been fought between north and south, with the former holding most of the state’s water and the latter its population.
Californians on both sides still recall the bitterness of the campaign in 1982 over the peripheral canal, Brown’s plan when he was governor before to divert water around the Delta to the south.
In one TV ad, a sinister figure was shown holding up a man taking a shower, the personification of Southern California coming to take the north state’s water. The canal was defeated, with only marginal support in Southern California and overwhelming opposition in the north.
Randy Record, chairman of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said the outcome was “amazing.”
“I mean, Southern California has the population,” he said, “but it couldn’t get the votes.”
Record, who has farmed since the mid-’70s, is the public face of Metropolitan, which provides drinking water to nearly 19 million Southern Californians.
He said that since the peripheral canal vote, “Things have changed,” with a softening of whatever tension existed between agricultural and urban interests.
“I think we both want very much to have a reliable water supply,” Record said, “which gives us more in common than things that we might find to oppose each other.”
The politics of drought differ now, largely because effects are so widely shared.
According to a Field Poll in February, Northern Californians tended to view the seriousness of California’s water shortage more acutely than in Southern Californians, but only slightly. In every area of the state, at least nine in 10 registered voters consider the drought to be a serious problem.
In another measure of unity, the water bond Californians considered last year, Proposition 1, passed with more than 67 percent support statewide. The campaign relied heavily on advertising related to the drought.
“We’re looking at a real time of shortage, and yet, when you look across the regions, you’re not seeing the same kind of regional disparities as once existed,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. “But there are exceptions to that, and I guess my instincts as a pollster say that as ... the severity of this drought worsens, I guess I would expect greater regional differences.”
Hints of those differences have already materialized. In the February Field Poll, pluralities of voters in every region in California said the state should be allowed to bypass environmental regulations protecting fish in the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta – except one. In the San Francisco Bay Area, nearly two-thirds of voters disagreed.
Last month, farm industry officials mounted a public relations campaign to push back against statistics showing agriculture accounts for roughly 80 percent of all water used by people in the state.
DiCamillo said, “As we move forward, I can just imagine greater regionality when it comes to agriculture and ... things that they’re going to be asked to do or not do relating to the drought.”
Historically, no area of the state has been more protective of its water than Colusa County, just north of Sacramento. In the peripheral canal vote in 1982, 96 percent of the electorate voted “No.”
“There’s just a great sense of distrust,” said Darrin Williams, who farms row crops in Arbuckle.
The ideology and the economy in the area – conservative, agricultural – differs starkly from the more urban, Democratic south. Williams lamented generational shifts that have disconnected many Californians from the farm.
“The drought has intensified those differences,” Williams said, “You have urban pressure, you have environmental, and you have ag. I don’t know who’s going to win. But I can tell you who’s going to lose. Everybody’s going to lose.”
Brown declared a drought emergency last year, but until issuing his water reduction order in April – a mandatory 25 percent in cities and towns across the state – the drought was largely an agricultural concern. Farmers, facing reduced water deliveries, fallowed thousands of acres of fields.
Today, the hillsides are as brown in Orange County as they are in Colusa, but the experience of the drought is measured in unfamiliar terms.
While farmers measure the depth of their wells and mete out water on their irrigation lines, city dwellers take shorter showers and refrain from flushing their toilets.
They also go to the car wash more.
Jim Surber, owner of Doheny Village Hand Car Wash in Capistrano Beach, said business increased after local officials imposed restrictions on home car washing.
“It isn’t so dramatic that we’re going, ‘Holy crap, we can’t do it,’ ” Surber said. “But it’s at the point right now where we’re having to increase our staff levels.”
The car wash, where two Maseratis waited one recent afternoon, promotes its water recycling efforts online and, when customers ask, at the cash register.
“Everybody’s focusing on it more,” Surber said.
Southern California has made huge strides in conservation in the decades since the peripheral canal vote. Regional water agencies have invested in storage and water recycling. Total water consumption in the region has remained flat over the past 15 years, despite population growth.
“Southern California really did get the message,” said Celeste Cantú, a former State Water Resources Control Board director who now manages the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority in Riverside. “We’ve added millions of people, and our potable water is the same.”
But perceptions of lush golf courses and swimming pools persist.
“Southern California,” Cantú said, “feels unjustly maligned.”
In San Juan Capistrano, the Orange County city where taxpayer advocates successfully challenged the city’s tiered rate water pricing system – dealing a blow to water conservation efforts – Ken Purcell, the president of a local homeowners association, said the drought is a “real problem.”
Managers of the golf course he frequents are removing turf from everywhere except the fairways, tee boxes and greens. He recently installed drip irrigation in his own backyard.
“People have got to realize that we’ve got a situation going on,” he said.
But Purcell said no one person is to blame.
“It’s up there,” he said, pointing to the sky. “You’re in God’s country.”
Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.