SAN DIEGO – In the Bible, Jesus turns water into wine. But in California, there are those who would take that miracle in the other direction.
The Golden State needs water, and lots of it. The place has been parched for the past four years as it suffers through a record drought – the worst one since California started keeping records 120 years ago.
Neighbors will ask to borrow something, a cup of flour or sugar. Think of California – which boasts the world’s eighth largest economy, and whose name conjures up images of a coastal paradise of lush golf courses, picture-perfect landscapes and abundant waterfalls – having to ask Arizona to borrow a glass of water.
Actually, neighbor, could we make that 1.5 million acre-feet of water? (One acre foot of water equals about 325,000 gallons. And 1.5 million acre-feet would cover the 25 percent reduction in water usage over the next nine months that Californians have been ordered to achieve.)
Gov. Jerry Brown has announced the Golden State’s first ever mandatory statewide water restrictions. Brown is instructing the State Water Resources Control Board to compel cities and towns to cut back drastically.
Other restrictions include cuts in water use on college campuses, golf courses, cemeteries and other sprawling green spaces. Large farms are exempted, but farmers will have to document more carefully how much water they use.
State officials claim that they will impose fines if necessary to force compliance from individuals, but they also say that they hope many Californians will comply voluntarily. People can expect the usual lectures from public officials about taking quicker showers, washing cars less often, and watering lawns more sporadically.
Brown hit those notes as he announced the water restrictions in a news conference southwest of Lake Tahoe.
“We’re in a new era,” the governor said. “The idea of your nice little green grass getting lots of water every day, that’s going to be a thing of the past.”
The California water crisis – the one we’ve heard about, but most of us haven’t experienced up to now – just got real.
Too many folks believe that, as long as something comes out when they turn on the faucet, there’s no problem. In fact, according to media reports, there are towns in Central California where people lack running water. They use donated bottled water to cook, bathe, even use the toilet.
It matters that Brown was in the Sierra Nevada mountains, a picturesque setting where the reality was unavoidable. Reporters stood on dry brown grass that would normally, this time of year, be covered in snow.
That’s one of the keys to this story. Those who know about water policy will tell you that, while it’s refreshing to have scattered rain, what really matters is snowpack. For farmers, that’s the storage fund for a not-so-rainy day.
Dear water advocates: You have my attention. Organizations such as the California Water Alliance, which was founded by farming interests in 2009, have been like a town crier that was ignored. These groups warned us this sort of crisis was coming. Some people listened. Many didn’t.
Most of the water in the state goes to farming, which supplies more than half the produce in the United States, while California’s overall agricultural industry brings in more than $45 billion a year. But even farmers are divided – depending on how water-intensive their crops are. The folks growing lettuce, broccoli, peaches or avocados have been up in arms because they need lots of water. Sadly, those with crops that get by with less water have largely been on the sidelines.
In my case, I’m sorry it took so long for the message to get through. I may have been born and raised in the once fertile farmland of Central California, but – since moving back to the state 10 years ago – I’ve been living in a city. And for the last few years, along with other city dwellers, I’ve been deluding myself into thinking that this water crisis I kept hearing so much about was someone else’s problem.
I was so wrong. It’s my problem too. I’m ashamed to admit that, for a while, I lost sight of this reality. Still, in California, on this issue, there’s plenty of shame to go around.
This can be a great state. But the first step is for us to put aside our differences and start thinking like one state.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.