As California withered through a drought in 1977, Gov. Jerry Brown called for a 25 percent reduction in personal water use statewide and flew to Washington to press the Carter administration for federal aid.
He reduced the spray of his shower head and, in a characteristic moment of stagecraft, replaced a pitcher of water at a news conference with a single cup.
“We have only one glass of water,” Brown said at the time, “which is an indication of our effort here.”
Today Brown is governor again, and California is entering one of the driest winters on record. Two dry years already have depleted many reservoirs. The snowpack is meager, and streams and rivers are running low.
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If it remains dry – as long-term forecasts suggest – the drought will test the management abilities of a governor who, with the exception of the Rim fire last year, has largely avoided widespread natural disasters since returning to the Capitol in 2011.
“The drought could be the first real disaster, and it’s an interesting kind of disaster because it’s slow moving, as opposed to a bomb going off, or an earthquake or a firestorm,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist who worked for former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “He could have some tough decisions to make.”
Pressure has been building on Brown to formally declare a drought emergency, with eight state lawmakers, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, sending letters urging action. Brown has appointed a committee to review conditions, and his administration said it is considering a formal declaration.
The third-term Democrat suggested his authority is limited, however.
“Governors can’t make it rain,” he said Thursday, “but we’ll do everything that is humanly possible to allow for a flexible use of California’s water resources.”
Although California has experienced many droughts, historically there have never been clear rules about when to formally declare one. Scientists use the term to refer to abnormally dry conditions, which California is clearly experiencing. But for governors, formally declaring a drought has been largely a political decision based on mounting anecdotal reports of weather-related hardship and evidence that relief is not in the forecast.
Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, said there is no question the state is in the midst of a drought. The association represents more than 400 agencies that deliver 90 percent of the state’s urban and agriculture water, and it believes the governor should issue a declaration, Quinn said.
“It’s something that’s threatening the entire state,” he said. “The governor is a powerful instrument of public education. That’s the most important thing it would do.”
Chris Brown, executive director of the California Urban Water Conservation Council, said there are generally three concrete ways to assess whether a drought prevails: low water storage, low soil moisture and dry weather forecasts.
“I think from those three basic measures, clearly we’re in a drought,” he said.
He also said there are clear benefits to a governor’s drought declaration. One is that it helps bring the crisis to the attention of federal officials, who can accelerate some relief programs. The other, he said, is that it exerts a significant motivational force on the public.
“That’s an important step in all of this,” he said. “Having the governor speak out and say everybody needs to start behaving like we have a water shortage, because we do, is going to help send the whole message across the state.”
Still, he said, there can be a reluctance to do so, because a drought declaration also suggests a state is experiencing economic hardship.
“The reason people hesitate to do it is that it also sends a message that things are dire here,” he said. “A lot of people interpret that as being ‘bad for business.’ I’ve seen this happen in a number of states over the years.”
‘Down this road before’
The California Department of Water Resources said last week it is considering whether to present a drought declaration for Brown’s consideration. Natural Resources Secretary John Laird said the administration is engaged in a “very deliberate effort to really look at the facts on the ground.”
“You go through Step 1 to get to Step 2 to get to Step 3,” he said.
A drought declaration could have political implications for the governor. Both sides of a major dispute over Brown’s plan to build two tunnels to divert water around the Delta have employed the dry conditions in recent arguments about the $25 billion project, claiming the Delta has no water to give in a drought, or conversely, that the project is critical to improving water management statewide.
Dry conditions also are focusing attention on an $11.1 billion water bond the Legislature has twice deferred, in part over concerns about its cost, since voting in 2009 to place it on the ballot. The measure is scheduled for the November election but is likely to be replaced, if not put off again.
“I think there is a growing sentiment out there (to ask voters to act on a water bond), with news reports about the drought and how it keeps getting worse,” said Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, the Lakewood Democrat who chairs an Assembly water bond working group. “I think public opinion is definitely moving in favor of doing something big relating to water.”
Brown, however, is noncommittal. Asked about the water bond at a budget-related news conference Thursday in Sacramento, the governor said, “The world is changing with these serious drought conditions, but I think I’ll withhold judgment on that.”
As for the drought itself, Brown told reporters in Los Angeles he had been “down this road before.”
“It’s a real challenge,” he said. “We’re going to have to do a lot of different things.”
During one hard-hitting drought in 1991, then-Gov. Pete Wilson told Californians he was turning off the water before soaping up in the shower, and he urged other residents to do the same. He also created a water bank that allowed Northern California farmers to sell water for use in arid parts of the state.
Wilson contrasted a drought with some faster-moving natural disasters in which “you don’t have much in the way of warning.”
“With a drought, obviously, you don’t know necessarily how long it will last, but at least it is not an imminent peril, like fire, flood or earthquake,” Wilson said last week. “But what they all have in common is the need to anticipate.”
Schwarzenegger issued 85 disaster proclamations during his seven years in office, according to the state. Brown has declared 20 states of emergency in various parts of California since taking office three years ago, perhaps none more significant than the Rim fire. The fire last year burned more than 257,000 acres in and around Yosemite National Park and became the third-largest wildfire in state history.
President Barack Obama in December declared the fire a major disaster, freeing up federal funding for the state after Brown appealed an earlier denial of aid.
Not all regions hurting
Brown’s handling of other natural disasters has not always been so successful. Most notable is his decision to forgo aerial spraying against the Mediterranean fruit fly, which threatened California’s agricultural industry in 1981. Brown later acknowledged he waited too long to act.
Jeanine Jones, interstate resources manager at the California Department of Water Resources, said a drought declaration would help expedite water transfers among local agencies. It could also loosen water quality standards that often prevent water diversions from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a move that would be opposed by environmental groups.
A drought declaration also would allow the state to activate police powers in regard to water rights. For instance, during a drought, those who hold water rights in a river are not allowed to divert water that flows by their property when it is released from an upstream reservoir for someone else’s benefit. In such cases, the state could put inspectors in the field to monitor diversions and move to curtail or rescind a water right if necessary.
But a governor’s declaration would not necessarily make money available to anyone suffering from drought, whether from the state or federal government.
During the last drought, from 2007-09, the state had money available for conservation projects thanks to a recently approved water bond. That isn’t the case now.
“We haven’t had a new water bond since then, and many of the funds that were made available then are already obligated,” said Jones, who is a member of the drought task force recently activated by the governor. “It’s not like we have a new source of revenue to make available.”
In the federal government’s case, a formal declaration by the president of a drought disaster in a particular state is exceedingly rare. The last presidential drought declaration came for New Jersey in 1980, Jones said. One has never been made for California.
That does not mean federal money is not available to assist in a drought. In fact, every county in California already has been declared eligible for drought disaster assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Help is available in the form of low-interest loans – for farm and non-farm businesses as well as nonprofits – to cover expenses such as rent, utilities and providing water and feed to livestock.
Although many local communities and farmers are already suffering from dry conditions, this is not the case statewide. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves the Los Angeles-San Diego metropolis, is not planning any drought restrictions this year. It may even have enough water if the dry conditions continue into 2015.
The district depends almost entirely on water imported from other places, including the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The state’s last prolonged drought, which lasted from 1987-1992, strained the district’s supplies and brought harsh conservation measures to the region.
Since then, Metropolitan has invested $3 billion in local water storage projects. This includes Diamond Valley Lake, the largest reservoir built in California in nearly 50 years, a billion-dollar tunnel to move larger pulses of water into the reservoir when available, and a range of groundwater storage systems. As a result, it has a cushion to survive droughts even if its imported water supplies dry up.
“We’ll have plenty of water in 2015,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, Metropolitan’s general manager. “And even if it’s still a drought, we’ll still have enough water in 2016. But our board will be taking a hard look at how do we ease into it. That’s the nice thing about having made all these investments. We have options.”
Metropolitan also has invested heavily in conservation. Since 1990, it has reduced systemwide water demand from 2.4 million acre-feet to about 1.8 million today, despite adding 5 million people to the region’s population.
Many communities in Southern California will pay customers 30 cents per square foot to remove lawns, the biggest source of water demand in most cities. Rebates available for water-saving appliances go way beyond low-flow toilets. Customers can get money back on rain barrels, urinals, ice machines, soil moisture sensors and lots more.
“We have enormous reserves, and we’ve lowered our demand substantially,” said Kightlinger. “My guess is, as you look around the state, not many regions have done that. And that is what’s needed.”