Governor Jerry Brown stood on a patch of dead, brown grass on Wednesday to announce California's first-ever mandatory water restrictions. Four years ago, the spot where he stood was buried beneath more than 10 feet of snow.
It was the first time in the state's 75-year-old record that no snow was found at that spot, which lies high in the Sierra Nevada. Mountain snowmelt typically provides 30 percent of the state's surface water supply, which California's population of 39 million and its agricultural sector — the nation's largest — rely on to quench their thirst.
Such is the state of California's water problems that this year's snow pack is just 5 percent of normal.
"People should realize we are in a new era," Brown said. "The idea of your nice little green lawn getting watered every day, those days are past."
Governor Brown announces statewide water restrictions. (Photo via California Department of Water Resources)
Governor Brown's executive order requires the state's cities and towns to reduce their water use by 25 percent. The four-year drought is thought to be the worst in over a thousand years and has cost the state $2.2 billion, mostly due to lost agricultural revenue, and over 17,000 jobs. The order aims to convert fifty million square feet of manicured lawns into drought-resistant xeriscape and nudge homeowners, cemeteries, campuses, and golf courses to switch to more water-efficient methods.
But critics say the order may be avoiding a confrontation with the elephant in the room — the state's agricultural sector, which devours 80 percent of California's water supply.
California grows 43 percent of the nation's fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Nearly all of almonds produced in the US are grown in California. It grows more than 90 percent of the nation's strawberries, grapes, artichokes, and broccoli.
Much of this is grown in the San Joaquin Valley, where 99 percent of the land is devoted to orchards and berries is irrigated, and the Central Coast district, where 94 percent of that land is irrigated. Virtually all of the land used to cultivate vegetables is irrigated in those areas.
In dry years, when surface water supplies are thin, the industry taps below-ground reservoirs. It's currently drawing water from aquifers at a higher rate than they are being replenished. A 2014 report from the University of California, Davis found that the industry increased its groundwater pumping by 5.1 million acre-feet a year over its usual 8 million acre-feet. That increase is larger than the total amount of water held in Shasta Lake, the state's largest manmade lake.
Many farmers get some or all of their water through the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which allocates water through an irrigation system known as Central Valley Project. In February, the Bureau announced that hundreds of farmers with contracts through the project would get zero allocations this year.
"The fact is with so much above-ground water not available in the drought, they've relied extensively on groundwater," Doug Carlson, a public affairs officer at the California Department of Water Resources, told VICE News. "That's why the groundwater tables are falling and it's a big concern."
Snowpack in California's Sierra Nevada's is 5 percent of normal. (Photo via California Department of Water Resources)
In dry years, farms leave portions of their land unplanted, a process known as fallowing. Last year, 400,000 of the state's 9 million acres of irrigated farmland were fallowed as a result of water shortages.
"Farmers and ranchers leverage water to sustain life by producing food," Steve Lyles, a public affairs officer for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, told VICE News. "It's important to note that farmers and ranchers are already bearing the brunt of the drought's impact to this point."
But the agricultural sector has increasingly turned to high-value crops like almonds and pistachios that can't be fallowed. Between 2002 and 2012, acres devoted to almond production annually went up 47 percent to 780,000 acres, while pistachios shot up 114 percent, to 178,000 acres.
It takes a gallon of water to grow one almond, and three-quarters of a gallon for one pistachio.
Statistics released Tuesday by the US Department of Agriculture show that cultivation of cotton, corn, oats, barley, wheat, rice, and sunflowers has dropped 29 percent since 2013, to 1.7 million acres.
"More and more of California's farmland is being converted to permanent crops that need water every year and can't be fallowed in a dry year," Doug Obegi, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council's water program in San Francisco, told VICE News. "And that is a concern because the system as a whole becomes less flexible. They're taking out vegetables to plant almonds."
The state issues permits for the amount of water farmers can draw from surface water sources, like rivers and streams. When those supplies run dry, it can force farmers to curtail the amount they draw
But the system is out of date, Obegi told VICE News, with the true amount of surface water use going largely under reported. The state's agricultural sector has been granted water-use rights for five times the amount of water than what's actually available, according to Obegi.
But rather than address the agricultural sectors crop selection or growing groundwater addiction, the governor's order requires farmers to report water use more frequently or face inspection by state water managers.
"There's still a lot of questions about how frequent it has to be, but as opposed to having to submit information at the end of the year or even a year afterward, this is clearly aiming to get better information," Obegi told VICE News. "Knowing how much water folks have taken — and plan to take — enables [the state's water authorities] to essentially be more effective with those curtailments."
The order also requires farms to submit water management plans to the state. That's something that should have happened when the Senate passed a water management bill in 2009, but not all farms have complied.
"On the books there have been so-called requirements, but they haven't necessarily been followed by every single well extractor," Carlson told VICE News. "If you heard the tone of the governor's remarks yesterday, he's saying, 'We're not going to mess around. We're in a full-blown crisis.'"
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