Mandatory water restrictions could be just the beginning

Faced with a crisis unprecedented in California’s history or his own tenure in office, Gov. Jerry Brown unveiled mandatory water restrictions at Phillips Station, a Sierra Nevada locale hit hard by this year’s meager snowfall. Cities and towns, he said, must now cut their water consumption by 25 percent from statewide urban usage in 2013; local agencies that failed to measure up faced fines of up to $10,000 a day, according to the Los Angeles Times.

After repeatedly signaling his reluctance to impose Draconian conservation measures, Brown’s announcement signaled not just the severity of California’s drought, but the intensity of the political test headed his way. After his last term in office, spent carefully navigating between his Republican opposition and frustrated Democrats to his left, Brown’s delicate balance threatened to come apart over the water crisis. Despite focusing almost exclusively during his re-election campaign on passing the state’s new water bond propositions — and marshaling bipartisan support for his most recent water aid package — Brown has found himself weathering criticism from conservatives and liberals alike.

Just the beginning

As the Times noted, although Brown’s new restrictions quickly received support from municipalities across California, officials have already indicated that the 25 percent cut was probably just a first step:

“Lester Snow, executive director of the California Water Foundation and former state secretary of natural resources, said even more restrictions may be necessary in the future, such as banning all outdoor water use. ‘We’re probably going to need more action before we’re through the summer,’ he said.”

Brown’s rhetoric matched the warnings. “People should realize we are in a new era,” he said at Phillips Station. “The idea of your nice little green lawn getting watered every day, those days are past,” the New York Times reported. A significant impact was expected not only on Californians’ yards but on their cleaning, drinking and showering habits as well.

Farm fight

One group of residents, however, escaped the cutbacks for now: large farmowners. Because they do not get their water through the local water agencies affected by Gov. Brown’s executive order, his 25 percent restriction did not apply to their significant consumption and use. Brown did, however, require the farmers “to offer detailed reports to state regulators about water use, ideally as a way to highlight incidents of water diversion or waste,” according to the New York Times.

FarmFor some critics, that burden was not substantial enough. “According to the Public Policy Institute of California, about 9 million acres of farmland in California are irrigated, representing about 80 percent of the water used by people,” the Sacramento Bee reported. So-called big ag has garnered friends and enemies across California as a consequence of its muscular presence in Sacramento. “Politically,” the Bee noted, “agriculture occupies an influential rung in the hierarchy of industries lobbying – and contributing to – California’s elected officials. The $40 billion industry employs about 420,000 and has made California the nation’s top agricultural producing state, sustaining its image as the nation’s breadbasket.”
But all California farms were not created economically equal. Some analysts have already begun to predict that future cutbacks will fall more heavily on farmers with relatively less profitable, and more easily imported, crops.

Laying blame

Whatever the future might hold for water consumers, Brown’s own political situation has quickly soured. In a bitter irony, as the Washington Post pointed out, some of the Golden State’s current struggles traced back to the grandly liberal water policy adopted by Brown’s own father, former Gov. Pat Brown.

Political chickens have come home to roost on either side of Brown’s often self-consciously judicious brand of policymaking. To his left, frustrated liberals complained that agriculture must cut back far more. To his right, conservative critics like Assemblyman Tom Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, blasted Brown for an infrastructure agenda that put high-speed rail above dams, desalinization and environmental regulatory reform.

And to add insult to injury, Brown’s efforts to liberalize California criminal law have indirectly contributed to the state’s growing marijuana consumption — which, in turn, has led to massive water consumption.

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com