Governor's historic mandatory state water cutbacks catch local districts by surprise

ECHO LAKE, Calif. (AP and KTVU) - California Gov. Jerry Brown ordered state officials Wednesday to impose mandatory water restrictions for the first time in history as the state enters a fourth year of drought.

The Governor announced the historic executive order while participating in the annual April snow survey which measures the Sierra snowpack at about 6,800 feet.

This snow survey was like nature's April Fool's joke. There wasn't a single flake of snow to measure. "We're standing on dry grass and we should be standing on five feet of snow," Governor Brown said. "This is the first time since 1942, we've had zero snow at this location," said Frank Gehrke, the Department of Water Resources Chief Snow Surveyor.

Brown announced he had signed an executive order requiring the State Water Resources Control Board to implement measures in cities and towns to cut water usage by 25 percent compared with 2013 levels.

The move will affect California residents, businesses, farmers and other users.

At a Contra Costa Water District Board meeting Wednesday night, local water district officials told KTVU the executive order caught them by surprise. In the past, the state has given districts advance warning. They say this came out of the blue.

"We're in a historic drought and that demands unprecedented action," Brown said at the news conference at Echo Summit in the Sierra Nevada, "We have to pull together and save water in every way we can."

Brown's order also will require campuses, golf courses, cemeteries and other large landscapes to significantly cut water use; direct local governments to replace 50 million square feet of lawns throughout the state with drought-tolerant landscaping; and create a temporary rebate program for consumers who replace old water-sucking appliances with more efficient ones.

"We're in a new era; the idea of your nice little green grass getting water every day, that's going to be a thing of the past," Brown said.

The order also prohibits new homes and developments from using drinkable water for irrigation if the structures lack water-efficient drip systems. In addition, the watering of decorative grasses on public street medians is banned.

The order calls on local water agencies to implement tiered water pricing that charges higher rates as more water is used and requires agricultural users to report more water use information to state regulators.

Brown's office said that would boost the state's ability to enforce laws against illegal water diversions and water waste.

The governor's executive order lays out the broad goals, but the difficult details now fall to local water officials. In Contra Costa, the water district's general manager, another Jerry Brown explained to the board that it will be a while before customers will know how it impacts them.

"Until we get some clarification on some elements of it, it's going to be a little bit grey in terms of exactly what we need to do," said Jerry Brown, the Contra Costa Water District General Manager.

For customers, the degree of mandatory cutbacks, penalties, and water rates could vary greatly depending on each water district.

"In Contra Costa, it's a much different climate than it is in say, San Francisco and other parts of the state, so it's important as people are designing these drought programs to reflect the local climate," said Jennifer Allen, Contra Costa Water District's spokeswoman.

The snowpack has been in decline all year, with electronic measurements in March showing the statewide snow water equivalent at 19 percent of the historical average for that date.

Snow supplies about a third of the state's water, and a higher snowpack translates to more water in California reservoirs to meet demand in summer and fall.

There was no snow at the site of Wednesday's survey near Echo Summit, about 90 miles east of Sacramento.

"It is such an unprecedented lack of snow, it is way, way below records," said Gehrke.

Officials say the snowpack is far below the historic lows of 1977 and 2014, when it was 25 percent of normal on April 1 - the time when the snowpack is generally at its peak.

Meanwhile, at East Bay MUD, officials are preparing for a long dry summer.

Spokeswoman Abby Figueroa said it's going to take everyone working together to get through this crisis. "Our reservoirs are about half full, and at the rate that customers are using their water, we would expect our reservoirs to be about a third full by the end of the summer." That would be a historic low.

"We were already looking at drought surcharges, excessive use penalties. Additional restrictions. Asking our customers to cut back more. All of those things are on the table," said Figueroa.

Fortunately, in places like Berkeley, many people have been working to conserve water for years. "I didn't do that for two years now, I forget my lawn, just forget it. Just like it's unfashionable to have a lawn almost," said Vincent Peebler.

Brown previously declared a drought emergency and stressed the need for sustained water conservation, but he has come under increasing pressure to be more aggressive as the state's drought conditions continue.