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California Governor Spares Ag From Mandatory 25% Water Cuts

May 2015
by Paul Franson

Sacramento, Calif.—With the smallest snowpack ever recorded and no end to the drought in sight, California Gov. Edmund (Jerry) G. Brown Jr. announced actions intended to save water, increase enforcement to prevent wasteful water use, streamline the state’s drought response and invest in new technologies to make the state more drought resilient.

For the first time in state history, the governor has directed the State Water Resources Control Board to implement mandatory water reductions of 25% in California cities and towns.

This savings amounts to approximately 1.5 million acre-feet of water over the next nine months, or nearly as much as is currently in Lake Oroville.

To save more water now, the order will also:
• Replace 50 million square feet of lawns throughout the state with drought-tolerant landscaping;
• Create a temporary, statewide consumer rebate program to replace old appliances with water and energy efficient models;
• Require campuses, golf courses and cemeteries to make significant cuts in water use;
• Prohibit new homes and developments from irrigating with potable water unless water-efficient drip irrigation systems are used, and ban watering of ornamental grass on public street medians.

The governor’s order also calls on local water agencies to adjust their rate structures to implement conservation pricing.

Meanwhile, agriculture was spared the mandatory restrictions required of urban users.

Brown stated in his announcement that agricultural users have borne much of the brunt of the drought to date already, with hundreds of thousands of fallowed acres, significantly reduced water allocations and thousands of farmworkers laid off.

The losses include cutbacks from state water agencies and local agencies. Brown noted that 17,000 jobs have been lost, plus a direct economic impact of $1.5 billion in losses. On top of that, 400,000 acres of land lie fallow, mostly in California’s Central Valley.

However, growers will be required to report more water use data to state regulators, increasing the state’s ability to enforce against illegal diversions and waste and unreasonable use of water under the state order.

Brown already signed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act on Sept. 16, 2014. The three-bill package collectively creates a new structure for sustainable management of California’s groundwater basins, providing framework and authority to advance groundwater management.

A central feature of the act is the recognition that groundwater management in California is best accomplished locally.

However, the governor’s action strengthens standards for agricultural water management plans submitted by large agriculture water districts and requires small agriculture water districts to develop similar plans. These plans will help ensure that agricultural communities are prepared in case the drought extends into 2016.

For more than two years, the state’s experts have been managing water resources to ensure that California survives this drought and is better prepared for the next one.

Last year, the governor proclaimed a drought state of emergency. The state has taken steps to make sure water is available for human health and safety, growing food, fighting fires and protecting fish and wildlife. Overall in California, irrigated agriculture used about 40% of water, cities 10%, and half went to streams, wetlands and rivers in 2010.

Vineyards are relatively light users of water compared to other areas of agriculture, and vines can be dry farmed in areas with 25-30 inches of annual rainfall, which has included parts of Napa and Sonoma counties even during the current drought.

With all the talk about the current drought, Garrett Buckland of Premiere Viticultural Services pointed out that California doesn’t really have a normal rainfall pattern. The amount of precipitation varies dramatically from year to year; few years are “average.”

Speaking during a seminar on groundwater during the Napa Valley Grapegrowers’ sustainable vineyard series, Buckland described the present situation in Napa County: “The rainfall totals are strong: above average to date in Carneros and Napa, below average to date up-valley. There was no measurable rainfall in January, four days of rain in February and one day of rain in March. We can expect 2-5 inches of rain ‘average’ for the remainder of April and May.”

He said that groundwater levels are holding steady and improving in some areas. Rainfall from July 1, 2014, to April 7, 2015, ranged from 21 inches in Carneros to 31 inches on Atlas Peak. Other areas got mostly in the upper 20s.

The same is likely true in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, but clearly conditions in other areas are different. Paso Robles has been suffering from shrinking groundwater, and growers in much of the Central Valley are almost completely dependent on imported irrigation water.

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