Are Mandatory California Water Cutbacks Coming Soon?

Back in 2014, when I was in my past life working for elected officials, I found myself engaged in one of the more annoying parts of the job – “volunteering” on political campaigns.

One day, my volunteer efforts took me to a neighborhood in San Bernardino.  Knocking on doors, it struck me that despite California experiencing a severe drought emergency, it was as if there was no drought in Southern California.

In Sacramento, we were asked to severely cut back our residential water use.  Once, when my gardener forgot to adjust the automatic sprinkler controls to account for the new restrictions, the “water police” left a nastygram on my front porch.  At the time, neighbors were even being encouraged to turn in neighbors who were not following the rules.  Meanwhile in San Bernardino, there were green lawns everywhere and many houses on each block were watering the sidewalk.

Fast forward a decade and apparently, they’re continuing to water the sidewalk.

Gov. Newsom in July issued a call for Californians to voluntarily cut their water use by 15 percent, while also adding several counties to a regional drought state of emergency.  Yet the Los Angeles Times reported last week that, “water use across much of Southern California dropped by just 0.1% overall, and rose by 0.7% in Los Angeles and 1.3% in San Diego.”  This compares to a 16.7% water usage reduction in the North Coast in July and an 8.4% drop in the Bay Area.

Freed from the shackles of the recall election, might Gov. Newsom soon respond to the lack of response to his voluntary call and take executive action ordering big mandatory residential water restrictions statewide?  History suggests the answer is yes.

In 2015, then-Gov. Jerry Brown responded to the type of sidewalk watering that I saw in Southern California and ordered a mandatory 25 percent water cut. Californians largely did their part in reducing residential water usage – and they’re continuing to do their part.

The bigger question is whether such massive residential water cutbacks really make a difference or are even needed.  After all, as Newsom noted in July, Californians are using 16 percent less water today than in 2013, before the previous drought began.  In Sacramento, residential water use is down about 25 percent since 2013.

As Steven Greenhut writes in the PRI book Winning the Water Wars, “total urban water (residential, commercial, governmental) uses comprise around 10 percent of the state’s total water supplies . . . so taking a conservation-heavy approach only creates diminishing returns – and has a de minimis or insignificant effect on water supplies.”

Greenhut writes that the choice facing Californians surrounding our water future is a straightforward one:

Does the state want to build the infrastructure and embrace the other innovations and policies needed to provide us all with plenty of affordable water?  Or does it prefer a world of scarcity and skyrocketing prices, where government planners issue rationing edicts and farmers must let vast acreage go fallow?

Newsom clearly has embraced managing scarcity as his philosophy on water.  As someone who has never met a government action he didn’t like, you can count on new water restrictions soon coming down the pipeline and likely via executive order.

But many Californians are still wondering – after passing a water bond in 2014 with sufficient funding to build two new above-ground storage projects, why haven’t these critical projects been built yet?  After all, had Sacramento followed through, perhaps we wouldn’t be facing the prospects of new mandated water cutbacks this year – or in any future year when state rainfall totals decline.

Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute’s senior director of communications and the Sacramento office.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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