Californians may be headed towards mandatory water use restrictions. In a Monday meeting, Gov. Gavin Newsom warned many of the state’s big municipal water suppliers that, if their current local strategies don’t work to bring water demand down, he would introduce statewide orders.
“Every water agency across the state needs to take more aggressive actions to communicate about the drought emergency and implement conservation measures,” said Newsom in a statement.
The Golden State, and much of the West and Southwest are currently in the midst of a drought that has broken records across the region. California’s reservoirs are drying up, along with the entirety of the Colorado River Basin. Many of the state’s reservoirs sit at levels below 50% their historic averages. And California snowpack is at 12% of the norm. Human-caused climate change is at least partly to blame, according to recent research.
Earlier in the drought, last July, Newsom asked people to voluntarily use less water, aiming for a 15% overall reduction. However, it seems like that plea wasn’t enough. In March, the state’s usage was up 19% from levels from two years prior.
And weather has made things even worse for the state’s shrinking water supply. California faced an excruciatingly dry January, February, and March (usually the state’s “rainy season). As a result, about half of Californians are currently under some sort of local restrictions, according to the Governor’s press release.
“Californians made significant changes since the last drought but we have seen an uptick in water use, especially as we enter the summer months. We all have to be more thoughtful about how to make every drop count,” said Newsom.
In addition to threatening uniform, top-down, statewide restrictions, Newsom has also previously directed the State Water Resources Control Board to enact more sweeping local cutbacks.
In California, water districts have to submit drought response plans for six levels of drought severity. Two months ago, Newsom requested that the state’s water resources control board force districts move to their “level 2" plans, which are meant for a 20% water shortage. The water board had already adopted some very minor restrictions like asking that people not water the sidewalk. But the level 2 plans, which were finally instituted via vote on Tuesday, are an escalation.
Level 2 plans are unique to each district, but many include restricting outdoor water and financial penalties for violations. The new board decision also bans irrigating ornamental turf (i.e. laws) at commercial, industrial, and institutional properties across most of the districts. However, watering grass is still allowed for recreational turf like sport fields and golf courses, and at residential properties.
Even with that “yes” vote, Newsom plans to reconvene the same water agencies in the next two months. At that follow-up meeting, the Governor’s office has said Newsom would check in about local districts’ progress conserving water. The governor would then, presumably, re-assess the need for (or possibly announce) statewide restrictions.
If those whole-state restrictions are enacted, it wouldn’t be the first time. Amid another drought in 2015, former governor, Jerry Brown, mandated a 25% water use reduction across all of California’s local suppliers. If agencies failed to comply with the cuts, they faced $10,000/per day fines.
Newsom and his office haven’t yet announced if any new statewide restrictions would take a similar format.
Update 5/25/2022, 12:13 p.m. ET: This post has been updated to reflect the outcome of the California Water Resources Control Board meeting and vote, which concluded on Tuesday after this story was first published.