Governor Jerry Brown issued a historic mandate last week that the California State Water Resources Control Board pass measures to reduce the amount of water used across the state by 25 percent.
This compulsory water restriction is the first of its kind in a state that has been battling a severe drought for nearly four years. Brown attempted a recommended water restriction after 2013 was the driest year in California history, but little was done to accomplish the goal, and the state saw only a nine percent reduction in water usage.
The executive order
While headlines have appeared in newspapers across the country this past week highlighting Governor Brown’s historic “Mandatory 25 Percent Reduction of Water Usage,” Leon Szeptycki, Professor of the Practice in the Woods Institute for the Environment and executive director of Water in the West, explained that the mandate is slightly more nuanced.
“The headline doesn’t follow the executive order,” Szeptycki said.
Brown’s executive order calls for the State Water Resources Control Board to write regulations in order to reduce California’s water usage by 25 percent. Then, local utilities will have to find ways to achieve this goal.
This could mean that every citizen is forced to reduce his water usage by a quarter. However, it could also operate on a graduated scale that would target bigger users, such as golf courses or cemeteries, and require them to reduce more than an urban dweller.
“Right now it’s just words on a page,” Szeptycki said in regards to the executive order.
In the next few weeks or months, the Water Resources Control Board will outline the specifics of how individual Californians and local municipalities will be affected. Szeptycki, who has read the mandate in detail, noted that Brown’s order will only be effective if the Water Resources Control Board can hammer out regulations that are comprehensive and easy to enforce.
“The devil is in the details,” Szeptycki said.
Effects on Stanford
In response to Governor Brown’s request last year that Californians do their best to reduce water usage, Stanford upped its efforts to reduce water usage on campus through a number of measures including the termination of the iconic Stanford fountains across campus. Still, the University announced in December that it only lowered its water usage by 4.5 percent, much less than what Brown had asked.
Now that there is a mandatory reduction of water, Stanford will likely be forced to find even more ways to cut back on water usage — whether through implementation of even more water-conserving technologies like the grey water system used in the Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki Environment & Energy Building, or the consideration of more drought-tolerant landscaping, as students have petitioned for this past year.
However, specifics have not been outlined from the state, so local utilities have yet to outline what reductions Stanford will be asked to implement.
“We have not yet had specific direction from our water suppliers about how they will ask us to comply,” wrote University spokeswoman Lisa Lapin in a statement to The Daily. “Of course, Stanford has already taken many measures to reduce water use — everything from replacing faucet fixtures to turning off our fountains and reducing landscape watering.”
Lapin explained that the introduction of the new SESI energy system coming this month will reduce Stanford’s water use by 15 percent, a large chunk of what Brown’s announcement could potentially require.
This reduction and other efforts by the University, however, were in the plans long before Brown’s announcement last week.
“Stanford has always worked to conserve water as part of our broader sustainability practices,” Lapin said. “Our water reduction measures have been voluntary.”
The California drought
2015 has officially been declared the driest winter in California’s history, and Governor Brown made his announcement while standing on a grassy hillside in Philips, California, that, in a normal winter, would have been covered with five feet or more of snow.
“By most metrics this is the most severe drought California has experienced in its statehood,” said Daniel Swain, Ph.D. student in environmental earth system science.
Swain believes that the announcement is “more of a political science headline” since the state doesn’t control water on a local basis.
“The real headline is that the drought is severe enough that this statewide declaration was made,” Swain said.
Swain recalled that many Ph.D. students who have only been at Stanford for four or five years think that dry, hot winters are normal as they have yet to see a true rainy season.
“I’m always hesitant to use the phrase ‘new normal,’” Swain said, “Do I think we’ll always be in a drought? No. But the droughts we have will be much hotter. Hotter droughts are the new normal now due to global warming.”
Implementation of water conservation measures
California’s neighboring desert states are no strangers to mandatory water restrictions. Programs like an aggressive campaign in Las Vegas to encourage citizens to replace lawns with desert plants have proved to be hugely successful and may be an example of how Californians can reach their new goal.
“In some respects California is behind the curve of more arid states like New Mexico and Arizona,” Szeptycki said.
Stanford is a part of Santa Clara Country, which just last year enacted strict water regulations surrounding lawns, car washing and other major sources of water waste.
“I don’t think they enforced those laws at all,” Szeptycki said.
“Local governments have two choices: aggressively enforce the rules they already have or implement incentives for taking the next step in water conservation,” he added.
These steps could include implementing low-flow toilets, desert landscaping in place of grassy lawns, more efficient irrigation practices and “smart meters” in homes that track hourly usage of water. The county would need to offer financial assistance in the form of tax incentives or rebates to homeowners who wish to implement such conservation methods.
Ideas for a tiered rate system have also been suggested in several municipalities across the state. This system would result in higher water costs for more extravagant usage purposes, like watering a large lawn.
“I think that’s the biggest change we’ll see as the drought progresses: how people landscape their yards,” Szeptycki said.
Contact Elizabeth Wallace wallacee ‘at’ stanford.edu.