California Works Out Details Of Mandatory Water Restrictions

Originally published on April 9, 2015 7:34 am
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More now on the severe drought that is affecting much of the West Coast. It's hit hardest here in California. And in a moment, we'll look at the impact on this state's massive agriculture industry.

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We're also getting a better sense of what water restrictions for cities are going to look like in practice. Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown gave this historic order requiring urban areas to cut back on water use by 25 percent - 25 percent overall. In the next few weeks, state regulators will begin enforcing the new restrictions on a sliding scale. Some cities that have been slacking in water conservation will have to make bigger cuts than others. Here's NPR's Kirk Siegler.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Even in year four of this drought, water conservation numbers are all over the board in California. Take Los Angeles - aggressive steps taken lately here have brought usage down quite a bit. In February, it was around 70 gallons per person per day in LA. But a short hop over to Beverly Hills, and that number jumped to about 160 gallons per person per day.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: By the L, right there, all right - one, two.

SIEGLER: On a lush, green lawn next to a large ornamental pool, tourists are snapping photos in front of a Beverly Hills sign. Beverly Hills boasts it's the garden city, home to large estates and water-gulping palm trees that line grassy boulevards. Trish Rhay is in charge of water for the city.

TRISHA RHAY: It's going to be a challenge. I think it is a well-needed direction that the governor has taken, but we'll be challenged.

SIEGLER: Beverly Hills is at the top end of that sliding scale under the new emergency drought order, so it has to cut water use by 35 percent in a year. Lawn watering will be limited to three days a week. No more warnings, it's fines from here on out. And Rhay says the city is issuing new rebates to entice people to rip up their turf in favor of drought-tolerant plants.

RHAY: I don't think it's just Beverly Hills. I think Southern California as a whole has a big culture change to go through.

SIEGLER: Once, plentiful irrigation water helped make this region look more tropical than Mediterranean. And some of those cultural changes Rhay is talking about may take place as a result of necessity more than rules or fines.

BRANDON GOSHI: This is really unprecedented what we're seeing.

SIEGLER: Brandon Goshi is in charge of water policy at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. That's the agency that delivers water to almost 20 million people here. Even before the state's emergency order, Metropolitan was signaling to its customers that water rationing was coming and that cities should be ready to receive at least 20 percent less water over the summer.

GOSHI: The snowpack this year in California is the lowest snowpack in recorded history. You know, those types of events obviously will challenge the best-laid plans.

SIEGLER: Goshi says there have been major conservation gains in Southern California since the last major drought cycle, but that might not be much of a cushion if this one drags on. Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.