As water runs dry, Californians brace for a new way of life

Article By: Darryl Fears (written in 2015)

PASADENA, Calif. — His lawn was thick, healthy & gorgeous, & Mike Duran was in love.

“It was so green. It was so lush,” he said. But the relationship had financial issues. Watering the grass cost about $1,200 every other month in this drought-stricken state. “The money I was spending for water, I had to make a change,” Duran said. The yard has been an arrangement of sand & cactus for 3 months now. “Emotionally, it took me a little time to adjust, to say the least,” he said.

When Gov. Jerry Brown (D) told Californians last week that watering grass every day is “going to be a thing of the past” & announced the 1st mandatory water restrictions in the state’s history, people in a region full of swimming pools, pretty lawns & flowers bursting in technicolor began to worry that the place would start to look a lot more like Arizona.

“W/out water, you can’t live in California,” said Bill Whalen, who works on politics & the politics of water, at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “It ties into the California psyche. They have plush lawns & nice gardens that require lots of water. They have the ocean & Lake Tahoe skiing. You have a nice car. You want it clean. You need water,” said Whalen, who was a speechwriter for former governor Pete Wilson (R). “You can’t have California agriculture w/out water. You lose the nation’s salad bowl.”

468531848Carlos Salguero of the Onelawn landscaping company installs a section of fake grass at a home in Burlingame, Calif. Artificial lawns have emerged as a water-saving alternative for many Californians.

California is faced with a double whammy of high temperatures — the state just had its warmest winter on record — & low rainfall that is exacerbated by an atmospheric pattern that for 3 years straight has diverted winter storms away from the state, depriving it of crucial precipitation. The outlook, if global greenhouse gas emissions are not decreased, is a mega-drought lasting 30 years for California & several Southwestern states, a NASA study said.

The state is in the 4th year of a severe drought. W/its snowpack level near 0, the lowest ever recorded, Brown ordered California’s 400 water agencies to cut their output by 25% or face fines of up to $10,000 per month, a state official said, a penalty that can be passed to homeowners who fail to comply. A survey last month by the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonprofit think tank in San Francisco, shows that Californians realize they are running out of water. Nearly 70% said supplies will be inadequate in 10 years.

A divide over agriculture
Brown’s announcement, however, created a divide by targeting urban residents but not farmers, who use 80% of the state’s water & grow crops such as rice & almonds that require prodigious amounts of water.

“We don’t like when we see a double standard,” said Adam Scow, the California director of Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit environmental group. “Everybody’s going to have to do their part. The guys using all the water — you’re not asking them to do their part? It’s dishonest.”

He called Brown’s exclusion of farmers a “failure to lead” & “be a governor for all” state residents.2300-calwater0405

In a state where governors often give deference to the $40 billion agriculture industry, Scow said Brown’s exclusion was “not a surprise.” Farmers have sucked out so much groundwater for crops over the past decade that it cannot be replaced naturally. Yet there was no plan to regulate its removal until Brown signed legislation to manage groundwater last year.

“There’s booming almond production in the Central Valley,” Scow said. “It takes 4 times as much water to grow almonds in the heat of the valley. The solution is to buy out the farmers & put the land to other uses.”

But that threatens people’s livelihoods, said state agriculture officials & others who defend the farmers. As water drained, 400,000 farm acres were taken out of use & nearly 20,000 jobs were lost last year. Farmers are getting only 20% of the water they request from the State Water Project, which captures water in the northern parts of California & pumps it to various water agencies.

“Agriculture is already taking a hard hit,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. She called the 80% to 20% difference in urban & agricultural use “an artificial breakdown” & said that “urban users depend on agricultural production. It’s not about finger-pointing. It’s about everybody having to step up.”

Whalen called Brown’s restrictions a defining moment for both him & the state:

“It’s rare that something comes out of Sacramento that hits on all levels. This is 1 of those things.”

Everybody takes a hit, Whalen said. Other governors were thrown out of office when that happened — Gray Davis (D) was recalled in the early 2000s, when, among other problems confronting his administration, rolling blackouts robbed Californians of power for days. But in his 2nd term & final 4 years as governor under term limits, Brown knows his time is short & “wants to do big things,” Whalen said. It is his chance to bring a diverse group of stakeholders to his office to talk about water.

“1st thing to talk about is agriculture’s use of water, forcing them to look at whether we need thirsty crops like alfalfa,” Whalen said. Developers who build edi­fices w/huge fountains, environmentalists who call for too many restrictions & other fixes, & urban planners should all be at the table, he said. “It’s a conversation that can lead to action.”

In the Pasadena area, a few miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, homeowners do not appear ready to take action. Along the winding roads leading to the storied Huntington Library, Art Collection & Botanical Gardens in San Marino, dozens of workers trimmed lawns & watered flowers Friday.

“It worries me,” said Duran, who lives in the city known for the Rose Bowl, the Rose Parade & homes w/huge emerald yards adorned w/thirsty azaleas. “I know a lot of people don’t care. But what’s going to happen in years to come? These houses, these mansions. They have the money. They don’t care,” Duran said. He thought a mean thing: “I hope they fine them. I hope they charge them a lot.”

Duran said that by making a switch from grass to sand & succulents, he saved $900 on a water bill that arrives every 2 months.

“But my neighbors are not ready to do it,” he said.

Down the street, Lenon Mitchell said he will not rip out his turf for a desert motif.

“I’m not interested in that,” he said. “I’ll just keep it like it is & water it less till the rain comes back.”

Mitchell moved to the neighborhood more than 40 years ago & has steadily watered his modest lawn & plants less & less bc of increasing water rates & decreasing rain. He pointed at the house next door, with a yard that looked like his & his neighbors across the street w/lawns that were green w/lots of brown patches. The street stretched for a mile, showcasing traditional lawns with a mixture of palms, bird of paradise plants & azaleas on an 80-degree day.

Getting by w/less water
Los Angeles has more carwashes than any other city in the United States & California has more than any other state, said Brad Hooper, board president for the Western Carwash Association. Hooper said carwash owners saw the writing on the wall when they were hit w/high water bills years ago & started using reclaimed water.

For beautiful lawns, Californians turn to landscapers such as Larry Rohlfes of the California Association of Landscapers. At 1st, he said, his members were worried about water loss, but now they think Brown’s announcement could be a godsend. People will still want their homes to look nice & they will need experts to make over their lawns with a stunning desert flair.

Change “is going to come as a shock to many of our members,” Rohlfes said, “but they will have the tools to help clients make the shift to a different landscape. There are many ways to make them beautiful & use less water.”

On the other hand, said Barbara Alvarez, the owner of a landscape maintenance company, the governor’s pledge to rip up 50 million square feet of thirsty turf will devastate people who sell sod.

“They are really going to suffer,” she said.

But California has to do something, said Kerry Townsend, who lives in Redondo Beach w/her husband & 2 children. California is hotter than ever, she said. She feels it every day.

“When I moved here nearly 10 years ago, we actually had a change of seasons through the winter,” she said. “It was lovely. Now it feels like summer all the time & it never rains. It has just gotten hotter over time.”

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