LOS ANGELES – Startlingly green hills, surging rivers and the snow-wrapped Sierra Nevada had already signaled what Gov. Jerry Brown made official on Friday: The long California drought is over.
“This drought emergency is over, but the next drought could be around the corner,” Brown said in a statement. “Conservation must remain a way of life.”
The five-year drought won’t just be remembered for its stubborn severity. It produced a historic groundwater use law and the first-ever statewide restrictions on urban water consumption.
The parched years left a trail of death across the Sierra pine belt. They sketched a new image of what a proper California yard should look like.
But on the whole, this intricately plumbed state proved to be surprisingly resilient in the face of what, by some measures, was the worst drought on record. “We did remarkably well,” said Jay Lund, director of the University of California, Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.
Hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland went unplanted. Yet agriculture – the state’s biggest water user – enjoyed record revenues.
Some rural communities suffered from dried up wells and nearly empty local reservoirs. But in most metropolitan areas, drought woes were limited to brown lawns and scraggly median strips.
The water shortages barely put a dent in the state economy.
“How much reduction in the gross domestic product of California occurred because of a 25 percent reduction in urban water use?” Lund asked. “Almost nothing! Nobody has even bothered to calculate it, it’s so small.”
Every major drought teaches California water lessons.
In the wake of the last prolonged drought, from 1987 to 1992, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California constructed a big reservoir in Riverside County to boost regional reserves. Those supplies helped carry the Southern California region through this drought.
In recent decades, water districts expanded recycled water programs and promoted indoor conservation with rebates for water-thrifty appliances. That kept a lid on demand even as the population grew.
“In the late ‘80s drought, we learned how much we can save indoors. In this drought we learned how much we can save outdoors,” said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, which had the prickly task of enforcing Brown’s 2015 order for a 25 percent statewide cut in urban water use.
Nudged by generous turf rebates from water districts, homeowners up and down California ripped out their shriveled lawns and replaced them with succulents and drought-tolerant native plants.
“There’s a societal change in our attitudes – not just about watering use but what makes for a beautiful outdoor ornamental landscape that’s part and parcel of a major mind-set shift for many Californians,” Marcus said.
The most far-reaching policy shift came in 2014, when California joined the rest of the West in regulating the use of groundwater.
As the drought slashed irrigation deliveries, growers turned to groundwater to keep their orchards and fields green. As they drilled new and deeper wells, the long-standing overdraft of parts of the Central Valley aquifer became impossible to ignore.
“Lo and behold, (the state) noticed this and said ‘Oh, we can’t keep doing this forever,’” Lund observed. “It was only the third year of the drought and we got a groundwater law.”
The 2014 legislation requires regional agencies, over the course of the next two decades, to develop and implement plans to stop the chronic over-pumping that has driven down water tables and caused San Joaquin Valley farmland to sink at sometimes astonishing rates.
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