By Elizabeth Zach, staff writer and Sarah Buck, rural development specialistlakeJenkinson-sierra-nevada-ca

With snowfall in California this year at a record low, Gov. Jerry Brown ordered mandatory water restrictions for the first time ever in the state’s history.

The executive order directs the State Water Resources Control Board to impose a 25 percent reduction on the state’s 400 local water supply agencies during the coming year. The agencies must then come up with restrictions to cut back on – and better monitor – water use. The water-use limits will affect both homeowners and farmers, restricting, too, cemeteries and golf courses water use. Brown has also called for drought-tolerant landscaping; a rebate program to encourage water- and energy-efficient appliances; water-efficient drip irrigation; new water-pricing models and better water use reporting to state regulators.

Preceding the governor’s announcement, Circle of Blue moderated an online press conference in which water experts around the state discussed how low precipitation, combined with high temperatures, have contributed to a severe drought that has plagued California for four years. This year, according to the last snow survey, the Sierra snowpack was at 5 – 6 percent of normal which, in the Tahoe Basin, was the lowest snowpack recorded in the last century.

During the conference call, Noah Diffenbauch of Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment discussed climate model experiments that point to a severe long-term warming trend. Diffenbauch said that drought conditions in California could become the norm, therefore, he suggests, lawmakers, water companies and citizens need to adapt to these climatic changes, and education is crucial.

The panelists also discussed the drought’s economic impact. Industries that use comparatively enormous amounts of water, such as swimming pool builders and golf course operators, also employ many people, so enforcing water restrictions on them has other implications beyond water conservation. The agricultural and recreational industries, as well, have been hard hit by the drought, and stand to lose all the more from the pending restrictions. Rain catchment systems and other innovative technology like recycling water and desalination were also mentioned.

One of the panelists, Heather Cooley from the Pacific Institute, highlighted a recently-published paper, which examines hydropower costs and efficiency. While it’s “clean energy,” there is less of it because of the drought. Moreover, hydropower also exacts a price: California has increased its use of natural gas and other biofuels, but these require water to extract and manufacture. Natural gas use also causes more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to higher than average temperatures, exacerbating the drought conditions.

The drought has had, and will have, a huge impact on agriculture, municipal water use and ecosystems, and all these interests are in competition for the little water available. Mandated restrictions and conservation are two ways among many to survive the drought. The hope is that these restrictions will help Californians learn and change their behavior so they not only survive but thrive in drought years.