ECHO LAKE, Calif. – California Gov. Jerry Brown ordered officials Wednesday to impose statewide mandatory water restrictions for the first time in history as surveyors found the lowest snow level in the Sierra Nevada snowpack in 65 years of record-keeping.
Standing in dry, brown grass at a site that normally would be snow-covered this time of year, Brown announced he had signed an executive order requiring the State Water Resources Control Board to implement measures in cities and towns to cut the state's overall water usage by 25 percent compared with 2013 levels.
The move will affect residents, businesses, farmers and other users.
"We're in a historic drought and that demands unprecedented action," Brown said at a news conference at Echo Summit in the Sierra Nevada, where state water officials found no snow on the ground for the first time in their April manual survey of the snowpack. "We have to pull together and save water in every way we can."
After declaring a drought emergency in January 2014, Brown urged all Californians to cut water use by 20 percent from the previous year.
Despite increasingly stringent regulations imposed on local water agencies by the state, overall water use has fallen by just half that amount, prompting Brown to order the stronger action by the water board.
"We're in a new era; the idea of your nice little green grass getting water every day, that's going to be a thing of the past," Brown said.
Brown asked for a 25 percent cut in water use in 1977 during his first term as governor. Since then, cities have developed local storage and supplies to soften the blow of future dry years, making it harder to get residents to cut back in the current drought.
For many Californians, water still flows from taps without any extra hit to their wallets.
The order issued Wednesday will require campuses, golf courses, cemeteries and other large landscapes to significantly cut water use; direct local governments to replace 50 million square feet of lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping; and create a temporary rebate program for consumers who replace old water-sucking appliances with more efficient ones.
Outside an office building in Tustin, Gary Whitlock questioned whether Brown's order would make a difference.
"You know, this has been going on for years and everybody that I talk to says, 'Oh, well, you know, it's going to rain, El Nino's coming,'" Whitlock said as he watched sprinklers run and a gardener washing the underside of a lawnmower with a gushing hose.
The order calls on local water agencies to implement tiered water pricing that charges higher rates as more water is used and requires agricultural users to report more water use information to state regulators.
Brown's office said that will boost the state's ability to enforce laws against illegal water diversions and waste. Officials previously approved fines of up to $500 a day for water wasters, but few agencies have opted to issue them.
The order also prohibits new homes and developments from using drinkable water for irrigation if the structures lack water-efficient drip systems. In addition, the watering of decorative grasses on public street medians is banned.
The snow survey on Wednesday showed the statewide snowpack is equivalent to just 5 percent of the historical average for April 1 and the lowest for that date since the state began record-keeping in 1950.
Snow supplies about a third of the state's water, and a lower snowpack means less water in California reservoirs to meet demand in summer and fall.
"It is such an unprecedented lack of snow, it is way, way below records," Frank Gehrke, chief of snow surveys for the California Department of Water Resources, said at the snow survey site about 90 miles east of Sacramento.
Critics of the Democratic governor said his order does not go far enough to address agriculture — the biggest water user in California.
"In the midst of a severe drought, the governor continues to allow corporate farms and oil interests to deplete and pollute our precious groundwater resources that are crucial for saving water," Adam Scow, California director of the group Food & Water Watch, said in a written statement.
The order contains no water reduction target for farmers, who have let thousands of acres go fallow as the state and federal government slashed water deliveries from reservoirs. Instead, it requires many agricultural water suppliers to submit detailed drought management plans that include how much water they have and what they're doing to scale back.
Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said farmers have already suffered deep cutbacks in water supply during the current drought.