The California Water Resources Control Board will decide next week whether to impose mandatory limits on urban water use and slap violators with fines of up to $500 a day. This raises two questions:
1) What took it so long?
2) Why aren't agricultural water users, who gulp 80 percent of California's usable supply, getting the same attention?
All consumers and public and private water suppliers need to get on board. We've had plenty of time to voluntarily reduce consumption over three years of drought, and we blew it.
It's been nearly six months since Gov. Jerry Brown issued an emergency drought proclamation calling on residents to voluntarily reduce water consumption by 20 percent. They only hit 5 percent, roughly 10 gallons a day. Nearly 50 percent of daily home water use goes to landscaping: The green lawns throughout the Bay Area attest to our unwillingness to comply.
Mandatory restrictions would go into effect Aug. 1 and cover urban residents and public water utilities, including the Santa Clara Valley Water District, Contra Costa Water District and East Bay Municipal Utility District. Urban suppliers who do not implement a water shortage contingency plan and report on water use could be fined up to $10,000 a day.
Private water providers such as San Jose Water Co. would not have to participate. But if they don't get on board, it will call into the question whether private companies should be distributing the ultimate public resource. The need for profit can conflict with public interest.
Farmers say that they're already using conservation methods and that the drought will force them to fallow nearly 400,000 acres this year. But irrigation districts' inflexible water delivery schedules create vast amounts of waste, sending water to farmers whose fields don't need it. The National Resources Defense Council in February recommended forcing districts to match farmers' actual needs.
Central Valley farmers also have made irresponsible choices of crops, doubling their acreage in almond orchards, for example, even though they lacked sufficient water rights to keep the orchards alive through a drought.
An acre of almond trees needs twice as much water as most vegetables, and orchards cannot go dry during a drought. If trees die, the cost is enormous.
Meteorologists have predicted El Niño conditions this winter, which would mean more rain. But now they say the effect is likely to be mild. This year could be as dry as last.
All water users have an equal obligation to help the state manage its scarce supply. Scientists believe we may be entering an era of a much drier climate. Putting off action will make more painful and costly changes necessary down the line.