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Gov. Jerry Brown: California has to change what’s comfortable to address drought

April 1, 2015 at 6:35 PM EDT
Suffering a severe and long-lasting drought, California Gov. Jerry Brown ordered new and historic restrictions designed to reduce water use by 25 percent through 2016. The restrictions would affect water use for landscaping and lawns, farming, golf courses and more. Brown joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the unprecedented emergency measures and how it may have an impact beyond his state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The long-lasting and severe drought in California led Governor Jerry Brown to order new and historic water restrictions today. The mandatory rules are designed to reduce water use by 25 percent through 2016. The governor made the announcement on a day when winter snowpack is measured in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Today, there was no snow on the ground there and the snowpack is lower than at any time since 1950.

Hari Sreenivasan is in California, and he joins us now from our public broadcasting station KPBS in San Diego.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In fact, Governor Brown went to the Sierra Nevada Mountains today to make his point. The restrictions would affect water use in a number of ways, including landscaping and lawns, farming, golf courses and more.

The governor joins us now from Sacramento.

Thanks for being with us.

First, even going back to your state of the state address in 2014, you have been talking about this state of emergency. There has been plenty of scientific data to back up this drought, so what took so long to get these restrictions in place?

GOV. JERRY BROWN, (D) California: Well, what takes so long is we’re a large state, 38 million people. We extend from the Oregon border to the Mexican border.

We have hundreds of water agencies. And so to move a policy from conception to full operation and implementation does take time. And it is not done by two or five or 50 people in the state capital, but rather water districts, water engineers, water enforcement personnel, and citizens themselves all working together.

I have taken dozens of measures over the last three to four years. And now I think we have really come to a culmination, where, instead of voluntary, it’s 25 percent is our goal. And it is mandatory, and that’s unlike what we had before. So, we’re talking about people taking out their lawns, using all these other different water-saving technologies, and then accelerating things like desalinization.

In almost every way conceivable, Californians have to get used to a very different world, and we’re going to have to live just a little bit differently.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Well, Governor, encouraging people to decrease watering their lawns seems like literally a drop in the bucket, when 80 percent of the water by conflict is from the agriculture sector.

GOV. JERRY BROWN: And the agricultural sector, the farmers, have taken a lot of hits. People have — their fields are fallow in many cases. The trees are dying. They’re not getting the water that the federal government promised, not a drop. They’re getting only a small fraction from the state water project.

Agriculture is fundamental to California. And, yes, they use most of the water, and they produce the food and the fiber that we all depend on and which we export to countries all around the world. So, we’re asking them too to give us information, to file agriculture water plans, to manage their underground water, to share with other farmers.

This is a very comprehensive program that has never been attempted anywhere or at any time in California history. So, it’s bold. We have a lot to learn. We are going to have to listen to how it rolls forward and rolls out. But I think the farmers are suffering a lot. And they are being asked to do a lot through this executive order.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is it time to start zeroing in on specific industries?  We know that it costs an enormous amount of water to have a single almond to eat or the fracking industry, where a lot of people are very concerned that they’re extracting a lot of water in that process as well. Is it time for us to start zeroing in on the largest customers or users of water?

GOV. JERRY BROWN: Well, then you’re putting government in a role of picking and choosing, maybe almonds instead of walnuts, or tomatoes instead of rice. I mean, that is a Big Brother that, outside a war or some absolute unprecedented catastrophe, shouldn’t even be considered.

In terms of well stimulation and how you use water to get oil out of the ground, Californians drive 332 billion miles. That’s how far they went last year. They’re using 18 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel.

So if we don’t take it out of our ground, we will take it out of somebody else’s. So I think what we have to do is get efficient, reduce wherever we can, and when we have just an ornamental lawn or something else that is just for your own pleasure, and we don’t have the water, that will generate, just the urban saving, 1.5 billion. That’s as big as one of our major dams, which people would like to build, and that’s $5 billion.

So, we have to change many things that we have been comfortable with, and it’s all of us, Southern California, Northern California, farmers, homeowners, apartment dwellers. This is a big transition that I’m initiating with this executive order. And we’re going to have to work at it to get it right.


You mentioned earlier the different water districts that all have to start agreeing to something like this. But there are so many disparities between county to county. And you have essentially got a race to the bottom from farmers who can afford to dig deeper and deeper wells, tapping into the same groundwater that’s depleting at a very rapid pace.

GOV. JERRY BROWN: Well, for the first time, we are going to get all the information of where farmers are getting their water and how much under the ground and how much they’re actually using.

And we have never been able to get that information before. Now we’re making it mandatory. And this is a complicated balance of forces, of businesses, of companies, of farmers, of families. And we’re trying our best to lay out a framework, an operational game plan that will reduce wasteful water use, unnecessary water use, and give incentives for new technologies, both for efficiency and new — generating new water, whether by recycling or from desalinization.

And all that together is what we’re trying. And it’s unprecedented.


GOV. JERRY BROWN: It’s mandatory. And it will be enforced.

So I think we ought to see how this goes forward, and then we can adjust up or down when we learn what the results are.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Governor Brown, very briefly, how will the rest of the country feel the impact of what’s happening in California?  What are the economic consequences of this drought?

GOV. JERRY BROWN: Well, first of all, the price of food may go up because the cost of water is getting much higher. That’s one thing.

And, in general, what’s happening in California is one variant of the change in weather and climate. And so other places have to look at this and understand we are — when I say we, humankind all over the world is putting billions of tons of chemicals, CO2, methane and other things, other greenhouse gases, and that’s warming and disrupting the very delicate web of life and balance in the hydrological cycle and in the climate.


GOV. JERRY BROWN: So we’re all going to have to do a lot to adapt to the kind of changed world we’re bringing upon ourselves.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, thank you, Governor Brown, Governor Jerry Brown of California. Thanks so much.

GOV. JERRY BROWN: Thank you.