PASADENA, Calif. — His lawn was thick, healthy and gorgeous, and Mike Duran was in love. “It was so green. It was so lush,” he said. But the relationship had financial issues. Watering the grass cost about $1,200 every other month in this drought-stricken state.
“The money I was spending for water, I had to make a change,” Duran said. The yard has been an arrangement of sand and cactus for three months now. “Emotionally, it took me a little time to adjust, to say the least,” he said.
When Gov. Jerry Brown (D) told Californians last week that watering grass every day is “going to be a thing of the past” and announced the first mandatory water restrictions in the state’s history, people in a region full of swimming pools, pretty lawns and flowers bursting in technicolor began to worry that the place would start to look a lot more like Arizona.
“Without water, you can’t live in California,” said Bill Whalen, who works on politics, and the politics of water, at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “It ties into the California psyche.
“They have plush lawns and nice gardens that require lots of water. They have the ocean and Lake Tahoe skiing. You have a nice car. You want it clean. You need water,” said Whalen, who was a speechwriter for former governor Pete Wilson (R). “You can’t have California agriculture without water. You lose the nation’s salad bowl.”
California is faced with a double whammy of high temperatures — the state just had its warmest winter on record — and low rainfall that is exacerbated by an atmospheric pattern that for three years straight has diverted winter storms away from the state, depriving it of crucial precipitation. The outlook, if global greenhouse gas emissions are not decreased, is a megadrought lasting 30 years for California and several Southwestern states, a NASA study said.
The state is in the fourth year of a severe drought. With its snowpack level near zero, the lowest ever recorded, Brown ordered California’s 400 water agencies to cut their output by 25 percent or face fines of up to $10,000 per month, a state official said, a penalty that can be passed to homeowners who fail to comply.
A survey last month by the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonprofit think tank in San Francisco, shows that Californians realize they are running out of water. Nearly 70 percent said supplies will be inadequate in 10 years.
Brown’s announcement, however, created a divide by targeting urban residents but not farmers, who use 80 percent of the state’s water and grow crops such as rice and almonds that require prodigious amounts of water.
“We don’t like when we see a double standard,” said Adam Scow, the California director of Food and Water Watch, a nonprofit environmental group. “Everybody’s going to have to do their part. The guys using all the water — you’re not asking them to do their part? It’s dishonest.”
He called Brown’s exclusion of farmers a “failure to lead” and “be a governor for all” state residents.
In a state where governors often give deference to the $40 billion agriculture industry, Scow said Brown’s exclusion was “not a surprise.” Farmers have sucked out so much groundwater for crops over the past decade that it cannot be replaced naturally. Yet there was no plan to regulate its removal until Brown signed legislation to manage groundwater last year.
“There’s booming almond production in the Central Valley,” Scow said. “It takes four times as much water to grow almonds in the heat of the valley. The solution is to buy out the farmers and put the land to other uses.”
But that threatens people’s livelihoods, said state agriculture officials and others who defend the farmers. As water drained, 400,000 farm acres were taken out of use and nearly 20,000 jobs were lost last year.
Farmers are getting only 20 percent of the water they request from the State Water Project, which captures water in the northern parts of California and pumps it to various water agencies.
“Agriculture is already taking a hard hit,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. She called the 80 percent to 20 percent difference in urban and agricultural use “an artificial breakdown” and said that “urban users depend on agricultural production. It’s not about finger-pointing. It’s about everybody having to step up.”
Whalen called Brown’s restrictions a defining moment for both him and the state: “It’s rare that something comes out of Sacramento that hits on all levels. This is one of those things.”
Everybody takes a hit, Whalen said. Other governors were thrown out of office when that happened — Gray Davis (D) was recalled in the early 2000s, when, among other problems confronting his administration, rolling blackouts robbed Californians of power for days.
But in his second term and final four years as governor under term limits, Brown knows his time is short and “wants to do big things,” Whalen said. It is his chance to bring a diverse group of stakeholders to his office to talk about water.
“First thing to talk about is agriculture’s use of water, forcing them to look at whether we need thirsty crops like alfalfa,” Whalen said. Developers who build edifices with huge fountains, environmentalists who call for too many restrictions and other fixes, and urban planners should all be at the table, he said.
“It’s a conversation that can lead to action.”
In the Pasadena area, a few miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, homeowners do not appear ready to take action. Along the winding roads leading to the storied Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, dozens of workers trimmed lawns and watered flowers Friday.
“It worries me,” said Duran, who lives in the city known for the Rose Bowl, the Rose Parade and homes with huge emerald yards adorned with thirsty azaleas.
“I know a lot of people don’t care. But what’s going to happen in years to come? These houses, these mansions. They have the money. They don’t care,” Duran said. He thought a mean thing: “I hope they fine them. I hope they charge them a lot.”
Duran said that by making a switch from grass to sand and succulents, he saved $900 on a water bill that arrives every two months.
“But my neighbors are not ready to do it,” he said.
Down the street, Lenon Mitchell said he will not rip out his turf for a desert motif.
“I’m not interested in that,” he said. “I’ll just keep it like it is and water it less till the rain comes back.”
Mitchell moved to the neighborhood more than 40 years ago and has steadily watered his modest lawn and plants less and less because of increasing water rates and decreasing rain. He pointed at the house next door, with a yard that looked like his, and his neighbors across the street with lawns that were green with lots of brown patches.
The street stretched for a mile, showcasing traditional lawns with a mixture of palms, bird of paradise plants and azaleas on an 80-degree day.
Los Angeles has more carwashes than any other city in the United States, and California has more than any other state, said Brad Hooper, board president for the Western Carwash Association. Hooper said carwash owners saw the writing on the wall when they were hit with high water bills years ago and started using reclaimed water.
For beautiful lawns, Californians turn to landscapers such as Larry Rohlfes of the California Association of Landscapers. At first, he said, his members were worried about water loss, but now they think Brown’s announcement could be a godsend.
People will still want their homes to look nice, and they will need experts to make over their lawns with a stunning desert flair. Change “is going to come as a shock to many of our members,” Rohlfes said, “but they will have the tools to help clients make the shift to a different landscape. There are many ways to make them beautiful and use less water.”
On the other hand, said Barbara Alvarez, the owner of a landscape maintenance company, the governor’s pledge to rip up 50 million square feet of thirsty turf will devastate people who sell sod.
“They are really going to suffer,” she said.
But California has to do something, said Kerry Townsend, who lives in Redondo Beach with her husband and two children. California is hotter than ever, she said. She feels it every day.
“When I moved here nearly 10 years ago, we actually had a change of seasons through the winter,” she said. “It was lovely. Now it feels like summer all the time, and it never rains. It has just gotten hotter over time.”