They told Vince Calcagno to cut his water use by more than a third last year as the desert summer loomed with its 112-degree highs. He stood near the swimming pool in his pretty back yard off a Palm Springs golf course and wondered, “How am I going to make this work?”
It worked as badly as he envisioned. After months of almost no watering, “the back yard looks pretty awful now,” Calcagno, a retired restaurant owner, said recently. “It’s brown and full of crab grass.”
In the face of historic and extended drought, state officials warned that this was Californians’ new reality when they imposed the harsh water restrictions on municipalities last June.
But their tough talk did not last long. Two weeks ago, the State Water Resources Control Board voted to end those restrictions and let 408 water districts decide how much water their customers should conserve.
The move has baffled many people. Moderate to severe drought still grips three-quarters of California, and studies show the state is the driest it has been in 500 years — in advance of a megadrought predicted for the entire Southwest, one that scientists say could last several decades.
Lax enforcement of customer water use has been a standing concern for years, critics note. Some say the loss of millions of dollars in revenue because of the restrictions is why many water authorities pressured the board to reverse course.
“I don’t agree with the decision. I think it was premature,” said Peter Gleick, president and co-founder of the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit research and policy group based in Oakland. “It’s too soon to talk about going back to our old wasteful patterns of water use. I think we’re sending the wrong message to water users.”
The control board explains its decision as a gift from heaven — a deluge of snow and rain that fell this winter in the Sierra Mountains north of Sacramento. The precipitation filled several huge Northern California reservoirs that had fallen to historic lows when snowpack in the mountains measured zero for the first time after the end of winter last year.
Northern reservoirs funnel water to the southern half of the state through a complex system of concrete aqueducts.
“We want the people to know we’re adaptable to changing conditions,” said Max Gomberg, the board’s climate and conservation manager. “We don’t want to continue to impose the kinds of restrictions we had in place when we had zero snowpack.”
The board will continue to monitor how much water is used and how much is available in each district. It will step in again if needed, Gomberg said, adding that it hopes suppliers and their customers will continue to conserve.
Across the state during the past year, residents cut their usage by 25 percent compared with two years earlier. They ripped out lawns and stopped washing cars. They took shorter showers and bought water-efficient appliances. They saved so much that millions of trees are dead or dying, and wastewater has slowed to a trickle, causing problems in pipes.
But some residents ignored the restrictions. State officials publicly admonished Beverly Hills residents when it fined the city months ago.
The city in turn set out to shame individuals, firing off letters and fines to celebrities such as comedian Amy Poehler, who last year used 170,000 gallons more than allowed between May 14 and July 14. Entertainment magnate David Geffen used 27,000 gallons on average per day between June and August. By comparison, the average family in Los Angeles uses about 12,500 gallons per month.
The state board let up on water providers and customers even as lawmakers in Sacramento are pushing laws to put more pressure on them.
In early May, the Senate passed a bill that provides for “public disclosure of water-guzzling households.” According to the office of Democratic Sen. Jerry Hill, who drafted the measure, “Water agencies would be required to disclose, upon request, the excessive users in their service area.”
Before the strict restrictions went into effect in April 2015 — following an executive order by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) — water use in the Coachella Valley surpassed even Beverly Hills as not only among the highest in California but the nation. The desert valley gulped about 700 gallons per person per day, more than seven times the U.S. average. Water districts there were seen as lax in forcing cuts by customers, which include 121 emerald golf courses, more than half of all the courses in Southern California.
So the state control board hit the valley with the harshest reduction requirements — a 36 percent cut that municipalities struggled to reach and maintain. Last August, the districts collected $1.9 million in fines from customers who did not conserve, and in October the districts themselves were hit with a $61,000 state fine for failing to meet the restrictions.
Within days of the state’s decision this month to lift the limits, the Coachella authority announced that it would no longer penalize customers for using too much water.
“Our customers tried very hard,” spokeswoman Heather Engel said. For the year starting June 2015, they complied with the governor’s mandate of decreasing use by a quarter, but they fell short of the 36 percent threshold.
The valley’s fairways-driven water use garnered widespread wrath. But only one of those many courses relies on potable water, said Craig Kessler, director of governmental affairs for the Southern California Golf Association. The rest tap private wells to pump groundwater out of a vast aquifer. That source is so large federal officials have yet been able to measure it — though they do know the aquifer’s water level has fallen dramatically.
Engel noted that commercial use of groundwater is controlled by the state, not local water agencies. The government asked the golf courses to voluntarily reduce pumping by 25 percent. Mandatory compliance will not kick in until a monitoring law is implemented in four years.
Coachella water officials maintained from the start that including the Palm Springs area in an emergency drought response was unfair. “It never rains in the desert,” Engel said. “We’ve always had to have a plan in place to provide water when it doesn’t rain. That is a lesson we learned a long time ago.”
Calcagno, who moved to Palm Springs from San Francisco 14 years ago, is now free to revive his dying yard, but he does not plan to do so. “Because of the drought and all that stuff, it does make me worry,” he said. “Climate change — last summer, the highest day was 117 degrees.”
He has watched his neighbors switch to desert gardens, and he might, too. The ficus bushes that separate his yard from the golf course next door will also have to suffer.
“They were lush. They’re dry now. It doesn’t have quite that look anymore. I’m okay with that,” he said, noting that there is something more important. “It’s water.”