Mercury News editorial: Jerry Brown’s lame response to California’s drought

Mercury News Editorial
March 23, 2015

California is in a drought of historic proportions with no end in sight. Scientists and political leaders, including Gov. Jerry Brown, agree. The governor called an official state of emergency way back in January 2014 — but you wouldn’t know it from his actions since.

Lame doesn’t begin to describe Brown’s failure to show leadership on this threat to the state’s long-range future that’s easily as dire as the massive budget deficit he inherited in 2011.

For example:

  • A governor who was serious about conservation would be offering tens of millions of dollars in incentives to urban water users to replace water-wasting toilets, shower heads, dishwashers and washing machines with state-of-the-art, low-flow products.

    Instead, Brown’s Water Resources Control Board is requiring restaurants to fill customers’ water glasses only if they ask and telling hotels to offer guests only one towel during their stay unless they request a fresh one. Oh, the pain of sacrifice.

  • A governor who was serious about conservation would be helping farmers finance drip-irrigation systems and ordering immediate restrictions on groundwater pumping to protect California’s long-term water needs. Only 40 percent of California farmers now use low-volume systems — and 80 percent of the state’s water goes to agriculture. Reducing the use of flood irrigation in the Central Valley is the state’s greatest water-saving opportunity.

    Instead, Brown last week offered up $660 million from funds approved nearly a decade ago to be used on flood control projects. Yes, that’s a drought response, since parched land combined with ground subsidence from overpumping makes some areas more prone to flooding — but it is not a water-saving strategy. It’s money that should have been spent by now.

  • A governor who was serious about conservation would have ornamental lawns in his cross hairs. The green expanses at corporate campuses, look-don’t-touch home lawns and other grassy places where no kids play nor families picnic are an embarrassment in a state where, even in wet years, it doesn’t rain from May to October. Parks, golf courses and ballfields should stay green, but using only recycled water.

    Instead, Brown’s Water Resources Control Board is telling water agencies like the Santa Clara Valley Water District to limit watering lawns to two times a week or hit owners with a $500 fine — but allocating no money for enforcement. Agencies like this don’t maintain personnel or systems to deal with enforcement, and the governor knows it. He’s still relying on Californians’ goodwill. And we know how well that’s worked over the past year, when his 20 percent reduction goal was widely greeted with yawns.

Water experts and environmentalists are at a loss to explain the governor’s uncharacteristic caution, if not indifference. But conspiracy theorists are all over it. Try this out: If California’s urban and ag interests make major gains in conservation — which we all know are broadly possible — that will undercut their willingness to pay for the massive, $25 billion Delta twin-tunnels Brown wants to build to ship water to the Central Valley and Southern California.

More likely, Brown is distracted by other priorities and has been slow to refocus on something that’s not a flashy legacy project like the tunnels or high-speed rail. But this generally forward-thinking, environmentally aware governor — one of the smartest politicians in state history — has to realize that the longer we wait to get started, the more draconian limits on water use need to be, and the more development will take place with huge lawns.

He said last week he’s considering additional measures. Think fast, governor.