State steps up to worsening drought conditions. Sort of.

I often see City of Berkeley employees shamelessly power washing the streets during my early morning runs. On bike rides through Walnut Creek or Palo Alto, I’m taken aback by the dazzling green laws. Despite being several years into a severe drought with only a year’s worth of water (others say more) in reserve and no relief in sight, it often seems that California is choosing to not be inconvenienced with the worsening drought. Maybe it will all just work itself out? If we ask people to please take shorter showers, surely this must do something? Shutting our eyes and grumbling about the horrible ski conditions this year did not seem to have helped. With our rainy season come and gone, it’s becoming increasingly clear that more action needs to take place.

MW-CE076_drough_NS_20140515163104Last Tuesday, the state finally stepped up. Sort of. Local water agencies are typically in charge of regulating water use, but ineffective response to the drought has led the state to take action. New rules restrict outdoor watering to two days per week, and forbid watering within two days of rain. In addition, restaurants must only serve water upon request- a drought awareness tactic rather than water reduction- and hotels must ask guests if they want their linens and towels washed every day. The state-wide consensus has been that these restrictions are, well, pretty wimpy.

Many communities have already put similar- if not more stringent- restrictions in place. Alameda, for instance, has been restricting outdoor watering to once a week in the fall, winter, and spring (twice in the summer) for over a year now, in addition to other restrictions. If the state really wanted to take a firmer stance and make a more significant impact, it should have pushed further.

Lawns to Meadows Project at UC Berkeley converts grass lawns to less water-intensive native plants.

Lawns to Meadows Project at UC Berkeley converts grass lawns to less water-intensive native plants.

This could mean prohibiting watering residential or corporate lawns entirely, or providing monetary incentives to do so by raising the cost of water after the first hundred or so gallons. In Los Angeles, the city will pay you a few dollars per square foot of lawn that you convert to drought-friendly plants or mulch. This is a tactic that UC Berkeley has adopted voluntarily. Cities, meanwhile, should be required to stop watering public lawns, and pushed to landscape with native plants instead. As for golf courses? There’s nothing wrong with browning out.

Although water use reduction is important, implementing water recycling programs is a critical step for long-term drought control. It would be foolish continue hoping that water will come our way… next year. The $1 billion emergency drought plan announced by Governor Brown last week is expected to help jump start some of these programs, but much of this funding will be dedicated to flood control projects in anticipation of post-drought conditions. More funding must be dedicated to make water recycling widespread to help manage this drought- and the next. Even if we magically pull out of the drought this year, history has shown us that we won’t be in the clear forever.