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Coping With California's Drought


While the world struggles with the problem of too much oil, here in California we're consumed with a far more primal concern - not enough water. From the moment we moved this show to Los Angeles, we've been reporting on how bad it is, and it's just getting worse. This week, Governor Jerry Brown announced the first mandatory water restrictions in state history, requiring residents to cut their water use by 25 percent. To make his point, he spoke in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where the snowpack so vital to the California water supply was dramatically absent.


JERRY BROWN: People should realize we're in a new era. The idea of your nice little green grass getting lots of water every day - that's going to be a thing of the past.

RATH: NPR's Kirk Siegler was on hand for that announcement in the Sierra Nevada. I asked him what it was like up there.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Well, I saw, not surprisingly, a lot of brown. It's actually quite alarming. There's snow only up high in the peaks. You know, I've been to the Tahoe region in July and seen more snow than I saw this past week. I went up to a snowpack-measuring station at about 7,000 feet with the chief of snow surveys for California, Frank Gehrke. He was hoping to go in there and take one last measurement for the season. We didn't need to ski or snowshoe. We just walked through the woods from his pickup where we parked.

FRANK GEHRKE: We are at the Tamarack Flat Snow Course. And it's a bare field.

SIEGLER: And normally, he said, there would be five feet of snow there this time of year.

GEHRKE: The ramifications are going to be fairly profound with such a low snowpack for a number of things going forward.

SIEGLER: So many people rely on snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada for - it accounts for roughly a third of all of California's water.

RATH: Kirk, let's talk about that 25 percent mandatory cut in urban water use. The governor previously asked for a 20 percent voluntary cut, but that didn't really work. How's the 25 percent mandatory cut going to work?

SIEGLER: The order directs state regulators to draft plans and orders to urban water agencies on how they're going to put this 25 percent cut into practice. The cutbacks are also going to affect big green spaces like cemeteries, golf courses and campuses. The governor wants to replace 50 million acres of turf with more drought-tolerant plants. This is a very ambitious plan, and I think it's success depends on how and whether it's enforced aggressively.

RATH: And, Kirk, you know there are people at home at this point screaming at the radio, why aren't you guys talking about agriculture - big, thirsty agriculture? Farms in western states like California use about 80 percent of the available water supply, and they're not subject to this 25 percent cut the governor is talking about.

SIEGLER: That's right. There has been a lot of criticism over this for sure in the days since the governor announced this. But you talk to farm groups and lobbyists and they point out that farmers have already been hit very hard with cut backs of another sort for the past two years. This will be the second straight year that most farmers in the Central Valley won't get any water from state and federal canals that move water from northern California, where it typically rains and snows, to the arid southern part of the state.

The governor's order - I do want to say, though - does require farms, and the water providers that bring the water to the farms, to report their water use and drought plans. I think it's safe to say whether farmers - those farmers that do still have water are being as efficient as they possibly can, for sure that's going to be under the microscope in the coming weeks.

RATH: NPR's Kirk Siegler here with me at NPR West. Thanks, Kirk.

SIEGLER: Glad to do it. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.