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(A sercret service agent looks over a farm field as President Barack Obama speaks to the media on California's drought situation Friday, Feb. 14, 2014 in Los Banos, Calif. Farmers in California's drought-stricken Central Valley said the financial assistance President Barack Obama delivered on his visit Friday does not get to the heart of California's long-term water problems. (AP Photo/Los Angeles Times, Wally Skalij, Pool) )
California drought: Why is there no mandatory water rationing?
First Published Feb 16 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Feb 16 2014 05:35 pm

San Jose, Calif. • Fourteen months into a historic drought, with reservoirs running low and the Sierra snowpack 27 percent of normal, a growing number of Californians are wondering: Why isn’t everyone being forced to ration?

So far, Gov. Jerry Brown and most major water providers, from the Bay Area to Los Angeles, are calling for voluntary cuts — not mandatory rationing with fines for excessive use.

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"I’ve been astounded," said Jay Geis, a Cupertino sales executive who said his friends and neighbors also are surprised by the lack of urgency. "Just drive by any reservoir and it’s horrifying. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand we’re in a drought."

Yet when it comes to water in California, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to explain why rationing hasn’t taken hold. While three utilities provide 80 percent of Californians’ electricity, there are roughly 3,000 water providers statewide, all with different rules, political realities and needs.

Some are cities. Some are corporations. Some are farm districts pumping from wells. Some have significant amounts of water stored up and some don’t. But all of their bottom lines depend on selling water, not conserving. And as difficult as the economics of rationing are, the politics may be even more complex.

"Generally people prefer voluntary to mandatory conservation," said Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of Metropolitan Water District, which provides water to 19 million people in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas. "They don’t like being dictated to. If we go to mandatory in February and it rains solid in March and we say ‘never mind,’ people won’t listen. We want to save the big hammer for when we know it’s really bad."

Local agencies can order rationing. So can governors. But no California governor has ever ordered mandatory water rationing statewide, and there are huge legal questions about how it would work or whether any governor could even enforce the rules, particularly on farmers and their private wells.

"Most of the power in water management is at the local level," said Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis. "Oftentimes you can get 10 or 20 percent water conservation out of a serious voluntary effort. It’s less costly and is less of a political headache for most agencies. That’s why they want to do voluntary first."


A few communities have embraced strict rules. On Jan. 28, the St. Helena City Council ordered mandatory rationing, limiting each house to 65 gallons a person per day — one-third the state average — with warnings for first offenses, then fines of $374 for every 748 gallons above the limit. For the fifth offense, the fines triple.

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"The message to the public right now is, ‘Hey, no more kidding around.’ We need to be very, very serious," Mayor Ann Nevero said that day. Within two weeks, city water use fell 33 percent.

Sacramento enacted 20 percent "mandatory" restrictions. But because half the homes there still don’t have water meters, the city has no way to set water limits and fine users. Instead, city leaders limited days for landscape watering, and staff members issue tickets of up to $1,000 to violators.

Most Bay Area residents have only 10 percent voluntary restrictions in place — including all the customers of the Santa Clara Valley Water District, East Bay Municipal Utility District and San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which supplies Hetch Hetchy water. Some locals say it’s time to go further.

"People in the government agencies don’t understand how bad it could be," said Vincent Lui, a retired engineer in Los Altos who suffered through severe water shortages 60 years ago while growing up in Hong Kong. "They don’t seem to be taking this thing too seriously. We need to get tough quickly. We need to hit people where it hurts, in the pocketbooks."


Experts say there are several key reasons why mandatory rationing is rare.

First, most big urban districts are in better shape now than during the last major drought from 1987 to 1992. They have increased conservation and supplies.

"We’re light years away from then," said Kightlinger.

In the past 20 years, Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Water District built the massive Diamond Valley reservoir in Riverside County, a $2 billion project that stores enough water for 5 million people a year. By expanding recycled wastewater and pushing conservation measures, the district delivered 25 percent less water last year than in 1990, even though the population grew by 5 million people.

The Contra Costa Water District in 1998 built Los Vaqueros Reservoir, which holds enough water for up to 800,000 people a year. And over the past 20 years, the Santa Clara Valley Water District has methodically stored nearly two years’ supply underground.

Second, when people use less, agencies’ revenues drop.

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