With Drought Emergency Over, Californians Debate Lifting Water Restrictions California is expected to begin easing sweeping water use and drought restrictions after an extraordinary winter of storms. But a fierce debate rages over whether the rules should become permanent.
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With Drought Emergency Over, Californians Debate Lifting Water Restrictions

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With Drought Emergency Over, Californians Debate Lifting Water Restrictions

With Drought Emergency Over, Californians Debate Lifting Water Restrictions

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In a meadow high in the Sierra Nevada, state water officials measured the snow pack today. It is at 164 percent of average statewide. About a third of California's drinking water comes from snow-fed reservoirs. Now that the drought is lifting, NPR's Kirk Siegler reports there's growing pressure to lift emergency water restrictions, too.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: You could mistake Southern California for England right now, its green, lush mountains exploding with wild flowers, its creeks and waterfalls running for the first time in years. Above Los Angeles, the maze of open space trails offer a respite from the city's grit and smog. And they're packed with beaming hikers, glad to put the apocalyptic drought behind them.

GAIL THOMAS: It is fabulous - absolutely fabulous.

SIEGLER: Gail Thomas is taking a break in the shade of the oak trees in Eaton Canyon. She moved to L.A. from the East Coast at the height of the historic drought.

THOMAS: And everyone says to me it used to be like this all the time, but for the past six years, apparently not.

SIEGLER: Thomas has only ever known a California with tighter water restrictions and tougher enforcement against people who waste water. Well, these rules stem from a mandatory water rationing order signed by Governor Jerry Brown exactly two years ago. The governor has since indicated he may lift it as early as next month.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

SIEGLER: Down the trail, hiker Nicole Garcia thinks the emergency order should stay in place.

NICOLE GARCIA: I don't think they should lift it. I think they should hold it for a while 'cause (laughter) Californians aren't that respectful of water. I mean, they kind of waste a lot of it.

SIEGLER: That is, for sure, the stereotype, especially here in Southern California, where imported water has long been used to make the arid land look more tropical in places. But in the last two years, per the drought emergency order, urban water use has been cut across the board by 25 percent - even higher than that in some places. And some of the largest urban and suburban water utilities in the region are pressuring the state to lift it.

ROB HUNTER: This is not an emergency.

SIEGLER: Rob Hunter runs the Municipal Water District of Orange County, which secures drinking water for more than 2 million people.

HUNTER: We're still in a drought. To be truthful, Southern California is almost always in some form of drought, but it's not an emergency.

SIEGLER: And Hunter says his agency is losing credibility with customers who are being told to keep cutting back, even when the reservoirs are full and the Sierra Nevada is blanketed in white. Agencies like his were never fond of what they saw as top-down regulations. Hunter says it's the market that will force people to use less. Water isn't getting any cheaper, and neither is housing.

HUNTER: How many two-acre homes do you see being built with two acres of lawn?

FELICIA MARCUS: You can't stay at DEFCON 1 forever, but you can figure out how to maintain that sort of sensible vigilance.

SIEGLER: Felicia Marcus chairs California's powerful Water Resources Control Board, which enforces the drought restrictions. She wants to see some of them made permanent, like the requirement that utilities publicly report their conservation targets monthly and the tougher penalties against water wasters.

MARCUS: We've gotten the wake-up call of wake-up calls about the need to really prepare for longer droughts. And shame on us if we don't - you know, if we don't take that message seriously. Like, if we hit the snooze button now, that would be a huge mistake.

SIEGLER: That's the rub here. How do you strike the balance of letting people live a little more comfortably again while also not letting them slip into complacency - start taking longer showers, hosing down driveways? Gene Shugg, a hiker who lives in Orange County, thinks the restrictions were good. They make people care about the crisis.

GENE SHUGG: But it is time to lift. We do have a lot. And if smart people up there in Sacramento or wherever it may be feel it is, then we should. But what about our water rates? Will they come back down?

SIEGLER: That's one thing that no one is counting on in an arid region like this where drought always looms right around the corner, and the population keeps rising. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROUS SONG, "RECENSERE")

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