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When Gov. Jerry Brown officially declared in January that California was in a state of drought, those who had been paying attention to the alarming lack of rainfall during the prior two years couldn't help but ask: What took him so long?
And when he announced that he expected the state's residents to curtail their water consumption by 20 percent, with no personal consequences to them if they failed to oblige, another question sprang to mind: Isn't it unrealistically optimistic to expect people to voluntarily cut their usage back by one-fifth?
The first question remains unanswered, but with another dry season behind us, state regulators appear to have figured out that voluntary conservation won't do the trick. The State Water Resources Control Board meets this week to consider emergency -- and mandatory -- regulations aimed at curtailing wasteful outdoor water use. The proposed regulations would give more authority to law enforcement agencies to impose the restrictions, although "it will be up to local governments on how and when to act," according to an Associated Press news report.
(Update: The state board on July 15 approved measures that will compel local water agencies to impose restrictions on outdoor water use.)
Locally, two towns are wrestling with the issue in light of the recent revelations that their water consumption grew significantly in 2013 -- the driest year in recorded history for many parts of the state, according to the California Department of Water Resources.
Those towns are Portola Valley and Woodside, whose town councils heard reports last week on the rise in water use. Woodside's per-capita use increased last year by 44 gallons per person per day (from 377 in 2012 to 421). That was double Portola Valley's consumption increase: In that town, per-capita daily water use was 283 gallons in 2012 and 305 in 2013.
Although council members from both towns expressed concern about the rise in usage, Portola Valley has gotten serious about addressing the troubling development. The town appointed a task force earlier this year focused on engaging the community in a water conservation effort, and last week, the council approved a $3,400 budget for the group. The task force's report to the council on last year's water usage left members "very troubled," in the words of Mayor Ann Wengert, and determined to bump up the town's conservation efforts.
In Woodside, Councilman Ron Romines responded to the bad news on water usage, delivered by resident and Sustainability and Conservation Committee member Debbie Mendelson, by saying, "I think we, as residents, should be embarrassed and ashamed as water users." He's right, but the council appears to be much more timid than their neighbors in Portola Valley; members indicated that a study session or two might be arranged, but there was no direction on specific action.
It's hard to understand why increased water usage during a time that California faces a devastating and worsening drought wouldn't create a state of urgency among those elected to lead the way in public policy and governance. Some cities, including Livermore, have already enacted mandatory restrictions to curtail water use on landscaping, car-washing, hosing down of paved surfaces, and automatic delivery of water to restaurant customers.
Individuals must take responsibility in curtailing their water usage, but it's just not reasonable to expect voluntary measures alone to work.