USA — Citing a third consecutive year of drought conditions, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger Friday declared a state of emergency and called on urban residents to cut their water usage by 20 percent.
The announcement could intensify talks in the Capitol about upgrading the state’s water infrastructure a contentious debate that has pitted environmentalists who favor conservation against proponents of building new dams to boost supplies. Negotiations in the Legislature have stalled repeatedly in recent years over the issue of dams.
The governor’s proclamation directs state agencies to expedite water transfers to needy areas, take measures to ensure water supplies to farmers and streamline environmental regulations for projects, such as desalination and water recycling plants, that could help alleviate the drought.
The governor said drought conditions are causing enormous financial harm to the state’s agriculture industry and businesses. Losses to California farmers could approach $3 billion this year, he said.
In an interview with the Mercury News on Friday, Schwarzenegger said the water crisis is “self-inflicted, it’s not mother nature’s fault” and said he hopes to convince opponents of new dams and reservoirs that “the emergency presents an opportunity,” including creating jobs. He also said the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which supplies water to much of the state, must be repaired.
“We have a water system built for 18 million people. We now have 38 million people,” the governor said.
Despite heavy rainfall this month, state water officials say there is only a 15 percent chance that California will replenish its diminished water supply caused by the past few years of below average rain and snowfall. Storage levels in the state’s reservoir system are at historic lows, they say.
Schwarzenegger in June declared that California had reached a state of drought. Friday’s announcement ramps up the sense of urgency even more, and could cause water districts around California to take more aggressive steps to clamp down on water use.
The Santa Clara Valley Water District board is expected to consider recommending mandatory reductions of 10 to 20 percent for customers, which include more than a dozen towns and cities, including San Jose.
An earlier voluntary drive to cut water usage by 10 percent fell short, achieving only a 7 percent reduction. Mandatory conservation could be encouraged with water rates that would spike once a home reaches a certain amount of usage, or with fines for watering lawns during daylight hours.
“Our board was already considering calling for mandatory conservation, and the governor’s proclamation will give them another reason to move ahead with it,” said Susan Siravo, a spokeswoman for the district.
The governor could impose mandatory water rationing by executive fiat and on Friday he held out that possibility in the future but for now has chosen to allow local water districts to pursue their own conservation efforts.
Jim Metropulos, a senior advocate for Sierra Club California, did not dispute that the state is indeed in the midst of a drought. But he urged Schwarzenegger not to use that as ammunition to renew his case for additional dams, saying the governor instead should launch a statewide water conservation campaign.
Dams would take years to build and face numerous court challenges, Metropulos said. “It’s not going to help us now, tomorrow or five years from now,” he said.
But Schwarzenegger, along with Republican lawmakers and Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, have called for additional dams to be included in a multibillion dollar water infrastructure bond. Conservation alone, they say, won’t solve the problem.