On April 7th, after one of the wettest winter seasons the state has ever seen, Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order, formally announcing the California drought over except in 4 counties: Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Tuolumne. This was a historic drought. On this day when the drought was announced over, Californians can feel proud that they put in the effort, and met the challenge successfully. A reservoir in Northern California, at the time of the announcement:
California Drought, and the Drought Emergency
Before this announcement, California had endured a 5-year drought, “worst in the recorded history”. Prior to 2017, 2011 was the last year when the state’s snowpack water content went above average (165%). After it, from 2012 to 2016, water contents were way below average except 2016. At its lowest point, in 2015, it was only 5% the normal level. The same reservoir, less than a year ago: At the beginning of 2014, Governor Brown made the first drought emergency declaration, calling on Californians to reduce their water usage by 20 percent. However, water savings from this voluntary conservation effort fell far short of the target. The savings achieved was only 9%. In April 2015, facing a drought that was not seen before in the state’s history, Governor Brown made the second emergency declaration. This time, he made it mandatory, which was the first time, that urban water usage be reduced by 25%. This time, it worked.
Landscape Water Use Reduction Key to Achieving Goal
In the executive order, right after the 25% goal, Gov. Brown asked the state and local governments to “lead a statewide initiative…to collectively replace 50 million square feet of lawns and ornamental turf with drought tolerant landscapes.” The State Water Board’s Resolution made it clear that outdoor water usage reduction is the top priority in achieving the 25% goal: From “STATE WATER RESOURCES CONTROL BOARD RESOLUTION NO. 2015-0032”: “The current emergency regulation has supported Californians’ water conservation efforts, with over 125 billion gallons saved from August 2014 through March 2015; however, statewide water use is only nine percent less than the same months in 2013. Achieving a 25 percent reduction in use will require even greater conservation efforts across the state. In particular, many communities must dramatically reduce their outdoor water use;” “In many areas, 50 percent or more of daily water use is for lawns and outdoor landscaping. Outdoor water use is generally discretionary, and many irrigated landscapes will survive while receiving a decreased amount of water;” “Water conservation is the easiest, most efficient and most cost-effective way to quickly reduce water demand and extend supplies into the next year, providing flexibility for all California communities. ” After the mandate, Californians stepped up the effort. Many of them stopped watering their lawns and just let them turn brown. “Brown is the New Green” signs popped up everywhere. The mandate was effective immediately: water saving jumped from 13.7% in April to 29% in May, the first month the mandate was implemented.
Not Just “Brown Lawn”, But Water Efficient Garden
While a brown lawn did save water, it was far from ideal. For one thing, it was a big eye sore for the community. Aesthetics aside, a water efficient landscape provide these huge benefits that a brown lawn does not:
- Provide food for bees, birds and other pollinators, which is critical for the Agriculture industry: bees rely on pollen and nectar to live, without enough flowers to feed on they can starve to death. In recent years the bees’ population has been on such a serious decline, to the point some bees declared as endangered species. Water efficient gardens, with its abundance of native plants, provide a great habitat for the bees and other pollinators, helping to stem the decline;
- Improve soil quality and water holding capacity: water efficient gardens use native plants heavily, which are adapted to California’s dry conditions. They have roots that tend to go very deep, which can aerate the soil, create tunnels and spaces that greatly increase the soil’s water holding capability. This can help plants better deal with drought, and reduce the volume and force of flood in wet season. The dead roots can add organic matters deep in the soil, adding nutrients and enhance its quality;
- Add color and richness to the view of a house. There are all kinds of drought tolerant plants that sport different height, structure, texture and colors; when designed well they make a lively and beautiful view, with changing colors of the season. A water efficient garden is like a miniature nature that one can enjoy all the time from the comfort of the house.
As the executive order directed, after mandate, a statewide campaign to “replace lawns with drought tolerant landscapes” went underway. Water agencies and companies across the state offer all kinds of rebate programs to encourage the conversion. In most places, the program became a hit with people lining up for the application, and funds depleted in a short time. This is a turf that successfully went through conversion and received rebate.
22.5%: Water Saving Achieved
2 years after the executive order, with another historic winter season, this time for deluge, the Governor announced that most of the state is out of drought. During the 2 years, the lawn to drought tolerant landscape program has successfully achieved its target and helped the state conserve water to deal with one of the worst droughts in history.
- The water saving target in Gov. Brown’s mandate is 25%; In February, urban Californians’ monthly water conservation is 25.1%. The cumulative statewide savings from June 2015 through February 2017 is 22.5 percent, 90% of the target.
- The turf conversion target in the executive order is 50 million square feet of turf, or roughly 1.8 million square miles; Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) alone converted 5 square miles , 2.8 times the state’s target; Santa Clara Water District converted 8.1 million square feet from 1/1/2014 to 6/30/2016.
- Since June 2015 to Feb 2017, 2.6 million acre-feet of water has been saved, enough to supply exceeding a third of the state’s population for a year.
“Conservation Must Remain a Way of Life”
When Governor Brown declared the drought over in most of the state, he also made it clear that “Conservation must remain a way of life”. Even though the drought is no longer in place, the groundwater and the ecosystem will take a long time to recover. They need a constant supply of abundant water over the next decade or longer for their recovery. With climate change and increased population, water the resource will become more scarce relative to its demand. We must continue to conserve water. Replacing a lawn with a water efficient garden, as experiences from this drought proved, can be a highly effectively step in achieving it.