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In California's Fourth Year Of Drought, New Regulations and $1 Billion In Relief


Winter is coming to an end here in California. And you would barely notice it ever happened. This January was the driest on record since the state started keeping records in 1895. That means we are entering year four of a major drought with no relief in sight. This week, California's governor, Jerry Brown, announced plans for a $1 billion drought-relief package. And state water officials introduced water-saving measures for homes and businesses. Molly Peterson has reported extensively on the drought for Southern California Public Radio. She says these new restrictions are unprecedented.

MOLLY PETERSON: No state in the country has ever done this at this level. You can't water and have it run off into the sidewalk. You can't wash your car without a shutoff nozzle. The regulations they passed this week extend all of that for another nine months, and then also expanded to include mandating what already happens in hotels and motels and restaurants. You can't have water unless you ask for it. It's not just going to be at the table. And they're not just automatically going to change your towel. You're going up to ask for that, too.

MCEVERS: What kind of teeth do these restrictions have? I see water running into the sidewalk all the time. I see people washing their car without any sort of shutoff mechanism all the time.

PETERSON: You know, we see very little enforcement. In the city of Los Angeles, there were two $200 fines last year entirely. At the state level, the state actually has the power to fine water suppliers $10,000 each. They levied exactly zero of those fines last year. Everyone's been going with the carrot, not the stick.

MCEVERS: But yet we have seen some of the water use go down in cities. People have cut back, right?

PETERSON: For sure people have cut back. And the state anticipated saving about half a million acre-feet of water with these restrictions. We've done about half of that so far. We'll get maybe 80 percent of the way there with these current restrictions. But that's a very small piece of our water puzzle.

MCEVERS: Right. And explain that. It's not just about what people, individuals, you and me are doing. What is it actually about?

PETERSON: Cities are just one piece of the puzzle. There's also agriculture. We use a lot of water. We pull it out of the ground. Ground water, it's pumped into farms. We've expanded about half a million acres of farming in the last 10 years. And a lot of those acres are now going fallow.

MCEVERS: And so is there talk that that's really what's going to have to happen here? There's going to have to be less farming in California if there's less water.

PETERSON: Well, you certainly heard the politicians when they announced their drought package of legislation, because they can't make water rain. So they're going to rain down money. When they announced that legislation on Thursday, you heard more of a tone where they are responding to the public frustration. And I talked to at least some water officials who said it's totally possible we might see yet another round of tightening in California within the next several months.

MCEVERS: You know, I wonder if there's like a problem with messaging here. On the one hand, you hear officials say this is, you know - this is historic. We're in a bad way. But yet, every time I turn on my tap, the water's flowing. Do you think it would send a stronger message that sometimes you just don't get to use the water? I mean, is that the kind of thing that people need to really get them to change their ways?

PETERSON: I think it's hard for the public to take responsibility for this when they get very kind of confused messages, both from leadership in agriculture and from leadership in cities. This is really a problem of rich and poor. People who are wealthy can continue to keep the water flowing. The state is taking action to help the people at the bottom, who are the poorest. But they're not really bonking on the head of the rich people and making them behave in a way that treats water as a, you know - as a commodity, as something to be shared.

MCEVERS: That Molly Peterson - environment correspondent for Southern California Public Radio. Molly, thanks so much.

PETERSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.