By Sharon Bernstein
PHILLIPS, Calif. (Reuters) - California Governor Jerry Brown, acting in the face of a devastating multiyear drought, ordered the first statewide mandatory water restrictions on Wednesday, directing cities and communities to reduce usage by 25 percent.
The cutbacks, to be implemented by state and local water agencies, will affect consumers and businesses throughout the most populous U.S. state, but farmers, who are already making do with less water for irrigation, will be exempt.
"We're standing on dry ground and we should be standing on five feet (1.5 metres) of snow," Brown said at a state snow monitoring station in the Sierra Nevada community of Phillips near Lake Tahoe, where dry grass lay limp on the ground.
"This is rationing," said Brown, a four-term Democrat whose two non-consecutive stints in office have coincided with two of the state's worst droughts on record. "We're just doing it through the different water districts."
The governor said the move, which comes as California reports its lowest snowpack levels on record, would save some 1.5 million acre-feet of water over the next nine months.
Brown said he was ordering that 50 million square feet (4.6 million square metres) of lawns across the state be replaced with drought-tolerant landscaping and the creation of a consumer rebate program to replace old appliances with newer, more water-efficient models.
Different parts of the state will have to reduce their water use more than others, because some have already cut way back, Brown said.
Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the state Water Resources Control Board, said regulators would not hesitate to issue fines of up to $10,000 per day to water districts that do not succeed in implementing the cutbacks.
Many of the rules are still being developed, Marcus said, but among those already contained in the governor's order are a ban on lawns in new housing unless drip or microspray systems are in place.
RULES FOR GOLF COURSES
Commercial, industrial and institutional property owners such as businesses and golf courses will be required to cut their own use of potable water for lawns by 25 percent, according to the governor's order.
He also ordered the agencies that supply the state's vast agricultural sector with water for irrigation to develop detailed plans for managing water during the drought.
Farmers will not be held to the 25 percent reduction, officials said, citing the toll the drought has already taken on their supplies of water for irrigation.
Farmers have been deeply affected by the state's moves to release less water than usual from reservoirs during the last three years of drought, as well as on-and-off restrictions on pumping from rivers and creeks.
Farmers were forced to fallow thousands of acres of cropland last year amid high prices for water and a reduction in the amount they were allowed to buy from state and federal water projects in the fragile San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta.
Farmers are expected to fallow hundreds of thousands of additional acres this year, and pull out trees and vineyards that are irrigation-dependent, California Secretary of Food and Agriculture Karen Ross said in a conference call.
Brown signed emergency legislation last week that fast-tracks over $1 billion in funding for drought relief and water infrastructure within the parched state.
The proposed legislation would appropriate voter-approved bond funds to speed up water projects and programs and provide aid to struggling California cities and communities.Earlier in March, the Water Resources Control Board imposed new drought regulations, outlawing lawn watering within 48 hours of rain and prohibiting water from being served in restaurants unless a customer requests it.
In California, the drought lingers despite storms that brought some respite in December and February. The storms helped fill some of the state's reservoirs higher than they were at this time last year, but most still have less water than historical averages show is typical.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Dan Whitcomb and Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Eric Beech)