ECHO LAKE, Calif. (AP) — California Gov. Jerry Brown ordered officials Wednesday to impose statewide mandatory water restrictions for the first time in history as surveyors found the lowest snow level in the Sierra Nevada snowpack in 65 years of record-keeping.
Standing in dry, brown grass at a site that he said normally would be snow-covered this time of year, Brown announced he had signed an executive order requiring the State Water Resources Control Board to implement measures in cities and towns to cut the state's overall water usage by 25 percent compared with 2013 levels.
The move will affect residents, businesses, farmers and other users.
"We're in a historic drought and that demands unprecedented action," Brown said at a news conference at Echo Summit in the Sierra Nevada, where state water officials found no snow on the ground for the first time in their manual survey of the snowpack. "We have to pull together and save water in every way we can."
Brown's order follows previous cutbacks imposed by the water board. It will require campuses, golf courses, cemeteries and other large landscapes to significantly cut water use; direct local governments to replace 50 million square feet of lawns throughout the state with drought-tolerant landscaping; and create a temporary rebate program for consumers who replace old water-sucking appliances with more efficient ones.
"We're in a new era; the idea of your nice little green grass getting water every day, that's going to be a thing of the past," Brown said.
The order calls on local water agencies to implement tiered water pricing that charges higher rates as more water is used and requires agricultural users to report more water use information to state regulators.
Brown's office said that would boost the state's ability to enforce laws against illegal water diversions and water waste.
The order also prohibits new homes and developments from using drinkable water for irrigation if the structures lack water-efficient drip systems. In addition, the watering of decorative grasses on public street medians is banned.
The snowpack has been in decline all year, and Wednesday's survey showed the statewide snow water is equivalent to 5 percent of the historical average for April 1 and the lowest for that date since the state began record-keeping in 1950.
Snow supplies about a third of the state's water, and a lower snowpack means less water in California reservoirs to meet demand in summer and fall. There was no snow at the site of Wednesday's manual survey near Echo Summit, about 90 miles east of Sacramento.
"It is such an unprecedented lack of snow, it is way, way below records," said Frank Gehrke, chief of snow surveys for the California Department of Water Resources.
Brown previously declared a drought emergency and stressed the need for sustained water conservation, but the Democratic governor has come under increasing pressure to be more aggressive as the state enters its fourth year of drought.
In the past year, the state water board has imposed mandatory water-saving restrictions on urban users that prohibit sprinklers running off onto pavement, bans residents from watering lawns two days after rain, and bars restaurants from serving water unless customers ask for it.
Wednesday's order has fewer provisions addressing the state's biggest user of water: agriculture.
There is no water reduction target for farmers, who have let thousands of acres go fallow as the state and federal government slashed water deliveries from reservoirs. Instead, the order requires many agricultural water suppliers to submit detailed drought management plans that include how much water they have and what they're doing to scale back.
After the previous drought, state officials acknowledge that some suppliers did not submit similar required plans in 2009. Mark Cowin, director of the Department of Water Resources, said the state will provide money to make sure the plans are written and may penalize those who do not comply.
The state is not aiming to go after water-guzzling crops such as almonds and rice the same way Brown has condemned lawns.
"We're not at the point yet where we are going to declare the irrigation of any particular crop 'waste and unreasonable use,'" Cowin said.