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California Agencies Send Mixed Signals On Drought Conditions


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We'll start the program in California today, which could be entering its fifth year of drought. The state is getting ready for what is expected to be another hot, dry summer. Gov. Jerry Brown has signed an executive order saying drought is, quote, "becoming a regular occurrence," unquote, for Californians. At the same time, some parts of the state have had rain this spring, and so water authorities have been allowing some communities to relax certain restrictions on water use. All this has led to some confusion about what all this means for California, so we've called Sanden Totten to help us sort things out. He's a reporter from member station KPCC in Pasadena. Sanden, thanks so much for joining us.


MARTIN: So we said this could be the fifth year of drought. Why do we say could be?

TOTTEN: Well, in California we kind of measure all things precipitation by what we call the water year, which starts in October and ends the following September. So, you know, we're coming into the dry months now in the summer. It's hard to tell if you're in a drought or not because we don't get a lot of rain anyway. It's that winter and spring period that we really look to to see whether or not we met our targets for rain.

MARTIN: Well, this past Monday, Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order making certain emergency water restrictions from the past few years permanent. Can you tell us what are some of the - some of those measures that stand out or that people are likely to find impactful?

TOTTEN: Yeah. So we've had some things that we banned that are not going to be permanent, including, you know, over-watering your lawn so that water runs into the street, watering lawns 48 hours after it rains. Also, no longer can you wash cars without using a hose that has a shutoff valve or spray down your sidewalk.

MARTIN: But there's also some confusion because at the same time, the State Water Resources Control Board just rolled back some of the strict efficiency goals. So what are some of the restrictions that state officials are rolling back that people might notice?

TOTTEN: Last year, if you went to a restaurant or hotel they wouldn't serve you water unless asked for it. Now they will pour you glasses willy-nilly as soon as you sit down. But maybe a bigger deal for most people is the fact that the water districts that serve all the customers and supply the water to our hoses and our houses, they are no longer going to have to meet these strict conservation targets. Now the State Water Board is basically saying you still have to save, but you can set your own goals based on some criteria. What they said was basically these districts will have to basically imagine three years from now, if the drought kind of continued at the same pace, how much water they would need to borrow to meet the demand.

MARTIN: Nearly 90 percent of the state remains in moderate drought or worse, so why ease water restrictions at all?

TOTTEN: You know, the story of El Nino is that it didn't deliver the Godzilla rains that a lot of people had been predicting, but parts of the North did get a lot of precipitation. So there are parts of the state that have actually gone out of drought. Other parts are still really thirsty, and we need rules that can kind of keep both of them in the same state happy.

MARTIN: Just - overall, can you just give us a sense of how Californians are adapting to this new reality?

TOTTEN: Well, for the most part the state's done really well over the last year. When we were really trying to cut back, we managed to reduce our water usage by 24 percent. But, you know, drought fatigue is real. People are getting to this point where they're wondering, can I start taking longer showers? It's really an ongoing challenge that the state has to remind people that we just need to enter this new world of being smarter about water. And we're trying. You know, all of us are trying. I still take shorter showers, but once in a while I still also dream of taking that 20-minute shower that I used to.

MARTIN: Sanden Totten is a reporter from member station KPCC in Pasadena, Calif. Sanden, thank you so much for speaking with us.

TOTTEN: It was really fun, thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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