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Environment

Historic drought prompts California makeover

Beverly Hills, known for glamour and luxury, is getting a new look as residents cope with mandatory water restrictions. As further curbs are considered, Californians ask if urban water cuts are fair - and achievable.

Last Friday (22.05.2015), California water regulators accepted a historic 25 percent voluntary water cut by farmers in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river delta.

Meanwhile, the California State Water Board is poised to enact a sweeping mandate on landscape irrigation: It would limit outdoor watering to only two days per week for most residential and business customers. This would be the most extensive such restriction in the state's history.

In April, the ongoing drought prompted Governor Jerry Brown to issue an unprecedented emergency

executive order

that will force residents to cut their water use overall by 25 percent.

Governor Brown admitted that the 38 million residents of the state may face some "heartache." But since earlier voluntary efforts did not meet conservation goals, he now believes mandatory water regulations are the only way for the state to effectively cut water use.

The governor made the announcement as he stood on a patch of dry grass in the Sierra Nevada, which has been covered in snow since measurements were first taken in the 1940s.

"As Californians, we have to pull together and save water in every way we can," said Governor Brown.

Guzzlers and sippers

The cuts are proportional, and tied to previous use. That means that cities identified as water guzzlers - such as Beverly Hills - are facing even greater restrictions. The state has tracked residents of the posh city as using almost 236 gallons (893 liters) of water per person, per day. Residents there are required to cut water use by 36 percent.

Compare that to the city of Compton, also in Los Angeles County. The water sippers in those much less affluent neighborhoods used about 64 gallons per person per day during the same time period.

Close-up of water drops on blades of grass (Photo: DW, Lena Nozizwe)

Previuosly, lawns in southern California have been a fact of life for middle-class and wealthier residents - now, they may be unrealistically lavish

"It's very simple: poor people can't afford lots of water," said Madelyn Glickfeld, director of the Water Resources Group at the University of California in Los Angeles. "Poor people are careful [with their water use]. Rich people are not."

Brown is the new green

The Department of Water Resources says that statewide, on average, about half of the urban water is used for landscape irrigation. In green Beverly Hills, that figure may be as much as 70 percent. With grand mansions and often even grander lawns, the city of Beverly Hills will have to cut back on its resplendent landscaping.

"Turf is the biggest challenge for us," said Trish Rhay, assistant director of the Beverly Hills Public Works Department.

In a move that is consistent with other cities across the state, Beverly Hills has restricted residential watering to two days a week. Those sprinkling sessions have to before 9:00 am or after 5:00 pm, and may not last longer than eight minutes.

Even so, on a casual early morning stroll, it is not a challenge to find sprinklers watering the cement or small rivers of water running into the gutters of Beverly Hills.

Sprinkler water running down the street into the gutter in Beverly Hills (Photo: DW, Lena Nozizwe)

It's still common to see water being wasted in southern California

There has been an increased interest in fake or plastic grass, although some homeowners associations around the state allow only the real thing.

San Diego State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzales has proposed an emergency bill that would allow homeowners to use

artificial turf

.

Another option for Californians is to replace lawns with drought-friendly vegetation.

Other water restrictions are also hitting home around the state, and for

Beverly Hills

residents in particular, include bans on refilling pools, spas and ponds.

Agricultural water use reductions 'equitable'

Urban use, however, only accounts for about 10 percent of water use in California. Agriculture is by far the state's largest water-user.

While specific cuts for farmers were not detailed in the governor's April directive, growers in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river delta have voluntary offered to cut 25 percent of their water allotment.

They have done so in exchange for assurances that they will not face additional cutbacks during their growing season, which runs from June to September.

With more than half of the state's water going toward agriculture, California is the top agricultural producer in the United States, generating some $44 billion in revenue.

Glickfeld says there needs to be a balance between conserving water and conserving jobs. "I worry about the economic impact and people being out of work," said Glickfeld. She is concerned about businesses affected by the drought, from farmers to gardeners.

Even before the voluntary plan was announced, Glickfeld said that water cut distribution to farmers has been equitable compared to urban users. She sees the agricultural cuts as achievable.

New water order

"This is a serious crisis. We need to make sure everyone complies," said Rhay.

She also believes that the urban water cuts, even at 36 percent, are doable.

Beverly Hills dry street median (Photo: DW, Lena Nozizwe)

Dry medians: Beverly Hills' new look?

But Rhay said that first, residents need to be educated about the drought. They will need to understand that the mandatory water makeover means the garden city is going to have to get its act together - and update its look.

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