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Governor declares drought emergency while UC Berkeley, UC system seek to limit water use

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Managing Editor

JANUARY 17, 2014

Calling the state’s parched weather “perhaps the worst drought that California has ever seen,” Gov. Jerry Brown officially declared a state of emergency Friday as residents and public officials grapple with what is shaping up to be the driest year on record.

Brown’s emergency drought proclamation asks all Californians to voluntarily reduce their water consumption by 20 percent and orders state agencies to curtail their water usage and prepare for worse conditions. The announcement comes at the beginning of the state’s third consecutive year of severely dry conditions, which are already painfully obvious in California’s mountains: Snowpack water content there is at only about 20 percent of average levels for this time of year.

In his proclamation, Brown describes a dramatic scenario regarding dry weather’s impact on residents. He warns that the drinking water supply for many communities is at risk, that farmers can cultivate fewer crops than in previous years and that low-income workers “heavily dependent” on agriculture industry employment could suffer “heightened unemployment and economic hardship.” Animals and plants that need the state’s rivers to survive are also threatened, and the risk of wildfires increases as dry weather persists.

“The magnitude of the severe drought conditions presents threats beyond the control of the services, personnel, equipment and facilities of any single local government and require the combined forces of a mutual aid region or regions to combat,” Brown’s proclamation reads.

For its part, the UC system has already set ambitious goals for systemwide reductions in water use. One day prior to Brown’s proclamation, UC President Janet Napolitano announced  Thursday that the 10-campus university system is seeking to trim its per capita water use by 20 percent by the year 2020. The UC Board of Regents is scheduled to discuss the water consumption plan at its meeting next week in San Francisco.

“The 2020 goal builds on the groundbreaking water-related research that takes place on our campuses every day,” Napolitano said in a statement. “These efforts are critical to addressing the formidable water, energy and climate challenges facing California, the nation and the world.”

At UC Berkeley, campus officials have made a point of conserving water for years. In 2011, then-UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau set a campus goal to reduce usage of potable water — water that is drinkable — to 10 percent below 2008 levels by 2020. The campus currently uses more than 615 million gallons of potable water per year — 6 percent less water compared to 2008, according to the 2013 Campus Sustainability Report.

In campus residence halls, which account for a quarter of UC Berkeley’s overall water usage, consumption has dropped by 35 percent over the last 10 years when adjusted for the number of residents, according to the report.

“I have no doubt that’s in part due to some aggressive new steps taken by housing, as they’ve built new residence halls in that time frame,” said campus sustainability director Lisa McNeilly, pointing to water-saving technology installed in places such as the Maximino Martinez Commons. “There’s also been a range of behavior campaigns that have happened in the residence halls … it’s been a combination of technology and behavior.”

While the campus and university continue their efforts on a large scale, students can take several steps to reduce personal consumption of water as well. Installing low-flow showerheads, fixing leaky toilets, taking shorter showers and using less water during routine activities like shaving or brushing teeth are all ways of limiting usage, McNeilly said.

Such actions may become even more necessary as the statewide water situation worsens. The U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook, prepared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, projects the drought will persist or intensify through April. Similarly, Brown’s proclamation noted that “extremely dry conditions” have endured since 2012 and that they may continue “beyond this year and more regularly into the future.”

“This is a pretty severe drought,” McNeilly said. “This is not just the lowest amount of rainfall we’ve had in 100 years — it’s the lowest by a significant amount.”

J.D. Morris is the managing editor. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @thejdmorris.

JANUARY 20, 2014