The Riggs Report: No drought of news about the drought

Water crisis promises to dominate 2015 at the Capitol

Gov. Jerry Brown’s meeting this week with agricultural and urban water officials and environmental leaders is just the latest sign that California’s Capitol has traded, for now, a fiscal crisis for a water crisis.

For many years, balancing the budget and trying to stem rivers of red ink has been the dominant conflict playing out in Sacramento. That conflict hasn’t faded entirely, of course—there are upcoming tough talks about whether California should hold the line on spending cuts, or restore funding to social services and health care.

That struggle will never go away for the remaining three years of Brown’s final term as governor.

In the meantime, the economic recovery continues to build. The California Department of Finance reported in March that tax revenues were $633 million above projections, while the jobless rate dipped below 7 percent for the first time since 2008.

In 2015, the dominant issue isn’t a lack of money, but rather a lack of something that can’t be printed. The water crisis is real, and will affect lifestyles and pocketbooks. It’s why Brown opened the water meeting at the Capitol to news cameras. It’s also why Brown traveled to Phillips Station, off Highway 50 near Lake Tahoe, last week to take part in the state’s April snow survey.

In all the years that I covered politics at the Capitol, I can’t recall a time when a governor ventured to the Sierra to participate in one of these snow surveys. They are typically routine affairs. But Brown understands news coverage very well. His presence guaranteed heavy turnout and an increased profile for the drought issue, as well as coverage of steps his administration is taking.

Reporters and news crews who showed up were not disappointed. The Phillips Station survey was bone-dry, for the first time since record keeping began in 1941. And Brown used the occasion to announce an executive order calling for a 25 percent mandatory reduction in urban water use, along with financial incentives to replace lawns and thirsty appliances.

I was in Utah’s Wasatch Mountain range last week, and was struck by the contrast. The ski season there was still going strong, compared to most of the now-closed Tahoe resorts. Much of the talk I heard in Utah was about California’s drought.

Brown’s announcements were big news. But they also reflect an effort to deal with the problem more consistently. California’s droughts have traditionally been part of a boom-and-bust cycle. I remember well when then-Gov. Schwarzenegger issued a statewide drought emergency order in 2009, telling state agencies to reduce landscape irrigation, and seeking more conservation by urban users.

Just two years later, Brown lifted that drought order after a wet winter that replenished the snowpack and filled the state’s reservoirs.