Editorial: Drought? What drought?

A plant stands over desert sands near Lone Pine, Calif. as a series of strong storms moves into California on Jan. 8, 2017.
A plant stands over desert sands near Lone Pine, Calif. as a series of strong storms moves into California on Jan. 8, 2017.
(David McNew / AFP / Getty Images)

At about this time last year California was reveling in good news: The drought was over. Some parts of the state actually had so much water they were flooding. The governor ultimately lifted emergency regulations that restricted things like watering lawns during a rainstorm or letting the hose spew into the gutter while soaping down the car.

And now for the bad news, and it may not be what you think: There may never have been a drought in the first place.

After all, a drought is an extended but still limited period of abnormally low precipitation that makes it necessary to set aside, for a time, daily water use habits in favor of emergency privations. And then it ends, and we go back to normal.


If drought itself is normal, though, it’s not really drought. It’s just dry. The current arid winter that is leaving much of the state with desiccated forests and diminished snowpacks looks very much like every other winter over more than a decade, if you leave out the wet seasons last year and in 2011. This has become what normal looks like. California as we know it may have been populated and developed, and its water habits established, during an abnormally wet period that may have reached its end, many scientists now believe.

On Tuesday, the State Water Resources Control Board considered but delayed putting the water restrictions back in place, this time on a permanent basis, without the need for a declaration from the governor. Perhaps Brown shouldn’t have lifted them at all.

How rigid and oppressive are the proposed restrictions? Of course they bar residents from watering their lawns so much that the water runs into the street. That’s just common sense and good manners. The real question ought to be why a homeowner insists on growing such a thirsty crop.

As to the other banned actions — washing down driveways and sidewalks, washing a car without a shutoff nozzle, running an ornamental fountain without a recirculating system (Really? There are people who just hook up their fountains to their hoses, turn on the faucet and let it run?), watering landscapes right after it rains — there is nothing particularly onerous. Even in a rainforest there ought to be restrictions against any such childish squandering of resources.

Cities and counties have until 2025 to comply with a regulation to stop watering street medians that have no recreational or civic function. And hotels have to keep asking guests to opt out of daily laundering of sheets and towels. These are all fine first steps that, frankly, many Californians surely believed the state had already taken. Dry times have helped residents get ready for this and much more.

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