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To avoid the ‘if it is yellow let it mellow’ toilet rule we need to ban new ornamental lawns
The San Luis Reservoir west of Los Banos is at 12 percent of its 2 million acre-feet of storage as of Wednesday. - photo by Photo Contributed

The canary in the proverbial coal mine is making croaking noises.

The Metropolitan Water District— the mother of all water California water districts — has issued a blasphemous decree in the heart of the land of swimming pools and endless green grass. Starting June 1, some 6 million Los Angeles Basin residents will only be allowed to water outdoors one day a week.   

And the worst is yet to come.

In declaring  water-shortage emergency, the MWD made it clear if the one-day a week mandate doesn’t work even with everyone complying all outdoor water use for landscaping could be outright banned as earlier as September.

If you don’t think the current drought is heading into extremely dangerous territory, the MWD announcement should be a wakeup call.

To understand how bad it is, take a trip down memory lane.

California in the past 20 years has experienced three stretches of short-term drought — 2000-2003, 2007-2009, and 2012-2016. We are now in a drought period that started in 2019 and shows no sign of abating.

The last 22-year period — based on a study published in February in the journal of Natural Climate Change — has been the driest stretch in the area we call California in more than 1,200 years.

The people who have been studying megadroughts over the past tens of thousands of years in this part of the world determined you have to go back to 1571 to 1593 to find a 22-year stretch as dire when it comes to precipitation in California.

That’s based on data gleaned by soil moisture as well as dendrochronology — the use of carbon dating to study tree ring growth. That carbon dating is of redwood, sequoia and bristlecone pine trees that  can live thousands of years with the oldest in excess of 4,600 years as well as tree stumps preserved at the bottom of lakes.

Megadroughts have been the norm in this neck of the woods for endless centuries.

They have always been caused by forces we now group together under the “climate change” moniker. It is what has led to at least three glacial periods in California and their subsequent retreats that left behind carved out wonders such as Yosemite Valley.

Yes, manmade climate change is helping move the dial.

But the reality is the solutions being tossed about are short-term answers.

Dealing with megadroughts require a long game.

Back in 1571 there likely wasn’t more than 20,000 people — if that — in all of California.

Today we a handful away from 40 million residents.

Yes, there were no dams and canals 650 years ago. But there weren’t also sprawling urban areas or irrigated farmland that supplies 60 percent of the fruits and vegetables currently grown in this country plus assorted other food.

Droughts have always been part of California. The worst in the 20th century were 1918-1920, 1928-1935, 1947-1950, 1976-1977, and 1987-1992.

After the 1918-1920 drought ended water deliveries in July in the South San Joaquin Irrigation District and the Oakdale Irrigation District —  its partner in Stanislaus River basin water rights — voters approved bonding for the construction of the original Melones Dam.

Voters had previously rejected such a bond for what SSJID leaders aptly called a long-term water solution. The drought prompted passage of the bond. The dam, completed in 1925, allowed SSJID and OID farmers to weather the 1928-1935 drought relatively unscathed while much of California suffered.

But the real watershed drought for shifting California’s water use patterns was not the 1918-1920 drought or the 1928-1935 drought that — with a huge uptick in farming — triggered the Great Dust Bowl in the Midwest.

It was the 1976-77 drought.

In terms of the lack of precipitation, it was the puniest of the 20th century droughts. It happened, however, with 22 million people calling California home. There were only  10.6  million Californians during the previous drought spanning 1947 to 1950.

There were many parts of the state where people had to stop flushing toilets unless it was absolutely necessary. It spawned the water conservation slogan “if it is yellow let it mellow, if it is brown flush it down.”

Marin County almost exhausted its water supply. At one point it had 120 days of water supply left despite having the toughest conservation rules and enforcement in California.

As the drought entered its second year, a six-mile, 24-inch temporary pipeline was placed on the outside westbound lane of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge in less than 30 days to being water in from East Bay sources.

The 1976-77 drought set in motion a flurry of state actions. The first low-flow toilets were required in new construction. Low-flow shower heads were required. Mandates were out in place to make sure washing machines sold in California consumed less water per load.

Conservation rules aimed at minimizing water use and maximizing its effectiveness were put in place. It included barring yard watering in the heat of the day when evaporation rates are highest and vegetation absorbs moisture at a lower rate as part of natural defenses to “close” its surface areas to protect it from the heat.

Those measures minimized the impact of the 1987-1992 drought.

The accumulative effects of those actions reduced per capital water consumption in the state by more than half by the time the 2000-2003 and 2007-2009 droughts rolled around.

Now with the second driest weather year on record since the 1850s when annual data started being recorded,  the low hanging water conservation measures are being maxed out when it comes to stretching our water supply.

We need to go after reducing outdoor water use like we mean it. More than half of the water a typical valley residence use is outdoors with the vast majority of that being soaked up by ornamental lawns.

Ornamental lawn needs to be banned now, not later,  for all new construction.

Next up, existing homes when they sell need to be required to replace ornamental lawns with landscaping that consumes less water.

The bottom line is California’s long-term viability as a place to live and grow food to feed the nation depends on us to adapt to the reality of megadroughts.

We need to stop ignoring nature’s proven track record of weather cycles that are driven primary by natural climate change with a little help these days from man.

This column is the opinion of editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Bulletin or 209 Multimedia. He can be reached at