Why President–Er, Governor–Brown Took Drastic Action on Water

Gov. Jerry Brown sworn in to record-breaking 4th term

On Wednesday, California Gov. Jerry Brown made national headlines by announcing that he had “signed an executive order requiring the State Water Resources Control Board to implement measures in cities and towns to cut the state’s overall water usage by 25 percent compared with 2013 levels.” It was a drastic action–not just because it is so ambitious, but also because it is somewhat unexpected. What prompted Jerry Brown to act now, and with such dramatic effect?

There are some simple explanations–and they are, as usual, the best.

The state’s severe drought is unprecedented in living memory. And April 1, the traditional end to the winter rainy season (remember those?), is a logical point at which to take stock of the situation. Plus, the 25% water cut is not exactly a new idea: as the Los Angeles Times noted Wednesday, he proposed a similar idea during his first term as governor in the 1970s, when the state suffered a drought almost as bad.

However, Brown’s gesture was a definite shift. Until last week, his response largely consisted of throwing money at the problem: an $8 billion water bond last year, another $1 billion (already allocated) last week. The state’s editorial boards came alive and began applying some public pressure.

“Lame doesn’t begin to describe Brown’s failure to show leadership” on the drought, thundered the San Jose Mercury News in an editorial last week, which called for more drastic action.

Brown is notoriously indifferent to the media. Last year, running for re-election, he granted few interviews and only allowed one debate with his Republican opponent, which reporters had to watch on TV.

But next year is a presidential year, and Brown, though 76, is thought to be considering a run. If he runs, he cannot afford to be seen as  “lame” when voters are thirsting for leadership. And the drought offers a perfect opportunity to show what an “executive order” is really all about.