LOS ANGELES — For more than a century, California has been the state where people flocked for a better life — 164,000 square miles of mountains, farmland, and coastline, shimmering with ambition and dreams, money, and beauty. It was the cutting-edge symbol of possibility: Hollywood, Silicon Valley, aerospace, agriculture, and vineyards.
But now a punishing drought, and the unprecedented measures the state unveiled last week to compel people to reduce water consumption. are forcing a reconsideration of whether the aspiration of untrammeled growth has run against the limits of nature.
The 25 percent cut in water consumption ordered by Governor Jerry Brown raises fundamental questions about what life in California will be like in the years ahead, and even whether this state faces the prospect of people leaving for wetter climates.
This assumes, as Brown and other state leaders do, that this marks a permanent change in climate, rather than a particularly severe cyclical drought.
This state has survived many a catastrophe before — and defied the doomsayers who have regularly proclaimed the death of the California dream — as it emerged, often stronger, from the challenges of earthquakes, an energy crisis and, most recently, a budgetary collapse that forced years of devastating cuts in spending.
These days, the economy is thriving, the population is growing, the state budget is in surplus, and development is exploding from Silicon Valley to San Diego; the evidence of it can be seen in the construction cranes dotting the skylines of Los Angeles and San Francisco. But even California’s biggest advocates are wondering whether the severity of this drought, now in its fourth year, is going to force a change in the way the state does business.
Can Los Angeles continue to dominate as the country’s capital of entertainment and glamour, and Silicon Valley as the center of high tech, if people are forbidden to take a shower for more than five minutes and water bills become prohibitively expensive? Will tourists worry about coming? Will businesses continue their expansion in places like San Francisco and Venice?
“Mother Nature didn’t intend for 40 million people to live here,” said Kevin Starr, a historian at the University of Southern California who has written extensively about the state. “This is literally a culture that since the 1880s has progressively invented and reinvented itself. At what point does this invention begin to hit limits?”
California, Starr said, “is not going to go under, but we are going to have to go in a different way.”
An estimated 38.8 million people live in California today, more than double the 15.7 million in 1960, and the state’s labor force exploded to 18.9 million in 2013 from 6.4 million people in 1960.
California’s $2.2 trillion economy today is the seventh largest in the world, more than quadruple the $520 billion economy of 1963, adjusted for inflation, and the median household income jumped to an estimated $61,094 in 2013 from $44,772 in 1960, adjusted for inflation.
“You just can’t live the way you always have,” said Brown, a Democrat who is in his fourth term as governor.
“For over 10,000 years, people lived in California, but the number of those people were never more than 300,000 or 400,000,” he said. “Now we are embarked upon an experiment that no one has ever tried: 38 million people, with 32 million vehicles, living at the level of comfort that we all strive to attain. This will require adjustment.”
This disconnect, as it were, can be seen in places like Palm Springs, in the middle of the desert, where daily per capita water use is 201 gallons — more than double the state average. A recent drive through the community offered a drought-defying tableau of burbling fountains, flowers, lush lawns, golf courses, and trees. The smell of mowed lawn was in the air.
But the drought is now forcing change in a place that long identified itself as “America’s desert oasis.” Palm Springs has ordered 50 percent cuts in water use by city agencies, and it plans to replace the lawns and annual flowers around city buildings with native landscapes.
It is digging up the grassy median into town that unfurled before visitors like a carpet at a Hollywood premiere. It is paying residents to replace their lawns with rocks and desert plants.