Low-flow shower heads and shorter showers have been common for three decades.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
LOS ANGELES — The city of Santa Cruz in parched Northern California is on the brink of going to a Stage 3 water emergency for the first time since 1990. That means cutting water use by 15 to 25 percent and stiff fines for those who don’t.
Sacramento is requiring 20 to 30 percent cuts in water use.
Folsom residents can’t water their lawns more than twice a week.
Seventeen communities in this state could run out of water in two to three months, which might require running pipes from one area to another.
The State Water Project, which supplies most Californians, last week announced zero allocation (except to maintain public safety) for the first time in its 54-year history.
The entire state is being asked to cut the flow of water by 20 percent.
In a state in the midst of a drought so severe — on track to be the worst in 500 years — it might be tempting to scoff at emergency measures that may result in a brown lawn, shorter showers or upon-request-only water in restaurants. But water experts and statistics indicate that the restrictions that surface every time the state is in a water emergency have accomplished astounding cuts in water use over time.
“Statewide water use has not gone up in 30 years in California, even though our population has gone up dramatically,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit water-policy research group in Oakland.
The nation’s most populous state had 20 million people in 1980. By 2013, the numbers had jumped 90 percent, to 38 million.
Yet “per capita use has seen a good 20 percent to 30 percent reduction statewide,” Gleick said. “Sometimes these behavioral changes stay with us.”
Changing human behavior — turning the water off while brushing your teeth or shampooing your hair, running dishwashers only when full — is half the battle. New technology, such as water-efficient appliances, and incentives to replace lawns with drought-resistant landscaping have cut water use without affecting lifestyles.
“Just look at the city of Los Angeles,” said Peter Brostrom, who heads the water-use efficiency section of the California Department of Water Resources. “They’re using the same amount of water now as they used in 1970. Yet there are close to a million more people in the city.”
The box of a 0.8-gallon-per-flush, ultra-low-flow toilet advertises potential savings.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
In 1970, toilets used 5 gallons of water per flush. Some new toilets use less than 1 gallon.
“We would be in a much more difficult situation,” said Brostrom, “had there not been an emphasis on conservation.”
A drought is often the best advertisement for conservation, said Don Smith, water conservation coordinator for the city of Folsom.
“The drought is good publicity,” he said. “In a non-drought year, if we want to advertise a message about conservation, we have to pay for it.” Now the message is being broadcast daily — for free — through intense media coverage.
Under former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state required every urban area to reduce water use 20 percent by 2020.
“Everybody has been working harder on conservation in the last decade,” Smith said.
Santa Cruz has imposed Stage 1 restrictions (5 percent mandatory cut) during the dry summer season three years in a row. This year, the restrictions not only weren’t lifted in the winter but got tighter. The city is now at Stage 2 (5 to 15 percent cut) and could soon go to Stage 3 (15 to 25 percent reduction).
“It’s been extremely effective,” said Eileen Cross, a community relations specialist for the city. “We have a very motivated population pretty ingrained in conservation.”
Santa Cruz residents used an average 174 gallons per person per day in the 1970s. Now it’s down by almost half, to 96 gallons a day.