Water conservation is no joke in drought-ridden California

Reduction efforts taken to heart; state's water use same now as 30 years ago despite near doubling of population

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.”

Historical problem

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.

Lessons of the past

For sixth-generation Californian Indi Young, 48, saving and recycling water is a way of life.

“When I was a kid, we had this drought and we were not watering the lawn, we were piping water from the washer to the garden,” said Young, a software design researcher.

But she realizes not everyone is as aware when she travels and sees stickers on airport and hotel bathroom mirrors reminding people to conserve, or when she hears the showers flow uninterrupted in her gym’s locker room.

Water saving is part of Young’s lifestyle. Drought or no drought, she turns off the water in the shower when she’s lathering up. If she takes a bath, the water is directed to the garden through a “gray water” system. Same goes for the washing machine.

When the Marin Municipal Water District asked for a 25 percent cutback two weeks ago, “I decided to stop taking showers four days a week, and just use a washcloth at the sink instead.”

She sacrificed personal care to help save her garden and young fruit trees from dying of thirst.

Simple steps

Landscape irrigation accounts for more than 50 percent of water used by a single-family residence, according to Sarah Foley, deputy director of the California Urban Water Conservation Council.

“This is why so much effort is being made now on reduction of outdoor use,” she said in an email to Al Jazeera.

“That’s really the biggest area that needs to be changed,” said Brostrom, of the state’s Department of Water Resources. “It hasn’t been emphasized enough. People will think of taking shorter showers, but when sprinklers go off, they’re the equivalent of 20 shower heads in their yards.”

The carrot-and-stick approach works in many communities.

Los Angeles’ Department of Water and Power, for example, has upped the incentive to “cash in your lawn” from $1.50 a square foot to $2 a square foot to replace grassy lawns with less thirsty shrubs and surfaces.

In Sacramento, the Regional Water Authority estimates that residents could save almost 115,000 acre-feet of water per year (more than 37 billion gallons) just by using outdoor water more efficiently and eliminating water waste. Changing to landscaping more appropriate for California’s climate can save even more.

Something as simple as shutting off the faucet while brushing teeth can save 10 gallons a day. Multiply that by millions of people, and the gallons add up.

“In the long run, we really want to change our inefficient fixtures and inefficient technology,” Gleick said. “The permanent changes are really important because they don’t depend on behavior. You cut use without changing what we do.”

Rain is predicted this week.

“Hopefully, it hits us here,” Mendocino County Supervisor Carre Brown said, comparing the severity of this drought with one of the worst in the state’s recent history. “We may be looking at 2 inches. Every little bit helps, but it would take 13 inches of rain to catch up to where we were in the drought years of ’76–’77.” 

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