California’s drought may not be your drought, but it will be soon enough


From the November 2015 issue of The Rotarian

In June, in the middle of the worst drought in California’s settled history, San Francisco did something bold that got almost no attention. The city passed an ordinance requiring all new developments of a certain size – commercial or residential – to install water recycling systems right on-site. Any new development of 250,000 square feet or larger will have to collect rainwater and gray water, clean it, and reuse it in the building or development for toilets, washing machines, and landscaping irrigation. New buildings with the recycling systems also will be able to sell this water to nearby buildings and developments.

With that ordinance – which passed the board of supervisors unanimously – San Francisco became the first city in the United States to make on-site water recycling mandatory. In the middle of the drought, the city was getting ready for the next one, the drought that will come in 2022 or 2052.

The drought in California entered its fifth year this summer. In April, for the first time in history, California’s governor, Jerry Brown, imposed mandatory water restrictions on the state’s water utilities, requiring residents to reduce their water use by 25 percent over 2013 amounts. In June, the first month in which this mandatory reduction was in force, residents surpassed that target, lowering municipal water use by 27 percent statewide, even though it was the hottest June in California history. In July, Californians did even better, cutting water use by 31 percent.

“It’s a different world,” Brown said. “We have to act differently.”

He made the announcement in a meadow in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where there would normally be 5 1/2 feet of snow on an April day. He was standing on bare ground. California gets one-third of its fresh water each year from melting snow, but in 2015, the snowpack was just 5 percent of the average, the lowest level ever documented. Ninety-five percent of the snow was missing – on top of the four driest years in state history.

California’s drought has been extraordinary any way you measure it. And because California has the largest economy in the United States, and has the largest population, and produces the most food – including half the nation’s fruits and vegetables – the drought has affected places far beyond Sacramento and San Diego.

But at the heart of this is an insight, largely overlooked: California has done pretty great in this drought.

The state’s economy is soaring – it has grown faster than the national economy in every year of the drought. California leads the country in creating new jobs, and it is attracting new residents faster than at any time in the last decade. Even its agricultural community – which uses 80 percent of the water the state requires each year – is increasing production and sustaining employment.

The way to plan for the turbulent future of water is by changing how people use it – not by hoping it will rain.

There are pockets of misery in the drought – communities where wells have run dry, where ordinary Americans struggle every day to get enough water, as if they lived in a developing nation without a water system instead of in the richest state in America. But the astonishing thing is how little impact the drought has had on the most important economy in the country. The reason isn’t that water doesn’t matter. Water does matter, and California has spent the last 20 years getting ready for this drought.

If you look closely, what’s really happening is that the state is pioneering a whole set of strategies and ideas that communities everywhere should grab hold of for themselves.

WITH THE WATER RECYCLING ORDINANCE, San Francisco’s officials were doing something rare when it comes to water: They were acknowledging reality, understanding that the way to plan for the turbulent future of water is by changing how people use it – not by hoping it will rain.

San Francisco has done this before. California’s last devastating drought stretched from 1987 to 1992, and once it ended, the city never relaxed its drought rules. Instead, it embarked on a determined effort to get residents and businesses to use even less water, permanently.

Today, two-thirds of all homes in San Francisco have low-flow toilets, extraordinary for a city of that age and density. Half of all homes in San Francisco have water-efficient washing machines. Since the last major drought, San Francisco has cut daily residential water use from 59 gallons per person to 49 gallons per person – less than half the U.S. average.

Scott Wiener is the city supervisor who wrote the water recycling law passed in June. “Water is kind of nuclear in California. We’ve been fighting about it for 150 years,” he says. “This is the time to take bold policy steps. A crisis has a way of opening up political opportunities to make policy changes that would have been unthinkable 5 or 10 years before.”

San Francisco’s efforts are mirrored across the state. California has a famously convoluted water system – the engineering is complicated, with river-size volumes of water moved from the north down to farmers in the Central Valley and the sprawling metropolises of the south. The state’s system of water rights and water law is equally complex, with farmers growing similar crops entitled to very different quantities of water at very different prices.

But in the southern cities in the last decade, a new ethic has taken hold: the idea that the cities need to strive for “water independence,” that relying on water imported from Northern California and from the Colorado River doesn’t make them secure, but dangerously vulnerable.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is the vast water agency that stretches from Oxnard, north of Los Angeles, to the Mexican border 200 miles south, supplying water for 19 million people – half the state’s population. Since 1990, the number of people in the MWD has increased by four million, but the district uses less water in 2015 than it did in 1990. Southern California has added enough people to fill Portland and Las Vegas without adding any new water. All the population and economic growth that’s powered the region in the last 25 years has been accomplished while conserving water.

Water conservation often gets trivialized – low-flow showerheads, faucet aerators – in ways that disguise its power. But Southern California is just starting to change the water culture. Although use of recycled water in California has doubled in the last 20 years, it still accounts for only an estimated 11 percent of total urban water use in the state. Even when it comes to rain, Southern California is just getting started. The region’s sewers collect all the water that falls on urban areas as rain – often in just a few storms a year, but in huge volumes – and rather than saving it for future use, the system dumps that water into the Pacific.

But there are signs that people understand that the world has changed, that the Southern California culture needs to adapt. This spring, the MWD announced a dramatic expansion of a rebate program that encourages residents to remove their turf lawns and replace them with drought-tolerant plants. Las Vegas pioneered such “cash for grass” programs. Southern California’s entire $340 million in rebates was spoken for in a matter of weeks – with homeowners committing to remove 170 million square feet of lawn, the same amount it took Las Vegas 16 years to remove.

CALIFORNIA’S FARMERS are a more complicated story. As a group, they have adapted with determination and creativity to increasing competition for water. They also have done real damage to the state’s water resources as they have struggled to survive the current drought.

In 1980, almost no farmers in California used micro- or drip-irrigation. Today, one-third of the state’s irrigated acres depend on these techniques, and the amount of land that is flood-irrigated – a practice as imprecise as it sounds – has been cut in half.

Putting water right where the plants are, as drip irrigation does, means that although farmers apply 20 to 30 percent less water overall, individual plants get more water, and fields with precise irrigation have dramatically higher yields. Between 2000 and 2010, California farmers increased the value of their harvest by 40 percent for a fixed amount of water – in part through smarter irrigation, in part by switching to higher-value crops like the almonds and pistachios that have gotten so much attention during the drought.

Ultimately water problems are local. For people who live in Chicago or Dallas, not eating California tomatoes and lettuce, or skipping the California wine, won’t help battle the drought.

But California has a long tradition of allowing anyone to pump groundwater from underneath their own land – not only without paying for it but without even recording how much they use. In fact, it is the only state in which groundwater has been largely unregulated. And in the drought, farmers are making up for the water they have lost under carefully regulated formal irrigation systems by pumping from wells – replacing about 70 percent of their missing water.

The unregulated pumping is over-drafting California’s aquifers, taking far more water out than will soon be replaced, even when rain does return. In some places in the Central Valley, the land itself is subsiding an inch a month or more because of the pumping, and the wells of towns and hundreds of homes have gone dry.

The farmers have been trading successful harvests in the drought for future water security. “People are counting on digging deeper and deeper into the ground, into the ‘water account,’ with the assumption that it will never dry up,” says David Orth, general manager of the Kings River Conservation District, which sits in the middle of the Central Valley, California’s agricultural heartland. “I’m not sure there’s much more room for resiliency.”

But here too, the current drought will prove to have been a turning point. In the fall of 2014, the legislature passed a far-reaching law that will not just regulate groundwater – it will permanently protect the state’s aquifers. Every aquifer in California will be mapped and measured, and farmers and communities will be allowed to pump out only the amount of water that will be returned, by nature or with human help. All groundwater will be managed as a permanently sustainable resource.

The sweeping groundwater law – considered the most advanced in the nation – is an example of how the crisis has opened the way for policy changes that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago, in a state where pumping groundwater has been considered a matter of personal freedom. Although the final rules balancing pumping and restoration don’t take effect until 2042, California farmers will have to adapt their practices again. California will have to pioneer ways to put rain and floodwater more efficiently back into aquifers.

WATER PROBLEMS CAN BE DRAMATIC, they can have far-reaching impact, but ultimately water problems are local. For people who live in Chicago or Dallas, not eating California tomatoes and lettuce, or skipping the California wine, won’t help battle the drought.

And while California has weathered the worst drought in its history with remarkable resilience, there is a limit to the state’s short-term adaptability. There’s no telling how long the drought will last. Since 2001, California has had only four wet years, or even average rainfall years. Californians may not be living in a drought. They may be living in their new climate.

Every community in the United States – indeed, in the developed world – has a water system, and every one of those water systems is at risk. But where the water seems to be flowing fine right now, residents may not see the risk, or want to – and that’s as true of water professionals as it is of ordinary people.

Any water utility should be asking three basic questions: How is the water supply we rely on changing? How would we cope if our water availability were 10 or 20 or 30 percent less than it is now? What can we do to build a cushion for our water supply and our water customers – can we teach people to use less, or create a second supply by reusing either wastewater or storm water?

If the answers to those questions are reassuring, then asking them is neither painful nor expensive. If the answers are scary, then asking the questions now is much less painful and expensive than it would be after waiting even six months or a year.

Those are the blunt lessons from the California drought that people anywhere – whether in arid areas like the Southwest or flush areas like the Great Lakes – should be taking to heart.

California has held up so well this time precisely because of all the slow but steady change in water policy and water attitude over the last 20 years. The state could be in crisis if the drought lasts another year or two – but it would have been in crisis already if not for the work already done.

And no one in California is waiting around for the rain to return. From the future skyscrapers of San Francisco to the future farmers of the Central Valley, Californians are putting in place innovative practices that will give their state a wider measure of resilience for the next drought.

Interested in water issues? Learn more about this area of focus at www.rotary.org/water, or get involved with the Water and Sanitation Rotarian Action Group at www.wasrag.org. What water issues affect your community? Is your club working to address them? Tell us about it at rotarian@rotary.org or at facebook.com/therotarianmagazine.



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