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While Some Lawmakers Offer Outdated Ideas for Drought, California Proves Power of Water Efficiency

Frances Beinecke

Posted March 17, 2014

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A few weeks ago, I got to see Californians experience something they hadn’t in a long time: a downpour.  It was a welcome gift, but it wasn’t enough. Even with the wet weather, roughly 90 percent of California is still in severe or exceptional drought.

California can withstand this drought—and the arid days ahead brought on by climate change—if it expands water saving measures. These solutions are already benefiting the state. Los Angeles uses the same amount of water today as it did in 1970 despite adding 1 million people.

Water efficiency, recycling, and other local supplies will help California flourish in a drier future. But some lawmakers are stuck in the past.

On Wednesday Congressmen Doc Hastings, Devin Nunes, and other House Republicans will host a field hearing in Fresno. They will complain about NRDC’ court victory last week that put science and health of the water supply ahead of outdated water management ideas.  And they will claim that if we strip away environmental protections for the Bay-Delta, build more reservoirs, and allow the agriculture sector to draw more water, then California can return to wetter days.

The truth is you can’t get more water from reservoirs that are empty. The problem in California isn’t environmental safeguards. It isn’t a dearth of storage capacity. It’s a lack of rain. Sacrificing the Bay-Delta ecosystem and building more canals and reservoirs won’t usher in the rain clouds or create more water.

The marina at Folsom Lake, February 16, 2014.

Concrete-heavy approaches were the preferred solutions in the 20th century when the West experienced the wettest time in the past millennium and California had access to plenty of rushing rivers. Those days have passed. California has damned all its major rivers, taken so much from the San Joaquin that it went dry in stretches, and overdrawn from a Colorado River that is running at record lows.

But California has another way forward. It can maximize the potential of its largest sources of new water: efficiency, stormwater capture, recycling, and groundwater cleanup. If the state fully tapped these resources, it could provide more water than California gets from the Bay-Delta. This is a 21st century approach to a changing climate, and it will make the state far more resilient than empty reservoirs.

Indeed, it already has. Homeowners across the state have seen how super-efficient toilets and showerheads, Energy Star washing machines, and drought tolerant landscaping can dramatically lower their water use. And San Diego, Long Beach, Los Angeles and other cities have seen the benefits of water recycling, groundwater banking, and rainwater harvesting. An NRDC report found that catching rainwater falling on rooftops alone could meet between 21 and 75 percent of the water supply needs of several major U.S. cities.

Cities have also realized that making efficient use of existing supplies is cheaper than building massive new infrastructure. It would cost $2.5 billion to deliver the same amount of water from the proposed Temperance Flat as California water agencies could get for $450 million from recycling programs.

Similar water and financial savings await farmers. Right now the agriculture sector accounts for 80 percent of all water use in California. While some farmers have invested in advanced systems to use their water more efficiently, over half of the irrigated acreage in California still relies on less efficient flood and furrow techniques. That presents a huge opportunity for the agricultural community to improve crop yields, maintain farm income, and save water.

California’s drought affects everyone in the state, from farmers to fishermen, business owners to suburban residents, and everyone has a role to play in using precious water resources as wisely and efficiently as possible. We can’t make it rain, but we can take charge of investing in solutions that help the state thrive—even when reservoirs run dry.


Photo credit: Jen Estro

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Wayne LusvardiMar 18 2014 05:51 PM

Groundwater cleanups are very, very slow and sometimes will never produced clean water in 100 years. This is not really a resource that can be tapped in a drought.

I wish the author had consulted a hydrologist before promoting more water conservation, which can result in depleting urban water basins. If a home is located on alluvlial soils over a groundwater basin and depends on imported water, then about 15% of the recharge water in that basin per year comes from watering lawns and landscaping. If instead, the homeowners plants a drought garden, or waters only once a week, or lets the grass so brown, the water basin won't be recharged and will eventually deplete. This sounds counter intuitive but check out hydrology studies of groundwater basins where the hydrologists use about a 15% recharge rate from urban vegetation. What does NRDC know better than a hydrologist? Also, water conservation means higher water rates because with fewer water sales the base cost of operating a water system can no longer be recovered from existing water rates. So it would be nice if the NRDC put a price tag of 25% higher water rates on the water policies they advocate in order to meet full disclosure requirements, something that even used car salesmen have to do.

Deirdre Des JardinsMar 19 2014 12:05 AM

We have enough water for California, but not if we try to spread it across every square inch of desert or alkali scrubland in the San Joaquin Valley and southern California. Yes, we can transform the desert into vast sweeps of golf courses and almond trees, but this large scale alteration comes at the cost of large scale devastation elsewhere in the state, and mining of precious and irreplaceable groundwater.

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