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In this May 3, 2014 photo, narrow roads run between Al Montna's rice farm showing the rice fields flooded with water and some fields left idle due to lacking legal rights to water in Yuba City, Calif.

A road runs between rice fields flooded with water and fields left idle because of scarce water in this May 2014 photo taken near Yuba City, California.


Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published June 13, 2014

As California enters the hottest months of the summer in the midst of a devastating drought, the state appears to be falling short of Governor Jerry Brown's calls for sweeping cuts in water use.

In January, Brown declared a state of drought emergency and called on Californians to slash water consumption by 20 percent this year. Three months later, he stressed that "the driest months are still to come in California and extreme drought conditions will get worse."

Some municipalities still have a long way to go to hit the goal.

San Francisco residents reduced their water consumption by about 8 percent between early February and April, compared with the three-year average for that period. Across the bay, customers of the East Bay Municipal Utility District cut their use by about 3 percent.

In San Jose, the state's third largest city, water use in the first quarter of the year was actually up over the previous quarter. That's because the unusually warm, dry winter caused people to use more water on their yards, says John Tang, a spokesperson for the San Jose Water Company.

The utility launched an effort in March to reduce water usage, particularly outdoors, that includes personal visits to heavy water users. About half of the water used by residences in California is used outdoors.

"We're optimistic we'll achieve the conservation target," says Tang.

Timothy Quinn, the executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, says the next few months, when water demand is typically highest and conservation efforts are likely to peak, will show whether the state can hit the target overall. "I'm guessing most areas are falling short, but it's a little too early to make a judgment," he says.

This year, the state is expected to have a water deficit in excess of six million acre-feet, enough water for 1.5 million typical households, according to a report released this week by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pacific Institute on the need for more conservation.

To fill that shortage, water agencies are turning to sources, such as groundwater, that are not easily replenished and may decrease the available supply in the future.

Kate Poole, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco, told National Geographic that water conservation efforts to date have "been a mixed bag across the state."

Poole, who co-wrote the NRDC's report on the state's potential to boost water conservation, adds that hard data are not yet available on how much Californians have actually cut back. "Anecdotally, it looks like some areas are doing better than others," she says.

Different Regions, Different Approaches

Lisa Lien-Mager, a spokesperson with the Association of California Water Agencies, adds that agencies are taking different approaches. "California is very diverse geographically, so folks have to look at their own water sources and take appropriate actions for them," she says.

The city of Santa Cruz, for example, relies on the San Lorenzo River for much of its water. The flow has been significantly diminished because of the drought. So the city has responded by rationing water.

More than 50 other water districts around the state have also imposed some restrictions on water use. The community of Lompico in Santa Cruz County has required users to cut back by 30 percent. The city of Long Beach in southern California allows outdoor watering only on certain days and restricts the amount of time the water can be on to 10 or 20 minutes, depending on the efficiency of the sprinkler.

Dozens of districts have called for voluntary cuts in water use, and some agricultural users have had their water cut off or restricted.

"There is no doubt that California's current drought is creating pockets of pain throughout the state," Association of California Water Agencies President John Coleman said in press release about a report released this week.

"Without water to grow our crops, we have less food to ship and less work at our usually bustling ports," Coleman added. "The drought's ripple effects can be felt in virtually every sector, not to mention its impact on this year's wildlife season."

Many Californians "want to save more water than they already are," says Quinn, who notes that the state has slashed per capita water use substantially over the past decade or so. Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had called for a reduction in water use of 20 percent by 2020, and much of the state is "well on its way" to that goal, says Quinn.

But Quinn also stresses that water conservation is "hugely important." He explains, "For a lot of folks the water just isn't going to be there, so they need to find ways to get demand down to the water that's available."

(See "5 Dramatic Ways California Is Tackling Drought.")

Many water districts have encouraged switching toilets and showerheads to low-flow models, provided incentives for buying efficient appliances, and discouraged wasteful practices. But the current drought has "really caught people's attention," notes Quinn.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California—which serves 19 million people in parts of Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ventura Counties—is about to roll out a $5 million media campaign to persuade people to use less water. This year the district also doubled its budget for conservation efforts to $40 million. A number of programs are offered, including rebates for efficient appliances and watering systems for large landscape projects.

Sacramento, the state's capital, is providing water meters to those who lacked them and encouraging people to replace their water-hungry lawns with drought-resistant native plants.

Map of California hydrologic regions showing the potential water savings for each region based on four different strategies: reuse, agricultural efficiencies, urban efficiencies and stormwater and rooftop runoff capture.
Note: Stormwater capture examined only in San Francisco Bay Area and the southern coast.


Getting Additional Savings

California still has "huge untapped potential" when it comes to water conservation, the NRDC and Pacific Institute argue in their new report.

Specifically, the state could save up to 14 million acre-feet of water with a concerted effort to reuse water, capture lost stormwater, and ramp up water-saving practices in urban and agricultural settings. That would be enough water to provide for all of California's cities for one year.

The NRDC's Poole says getting to 20 percent savings is "more than possible" with a combination of short- and longer-term investments. Most of the work can be done at the administrative level, she adds, although legislation that encourages efficiency and conservation wouldn't hurt.

The report first turns its attention to agriculture, which is responsible for 80 percent of California's water use. If farmers adopt the latest efficient technologies, such as drip irrigation and precise irrigation scheduling, they could slash water use by 17 to 22 percent. That's equivalent to all the surface water the Central Valley is expected to use this year. (See "Arizona Irrigators Share Water With Desert River.")

Such improvements have an upfront cost, roughly $2,000 an acre for drip systems, but Poole says farmers who have already switched are seeing short paybacks of a few years. Not only do they use less water, which saves them money on their substantial (and rising) utility bills, but many find their yields improve with more efficient watering, she says.

"I also think there is probably a lot of ability for state and regional governments to help with some of that initial investment by providing creative financing or cost shares that would speed up implementation of some of those measures," says Poole. (See "Can California Farmers Save Water and the Dying Salton Sea?")

If cities boosted their efficiency and reuse of water, they could readily save 5.2 to 7.1 million acre-feet of water per year, the report says, or more than enough water to supply all of urban southern California.

Earlier this year the state allocated nearly $700 million toward those kinds of investments, and some projects are already under way around the state. "Cash for grass" programs, in which residents are paid to replace their lawns with water-free plantings, have been particularly popular, says Poole. On June 3, the State Water Resources Control Board issued revised rules that make it easier to use recycled water for landscaping.

Poole says there is much work to be done, including ramping up investments in traditional water infrastructure and improving water-use data collection. But, she says, "with more concerted effort and policy support, we can easily get to that 20 percent savings and beyond."

Whether that will be enough to help the state get through the drought isn't known, but Quinn says it would go a long way. He'd also like to see more development of the state's emerging water market, in which different users sell water to others. But, he said, some districts may still have to implement even stricter restrictions on usage starting later this summer.

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

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Wendy Smith
Wendy Smith

I live in Northern California and I firm in my belief that the entire Western coast of the US has been sticking their heads in the sand and refused to see what MIGHT happen in the future of water and now it has. What are the big wigs in government getting paid for? They should have been pro-active and made plans before this happened. Many plans now being made but a bit late for this drought.

Rick McGivern
Rick McGivern

There is a way to provide the West with enough water for everybody and even restore enough flow to save the dessicated Colorado River Delta at the Sea of Cortez, an area two million acres in size that thrived with wildlife before the dams were built. Build a dike across the mouth of the James Bay in Canada and transition that body of water to a huge new freshwater resource via the many rivers that flow into it.Join the GRAND Canal group on LinkedIn to learn more. Canadian engineers understood that water needs to be treated as a national commodity/public utility rather than a local or regional resource. We build pipelines from Alaska to deliver oil, pipelines from the Gulf of Mexico to deliver natural gas and we ship coal from several states for electricity. California is the #1 farm state but we can't find a way to build water delivery systems from the snow-packed East to a parched West?Conservation is important but has its limits.


Stephen Atkin
Stephen Atkin

Hey California. You're next to an ocean. Do what Saudi Arabia does and convert your sea water into fresh water, then pipe it through your aqueducts. If you produce enough, you can sell the surplus to us here in Utah, and them in Colorado, Arizona, and Wyoming simply by working out a deal with those states, and piping the water directly into the Colorado and Green rivers. You can make back every a profit. If you get ambitious, you can pump extra water into the Colorado and Green Rivers helping Mexico and the Colorado Delta. It'll be a win all the way around and you'd be know as the saviors of the West.

ashley Pruitt
ashley Pruitt

I live in California and I guess the reason nobody told me were in a drought is because the drought never goes away just gets worse. When it does that will be breaking news. Which is why people who take a shower everyday or two showers a day confuse me. Heck someone who takes a shower then later in the day takes a bath is a selfish person.

Anyway some people just remove plants for there lawn altogether by putting down rocks. Not sure about replacing a toilet (or is it just replacing the inner components not the toilet? ) I just put a large rock in the water tank.

Michael Fullen
Michael Fullen

Reverse osmosis can help coastal communities decrease their water dependency on rainfall/snow pack. Yes it is expensive. Realistically the will happen as population growth stresses our supply.

Wayne Lusvardi
Wayne Lusvardi

Here is a California water statistic to consider.  

Every one acknowledges California is using about the same amount of water as it did in the mid 1960’s when the last primary storage reservoir was built and the population was about 17.5 million, compared to 38 million today.

This reflects a total water conservation rate of 50 percentage points over 50 years or 1 percentage point per year.  Environmental Water diversions do not conserve water. Thus, all the saving of water have come from agriculture and cities.

Agriculture has conserved about 80 percentage points of the conserved water since the mid 1960’s and cities about 20 percentage points.  So cities have already cutback 20 percentage points on average and agriculture 80 percentage points.

This raises the question whether cities, that only comprise 13% percentage points of total system water in a DRY year can cut back another 20 percentage points?  Twenty percentage points of 13 percent is 2.6 percentage points of potential water savings, The bottom-line 2.6 percentage points of urban water savings would reflect 1.72 million acre-feet of water which would be 28% of the 6 million acre-feet shortfall cited in the above article.  

We have to remember that most large cities have ample water supplies to weather 2 to 3 years of drought while it is mostly farmers who are asked to bear the water shortage.  And farmers have to pay for their share of water whether they receive that water or not, at least in the Federal Central Valley water system.  

In a typical DRY year Environmental Water diversions are 22.4 million acre-feet of water comprising 35% of all system water.  A six million acre feet shortfall of water mentioned above would be about 25% of the 22.4 million acre-feet allocated to the Environment. So perhaps the best place to look for water savings is with Enviro Water.  

S. Ophof
S. Ophof

California is just an insignificant drop in the global bucket of about 100 times too many people alive who use up resources that cannot be resupplied within 1 generation.  The solution is simple: kill 99 out of every 100 people alive.  Its implementation is impossible--were it even thinkable to do it without emotion.

Anyone thinking on a smaller scale is simply self-delusional, not willing to see the larger picture, the one that spans the whole world.

Turn more land into farmland?  Where do you get the water from?  Who pays the cost thereof--including the infrastructure--which is at least 10 times what it costs now.  Are we all willing to pay 90% of our income into what amounts to taxes--and cut the bureaucracy involved to 1/10 of what it is now? Hah!

Make car-pooling mandatory--4 people in every moving car?  Hah!

Cut down your electricity-use to 20% of your daily use--starting RIGHT NOW?  Hah!

Toss out all A/Cs, dish-washers, garbage-disposers, micro-waves, etc?  Hah!

WALK or bicycle to work?  Hah!

Move close enough so you CAN walk?  Hah!

Poole & Quin are so short-sighted they can't even see the end of their nose & are pandering to the gullibility of y'all.

eric edmonds
eric edmonds

It is difficult to identify with southern California's water difficulties as I look out my window in Maine to see the latest showers watering my garden: meaning if I am not living it perhaps I should not comment. But it appears to me that the crux of the matter is to arouse the populace. I like to believe that people are most often good enough that they will be supportive of conservation once they are clearly aware of the problem. But even though I am not there, reading about the issue will make me at least a little more conservation mined. I thank you for that, and wish you luck in your efforts. 


Doug L
Doug L

pray for el nino


My son lives across from SF and the area is not too effected yet but if the dry spell continues that will change drastically.   I hope the desalination efforts prove fruitful.  So much of the Western US is basically uninhabitable without moving water from elsewhere and with the horrendous overpopulation the area is in for some dark days ahead.

Charles Brown
Charles Brown

Deporting the millions of illegal aliens living in California would go along way to solving the water shortage.

Mike Wade
Mike Wade

Beware offers of easy money, rapid weight loss, and simple California water solutions. Environmental interest groups, like Pacific Institute and NRDC have sought for years to sell the public a message of vast waste, which when eliminated - will solve our every water woe. Unfortunately, this report is more of the same. Previous research on which agricultural water conservation potential in this report was soundly dismissed by leading agricultural researchers in 2009. There simply isn't 5 million acre-feet of water being wasted by the farmers growing our food and fiber.

Where appropriate, and as feasible, California's farmers are already investing in drip and precision irrigation, soil moisture monitoring, and irrigation scheduling. From 2003 through 2013 California farmers have invested about $3 billion upgrading the irrigation systems on almost 2.5 million acres.

Farmers are also intelligently selecting furrow irrigation, which, when coupled with laser leveling, adept irrigation practices, and careful monitoring has been proven by irrigation researchers to be highly efficient. Growers choose their irrigation methods based on the crop, the terrain, the geology, as well as economics. They manage that water to ensure optimal plant health, food and fiber productivity, as well as cost.

The water problems facing our state demand serious solutions. 

Mike Wade

California Farm Water Coalition


This article is inaccurate in that it states that farmers are responsible for 80 percent of the water use in California.  Farmers are responsible for approximately 40 percent of the water use.  There is another 40 percent that goes to wildlife habitat.  Here in the north state we have massive swamps that are not natural at all in what should be a desert in an attempt to keep the migrating birds happy.  

Fra Rei
Fra Rei

Rice in California.  What a horrible agricultural decision.

Wayne Lusvardi
Wayne Lusvardi

@S. Ophof

According to the California Dept. of Water Resources, the state gets 333 million acre feet of rainfall in a WET year.  Taking a 30% evaporation loss factor, that leaves 234.5 million acre feet (MAF) per WET year of rainfall. 

That is enough to support 1.407 billion people or about 78,167,000 acres of farmland.  

But cities take 7.7 MAF or 8% in a WET year, farms take 27.7 MAF or 28% in a WET year, and Enviro allocations consume 62.2 MAF of 64% in a WET year. 

It is WET years when California has to store up water for dry years.  Cities and farms have both reduced water usage by about 20% or have goals to do so.  Enviro allocations take most of the water in WET years leaving little for drought. Where conservation can help is in devising ways to conserve enviro water. 

A 2004 report, "Considering Water Use Efficiency for the Environmental Sector" by U.C. Berkeley, recommends that water conservation efforts should be targeted at Enviro Water too, not just city and farm water. Environmentalists also need to be better stewards of water resources wherever possible.  

The State Water Project contracts for about 4 MAF of water per year if I am correct. If California needs to have, say, at least a 3 year supply for drought planning that would be 12 MAF that has to be stored and not diverted to cities, farms or the environment. This is oversimplified because there is rainfall even in a dry year.  If the surplus is diverted to farms then some of that will end up in groundwater and recycled for re-use.  If it is flushed to the ocean for fish runs only a much smaller amount finds its way into the groundwater. 

12 MAF of water storage is only 5% of the rainfall in a WET year. It would seem prudent to build new drought storage reservoirs that would impound 5% of the rainfall, which does not appear to be a great loss to the environment. 

The former Tulare Lake once comprised 9,748,800 acres of land on average with 33 feet of water.  That would be 288,710,400 million acre feet of water that nature once stored in the Southern Central Valley.  Today we conservatively need only 12 million acre feet for drought storage or 4% of what Tulare Lake once held on average.  Why is California having such a difficult time then of planning for droughts?  Droughts are made by nature but water shortage are man made. 

S. Ophof
S. Ophof

@Charles Brown Let's assume 2 million illegals. That's 5%, an insignificant drop in the bucket of the 40 million Californians. More effective would be to reduce water-usage to 30% of one's use.

Even better would be to march 50% of the Californians like lemmings into the Pacific--1-way. Because nobody would submit to a 70% drop in water-wastage anyway, since it would cramp their life-style and enjoyment of the American Dream.  OOPS! Nightmare.

Get Clint Eastwood & the Gubernator to do something truly effective so they could really live up to their image from the movies.

A still-better alternative would be to live it up like there's no tomorrow. And then as soon as California really gets in trouble, close its borders in both directions: nobody in or out. Let them sort out their own mess all by themselves.

Larry Farwell
Larry Farwell

@D G Sorry to bring reality into the discussion but the Sac. Valley is not a desert, should have enormous natural wetlands and our refuges are attempting to keep the birds alive, not happy.  The San Joaquin Valley was also filled with a huge lake (Tulare) and wetlands everywhere along the many rivers that flow from the Sierra to the Delta.  About 90 percent of the natural habitat has been plowed under, filled in and converted to cotton, almonds, grapes, etc.  We are so sorry that D G doesn't get all the water (only 80 percent of the developed water for ag.) but some water in the north state rivers is hard to catch due to the geography.  Facts are a real problem when one wants to make a point that isn't accurate.

tao observer
tao observer

@LaMar Alexander where is the money and energy going to come from? In many cases generating electric power requires a lot water. Drastically reducing water-thirsty turf grass/lawns with a diverse mix of drought tolerant native plants would have multiple benefits (no mowing/gasoline/carbon emissions/pesticides, ecological habitat, aesthetics, shade). Conventionally, lawns are a resource intensive relic/remnant of the 50's that serve little of no useful purpose in most cases.  That is not to say small patches of grass is select areas near a home have to be eliminated where they are used - although there are still other alternatives (artificial or native grasses).

Sean Doherty
Sean Doherty

Geez! Thus gets old! Rice is grown in CA predominantly in the Sacramento Valley. Prior to civilization it was a seasonal wetland / inland marsh. Cal Rice now provides wonderful surrogate wetlands for the waterfowl that migrate through in the millions and California rice fields have been designated shorebird habitat of international significance! Which is why the nature conservancy, Audubon and point blue are all working together with California rice farmers.

Wayne Lusvardi
Wayne Lusvardi

@Larry Farwell @D G

My friend Larry Farwell, who I believe is a water conservation manager for a water district in California, is right that the Southern Central Valley once was an intermittent lake (but should have been called Lake Inferior).  I don't think even Larry wants to go back to the disastrous floods, loss of animal life and habitat, property destruction, and disease that came with the shrinking and swelling of that former inland sea. 

Additionally, Larry knows better that the California Dept. of Water Resources says ag uses 42% of "developed" or system water on average not the 80% figure he uses.  You only can get 80% ag use in a dry year by fudging the numbers.  Larry is not talking about "developed water" (his term) as the Larger Pool of water from which to measure ag use.  He is talking about urban and ag water use combined EXCLUDING environmental water allocations in a dry year.  

I will give readers the numbers from the DWR website of they can make their own calculations.  In a typical DRY year California has 65.1 million acre feet of "dedicated supply" of which cities use 8.6 MAF or 13%, agriculture uses 34.1 MAF or 52%, and environmental allocations are 22.4 MAF or 35%.  

But if you just consider urban use 8.6 MAF and ag use 34.1 MAF, and you EXCLUDE environmental allocation of 22.4 MAF, then you can contrive an 80% ag use figure.  

The important figure is not amount of water used in a dry year by only cities and farms (ignoring enviro water).  The critical figure is the proportion of water used in a WET year when California has to store up water for dry years.  

And during WET years Enviro Water allocations comprise 64% of the system water supply.  

Larry is a good guy and I hope he takes my constructive criticism as not personal.   Where he and I might agree is that water conservation has resulted in California using the same amount of water as it did in the mid 1960's despite the huge population increase since then.  I would like to hear Larry's opinion if we have hit the wall with conservation or we can continue DURING DROUGHTS with the existing system?  

S. Ophof
S. Ophof

@Larry Farwell

A fact is that one can reduce one's water-wastage by nearly 50% by flushing the toilet every 3rd time one pees. If it's yellow, let it mellow. If it's brown, flush it down. How come THAT system works very nicely in Australia, but in the USA it's unheard-of?

Wayne Lusvardi
Wayne Lusvardi

@S. Ophof @LaMar Alexander

That is the question the article poses. Above I have asked commenter Larry Farwell to give us his opinion as a California water conservation manager who is close to what is happening in the Central Valley if water conservation has hit a proverbial brick wall or not?  Stay tuned because Larry has personal knowledge that I hope he will share with everyone.  Larry, are you there? 


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