Can California Conserve Its Way Through Drought?

With worsening shortages, the Golden State turns to water conservation. Will it work?

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.


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."

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.

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.

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