After more than a decade of generous rainfall and healthy river flows, the dry years are back. Much of the state, notably Southern California, has been experiencing . The major reservoirs along the Colorado River are less than half full. Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada last winter was half of normal, and meteorologists say we may be headed into another dry winter despite this weekend’s rain.
The possibility of water shortages has spurred more talk than action. Despite holding a special session on water, Sacramento lawmakers did not come up with a borrowing bill to pay for new dams, additional storage space and fixing up the levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin . Meanwhile, a coalition of business, labor, agricultural and water leaders recently said it was going to push for bond proposals to finance new dams.
Fortunately, there are cheaper, quicker and greener alternatives to huge, expensive water projects. But this requires rethinking how to manage and consume our water.
We’ve learned over the years how powerful the actions of individuals, industry and farmers can be at reducing water use. The simple act of setting efficiency standards for toilets and shower heads, or replacing flood irrigation with drip irrigation, has saved us billions of gallons. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, individual Californians use 40% less water today than they did 30 years ago, a truly remarkable achievement that’s received far too little attention.
But our conservation and water-efficiency programs are faltering and need to be reinvigorated. One place to start is with thirsty appliances -- dishwashers and clothes washers, in particular -- that still lack water efficiency standards. On average, washing machines account for 14% of water use in the home. Efficient washers already on the market can cut this use in half. If traditional machines were replaced with the more efficient models, the savings could amount to 33 billion gallons of water a year, according to estimates by the Pacific Institute. That’s enough water to provide for the total household needs of more than 600,000 Californians annually.
These efficient washing machines also reduce hot water consumption, saving enough energy to power 85,000 California homes, according to institute estimates. Even better, they can save homeowners more than $400 in water and energy costs over the machine’s lifetime, compared with the old top-loading washers. Cumulatively, these kinds of improvements can postpone -- even eliminate -- the need to impose draconian measure during water shortages.
Unfortunately, while California has passed tougher clothes washer regulations, the federal government is blocking their implementation. The state, in turn, has sued the Department of Energy to let it let us save water and energy.
We also have to take a hard look at our gardens and agricultural fields. As development in California pushes inland, houses are being built in the hottest, driest areas of the state. A person in a single-family home in Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District consumes more than 60 gallons outdoors daily, mostly to water the lawn. That number rises rapidly as you travel inland, where up to 80% of households’ total water use is applied to thirsty lawns. Nearly all of this water evaporates and cannot be captured for reuse locally.
Vast expanses of lawn don’t belong in California. Replacing grass with low-water gardens would cut our water use substantially. So would replacing inefficient irrigation methods used to grow water-intensive crops.
When all the savings achievable using existing technology are combined, water use in the year 2030 could be 20% below current levels and still support a growing population, a vibrant economy and a healthy agricultural sector, according to estimates done by the Pacific Institute. But we can’t wish our way there, and our water agencies have yet to adequately put us on that path.
Education and economic incentives can alter people’s water-use habits, but tougher regulations, more stringent water efficiency standards and better management and oversight by water agencies will also be necessary. The State Water Resources Control Board has the authority to enforce the state constitutional requirement that water be beneficially used in California. To that end, the board should rethink the question of whether plantation-style lawns, flood irrigation practices and unlimited cultivation of such thirsty crops as cotton still constitute a beneficial use of water in a state whose population and development are rapidly growing and when global warming poses new threats to our water supplies.
Improving the efficiency of our water use can yield more water than new dams, more quickly and at far less cost than the water bond proposals being kicked around. Lack of water isn’t our problem. Rather it’s our lack of proper management of the water we’re already paying for, and a lack of vision and diligence on the part of our leadership.
Peter Gleick, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a MacArthur fellow, is president and co-founder of the Pacific Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank.