20% is Not Enough: Water Conservation in the Drought

Time for California to Embrace Water Conservation

 by Bruce Reznik, PCL Executive Director

Directives 1-3 of Governor Brown’s drought emergency proclamation directs the Department of Water Resources and other state agencies to embark on a statewide water conservation campaign to build upon the existing Save Our Water campaign that will encourage Californians to reduce their water usage by 20 percent. Local water agencies are called upon to begin implementing their shortage contingency plans, while state agencies were directed to immediately implement water use reduction plans for all state facilities.

While embarking on a comprehensive education campaign and asking for a 20% reduction in water usage is a positive step, it simply does not go far enough in light of the realities of California’s water situation and sends the wrong message to Californians about what our water future must look like.

First of all, reductions should be mandatory. While some local agencies and municipalities are already pursuing such mandates, the Governor must send a stronger message by requiring reductions statewide.

However, how reductions happen is critically important. Across-the-board cuts are a blunt and potentially inequitable instrument. Will reductions be uniform across all sectors and users, and is such an approach appropriate? During past droughts, many (if not most) agencies issued such blanket reductions. Such an  approach penalizes those who have already reduced water significantly (often disproportionately impacting low income and disadvantaged communities), while not addressing those ‘water hogs’ that could achieve far more significant reductions. Instead, water agencies should be implementing more nuanced policies that will disincentivize waste help ensure all Californians use water responsibly. While these decisions will likely (and understandably) be made at the local level, we believe the Governor can and should provide more guidance on how these reductions should be pursued to be most effective and equitable.

Another obvious question is whether 20% is enough; we believe the answer is a resounding ‘no!’.  The reality is that while Californians have already reduced per capita water usage significantly over the past few decades, we still use far more water than we need and is sustainable. Californians on average use over 160 gallons of water per person, per day. Visualize that for a moment – I would guess most people would be shocked to learn that they use on average more than 32 of those 5-gallon ‘Sparklett’s’ water bottles that many of us grew up with every single day. This is two to three times what most of the rest of the world uses, whether those other countries are wet or dry, rich or poor, urban or rural. This overuse is not only unsustainable, it is expensive, has other environmental impacts (e.g., runoff pollution), is energy intensive, and reduces water availability for a variety of other critical uses.

When Australia – once a relative ‘water hog’ country themselves – started facing a severe drought, they curbed their use dramatically in less than a decade. Consuming an estimated 127 gallons per day as recently as 2006, Australians today use between 40 and 60 gallons of water per day. This 50%-plus reduction in 8 years demonstrates what is possible with a big vision, and sufficient focus and investment. California has, by comparison, taken baby steps in the face of similar climate challenges – partly because our elected and appointed officials have not asked enough of its residents. In addition to residential and urban uses, we have to make the politically difficult choices to determine how agriculture – which is responsible for up to 80% of California’s water usage (depending on how calculations are made) – can also significantly reduce its water demands.

We have, for far too long, lived largely in ‘desert denial’ in much of California. We cannot afford to look at these drought response measures as temporary solutions until our water problems are fixed by a few storms. Instead, we must recognize today’s reality of diminishing snowpack, emptying reservoirs, and reduced flows that are likely to get worse as we suffer the impacts of climate change. We must look at reduced water usage as the new norm.

Perhaps most importantly, though, is that we should not shy away from this new paradigm. We should, instead, embrace the opportunity to live more sustainably and safeguard our communities against water interruptions that will only get worse as climate change impacts become ever more severe. There are a great number of things we can do to reduce our water overconsumption, and many of these strategies will create local green jobs, save money for the average consumer by eliminating water waste, and help revitalize local communities by developing diversified water supplies.

While the Governor’s drought declaration is an appreciated move in the right direction, it represents a small step for California, when a giant leap is called for. It is time for all of us– from our decision-makers and business leaders, to our farmers, ranchers and average residents – to get serious about conservation, and celebrate the opportunities this will provide to make California even more sustainable, equitable and livable for ourselves, and for generations to come!