Friday, March 28, 2014

California's draught is getting critical - but how can we help?

California has a history intertwined with precious natural resources.  First, it was gold that led people to go west, young man, establishing our home state around the epicenter of Sacramento and its well-panned hills and rivers.  Next, it was oil in the 1970’s and 1980’s, as shortages drove the most populous state in the country scrambling for alternatives to big cars and big power.  Now, it’s water shortages that pose the most daunting dilemma for our Golden State, a crisis so profound that it goes far beyond jut cutting back on watering lawns and turning off faucets around the house, and even a spell of good rain won’t solve this problem.  It’s an issue two decades in the making, culminating now with looming shortages so profound that water might be the most singly important issue this upcoming political season. 

The central valley and the seat of government of the world’s 8th largest economy are now some of the most affected areas, and experts are now screaming for politicians and the populace alike to pay attention.  Will the necessary adjustments be minor inconveniences or substantially impact our quality of life?  Will these shortages push us into a new green era of efficiency and sustainability?  Just how bad are the water shortages in California and the Sacramento region?

Last year was the driest in state history since records started being kept in 1895, and this year looks to be significantly drier.  One of the largest single sources of water for California, the states’s snowpack from Lake Tahoe and other peaks, accounting for one-third of the water used by our cities and farms, sits at only about 20% of its normal water content.  The water level in crucial reservoirs is even lower than in 1977, one of the two driest years on record.  Recently, a state spokesman announced that 17 rural communities were within 100 days of running out of drinking water if its current pattern of water supply and usage continued unchanged.  Even if it rained every other day through May, the drought still wouldn’t be alleviated because it’s been so dry the past two years.

Anecdotally, the impending water shortages are leading some to anticipate a modern version of the 1930’s Dust Bowl.  Governor Jerry Brown, whose reelection bid could be hinged to his ability to negotiate water shortage solutions, warned in February that the state was facing a mega draught. 

In January, Gov. Brown called for California’s to reduce their water usage by 20%, followed by emergency draught legislation that promoted the use of recycled water, among other measures.  Placer County declared a Drought Emergency on February 6th, looking for reductions of indoor water usage by 25% and outdoor usage by 50%. 

These water saving measures sound great, but rarely do they take hold and actually cause significant conversation.  At least, that’s the consensus based on the last legislation, 5 years ago when Gov. Brown called for Californians to reduce their water consumption by 20%, a goal we were supposed to hit by 202.  But new studies show we’re not anywhere close to achieving that.

There’s plenty of finger pointing to go around – homeowners for not having water meters installed on their homes, environmentalists for blocking new damn and waterway construction projects, and especially farmers, who still use water-wasting open irrigation techniques.  In fact, farmers are seeing the biggest consequences to this draught already, which supply about half of the countries fruits, nuts, and vegetables.  They’re proactively destroying certain crops, like almond trees, that are thirstiest.  It’s expected that half a million acres of agricultural and farmlands will go fallow over the next couple years because of water shortages, and food prices have already started to creep up, reflecting that.

So what might this look like to the average person?  Small measures – often interpreted as inconveniences – trickle down first.  Local governments have called for restaurants to stop serving drinking water unless specifically requested.  Driveways can’t be hosed down, cars can only be washed with water in buckets, and showers should be voluntarily shortened.  Hotels are supposed to wash linens daily only if customers specifically ask, and landscapers are being asked to plant only drought-tolerant plants. 

What are the best ways responsible citizens can do their part to cut back on water usage? 

Where do families and homeowners use the most water?

A typical three-bedroom single family home in California uses 174,000 gallons a year.  That's broken down as:

-Shower 17%
-Kitchen and bathroom faucets 9%
-Toilets 4%
-Clothes washer 4%
-Landscaping 57%
-Over watering 9%

Water saving solutions:

-Low-flow toilet $60-$200
(Saves 6.4 gallons per flush)

-Faucet aerators
Cost $2
(Saves 1.5 gallons per minute)

-Low-flow showerhead
(Saves 2.5-3.5 gallons per minute)

As we can see, rampant overwatering of landscaping and lawns is the single biggest wearer waster.  Consider watering manually, or definitely set the auto timers on your sprinklers for recommended watering days.  Take a weekend trip to Home Depot or have someone install low-flow toilets, shower heads, and faucet upgrades to cut back.  Additionally, it’s important to pay attention to the water-saving legislation already in effect.  California Senate Bill 407 calls for changes for homeowners by January 1, 2017 - all residential properties in California that were built prior to 1994 will be required to retrofit with:

-Toilets that use no more than 1.6 gallons per flush
-Showerheads with flow rates of no more than 2.5 gallons per minute
-Other interior fixtures that use less than 2.2 gallons of water per minute.

Data from the CA Homebuilding Foundation and CA Association of Realtors.

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