The issue: The state must focus on longer-term policies that encourage people to alter their lifestyles and businesses to change how they operate
California is in the third year of its worst drought in decades. But you wouldn’t know it by looking at how much water the state’s residents and businesses are using.
According to a recent state survey, Californians cut the amount of water they used in the first five months of the year by just 5 percent, far short of the 20 percent reduction Gov. Jerry Brown called for in January. In some parts of the state, like the San Diego area, water use has actually increased from 2013.
WITHOUT MUCH stronger conservation measures, the state, much of which is arid or semiarid, could face severe water shortages if the drought does not break next year. Los Angeles recently recorded its lowest rainfall for two consecutive years, and climate change likely will make drought a persistent condition, according to the National Climate Assessment report published in May.
Yet, even now, 70 percent of water districts have not imposed reasonable mandatory restrictions on watering lawns and keeping backyard pools filled. The State Water Resources Control Board announced restrictions and fines last week on some outdoor water uses like washing paved surfaces.
California’s agriculture sector is the largest in the country, and it accounts for about 80 percent of the state’s water use. Even a small percentage reduction in the fields could have a sizable effect on total water consumption.
A recent report by the Pacific Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that agricultural water use could be reduced by up to 22 percent if farmers more carefully scheduled the watering of crops based on weather and soil conditions and if they used the drip irrigation systems that deliver water directly to the roots of plants.
Some progress has been made. About 38 percent of California farmland was irrigated by more efficient systems in 2010, up from 15 percent in 1991. But far too many farmers still irrigate by flooding their fields.
IN TERMS OF URBAN conservation, the report shows that homes and businesses could reduce water use by up to 60 percent by using it more efficiently, recycling and reusing water and capturing more rainwater. Some efficiency improvements are simple and could be done quickly, like installing water meters at all homes and businesses. Currently, about 250,000 water-utility customers, most of them in the Central Valley, have no meters and are charged a flat monthly fee regardless of how much water they use — a practice that invites waste.
Other changes will take longer to carry out but could have a big impact. For instance, Santa Cruz’s municipal water utility imposes water “budgeting” under which it determines how much water each home needs based on where it is and the number of people in the household. Customers who use more than their budgeted amount must pay higher rates for extra water used. This approach has helped Santa Cruz cut water use by about 30 percent since 1987.
Other government programs have been effective, too, and deserve broader adoption. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power last month began paying people $3 for every square foot of grass they replace with landscaping that requires little or no water under a “cash in your lawn” program, up from $2 previously; residents can claim up to $6,000 under that program. The department says it has paid to have 8 million square feet of lawn removed since the program started in 2009.
FINALLY, STATE officials need to act with a much greater urgency. Earlier this year, the Legislature set aside nearly $700 million for emergency drought relief, but 90 percent of that money has yet to be spent. Brown’s administration should think a lot bigger than emergency aid aimed at a single drought. The state must focus on longer-term policies that encourage people to alter their lifestyles and businesses to change how they operate.
— The New York Times