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Drinking in the Dust: The California Drought

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I came to California as a kid in the summer of 1977, in the middle of the worst drought that California had seen in years. Things were so bad that I remember the state imposed water rationing. Tucked into the then quaint town of Santa Cruz, I remember the mandates of 60 gallons of water per day per person. 60 gallons per DAY?! I had just come from living in the Virgin Islands where the only water was cistern water caught on the rooftop of our place and you had about 60 gallons of water per WEEK for the whole household!

I remember how surprised I was, but then living in the tropics, it rains. So the plants get watered naturally about one to two hours a day and you don’t spend precious water on watering a lawn. But of course Californians, in fact Americans in general do so love their lawns. And somehow we’ve not quite caught on to low water gardens or grey water lawn watering.

So, I’ve been sitting here, advocate that I am for sustainability and food security, and water, sustainable agriculture and changing how we design landscapes, and wondering why in the world we still haven’t had mandatory water rationing in California despite this drought now having become far worse than that 1977 situation. I just can’t help asking the obvious questions:

What will we drink when the water runs out?

Where will the country get its food when one of its primary growing states runs dry and can’t support the demand?

And…Where is Sacramento in all of this? And where is Los Angeles?

The impact of Global Warming exacerbating natural climate shifts is being felt throughout the world and drought conditions are spreading.

This is a very serious situation and it impacts us here at home in the US, and more so now in California -- one of America’s top food sources -- as we enter into a near water emergency state. While the Governor has been vocal about it, there still seems to be more than a few pieces missing from the equation. A few cities like Santa Cruz, are individually imposing water rationing or stricter water usage laws, but to date we’ve not seen a solid state-wide mandate. In a recent article in the San Jose Mercury Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, was quoted as saying, “"Statewide we are facing a truly emergency condition. We need the urban areas to start acting like it. Santa Cruz is the canary in California's coal mine."

I was struck by this statement, as once again Santa Cruz, a small yet more progressive city when it comes to the environment, has already taken the situation seriously. While in many areas from San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California, there are communities that have individually adopted harsher water conservation rules, we have not seen fines and penalties imposed on those who violate the laws.

Announced back in July, after the results of a survey on water-usage in California over the 3-year drought period where it showed that Californians had actually increased water usage by 1% in 2014, (despite repeated pleas from Gov. Jerry Brown for a 20% voluntary cut back by 2020), the State Water Resources Control Board had voted to impose mandatory statewide water-use restrictions for the first time in state history and these restrictions were to have become effective as of August 1st. With fines upward of $500 for individuals and as high as $10,000 for water districts non-compliance, we are still not seeing the kinds of action required to make this happen on a broad scale.

While no area of California has met Gov. Brown’s goal of 20% water reduction, some have came closer than others. The North Coast reduced consumption by 12% and communities drawing from the Sacramento River reduced consumption the most by 13%, with the Bay Area drawing water from the Colorado River decreasing water use by 5%. Sadly the greatest contributors to the increase of water usage is Southern California and especially what was listed as costal communities with a call out to Hollywood and Los Angles more specifically. While 75% of consumption in the state can be attributed to agriculture, the other 25% of the state’s water usage lies with Cities and suburbs…and within those communities about ½ of the water is wasted on outdoor usage.

So as part of July’s state water usage reduction mandates, the list included:

• A ban on watering down sidewalks and driveways — except for sanitation purposes, e.g., allowing cities to power-wash alleyways to get rid of human waste left by homeless people, to scrub away graffiti, and to remove oil and grease from parking structure floors.
• No more washing a vehicle or boat without a shut-off nozzle on the hose.
• Fountains must use recycled water.
• No watering so much as to cause runoff.

And what about Los Angeles?

Los Angeles officials announced on Monday that they are “beefing up” their water-wasting patrols, while still seeming to hesitate on any real solid strong action. For all the tough talk about cracking down on water wasters, Los Angeles, like many other California cities, has chosen a somewhat over-gentle approach of education and warnings to violators over costly fines. It seems that the time for this voluntary reduction method, this half-step measure of sorts, is like watching an ostrich sticking its head in the sand. The crisis is here. The science has already shown that we’re in a worse drought than the 1976-77 drought, and it isn’t getting better anytime soon.

From January to June of this year, Los Angeles' Department of Water and Power apparently received over 1,400 reports of violations and handed out 863 warning letters. But so far no one has actually been fined.

Until now, the DWP had assigned only a single inspector to drive around handling complaints of water wasting in a city of over 4 million people. And while they announced on Monday that they have now added three more people, for a grand total of four water-use inspectors to handle a city as large and vast as Los Angeles. It seems also that a spokes person for DWP maintains that fines do not work and that coaxing people into voluntary reduction has “proven more effective”. However, according to Stephanie Pincetl, the director of UCLA's California Center for Sustainable Communities and a research professor at the Institute of the Environment, there have been several studies proving that mandatory water restrictions are more effective at reducing water usage than voluntary restrictions.

It remains a complex issue and while mandatory water restriction should in the opinion of many come as a statewide policy initiative, there is as Ms. Pincetl further stated, a need for a longer lasting solution by finding ways to “change in the water use culture”. It is time we start realizing that this change in climate is not a temporary situation for the state of California. It is something that we’ve experienced before which is worse now than it has been in the past 100 years, but history has taught is that it is also cyclical and will happen again and again. What can we learn from the past and what can we learn now? Maybe it is time to understand that developing a different relationship to water and how we respond to it over time will help us to stop facing drought in a reactive mode that puts us in crisis.

We need to change policy. We need to change the way we think. And we need to change infrastructure to utilize the extraordinary technological advances we have in order to change our situation…Or we will all be drinking dust by 2020 instead of thriving in the Garden of Eden we depend on for so much.

So what should you know and what can you do now?

Start by reducing your water consumption.

Trade in your water hungry grass lawn for a low water maintenance yard and use a drip water system.

Considering if you have a vegetable garden, growing hydroponically or in a closed greenhouse with controlled drip water system. Use drip water systems even outdoors will help reduce your water usage.

And, while Californians seem to be car wash crazy, there are now several products and commercial car wash places that do not use water to clean your car. Consider switching.

You can learn more on the California Government’s DWR website at: http://water.ca.gov/waterconditions

And also on their agriculture portal at: http://www.cdfa.ca.gov/drought/

Water is precious to our life and to our survival…treasure is and don’t waste it.

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