Even Drought Forever Can’t Get Californians to Conserve Water

Friday, March 06, 2015

Not even a steady stream of horrible news and much worse projections about water in California could convince urban residential users to change their thirsty ways.

Water use was down 8.8% in January compared to the 2013 baseline in Drought Year 2, but it was down 22% a year ago. “Clearly, state residents used their outdoor irrigation in January,” State Water Resources Control Board Chair Felicia Marcus said in a news release, referring to the record-setting dry month.

The board directed its staff to come up with additional, more compelling, measures to reduce usage because, “Urban water users must cut back more—to extend their own supplies and to allow for flexibility in the system.” That probably means mandatory conservation.

“This board is prepared to make some tough decisions in the coming months, including adopting permanent, rather than emergency water conservation measures, going forward,” Marcus said. “It is that serious.”

It is safe to say that Californians celebrated the beginning of the fourth year of drought by trying to save their lawns and the last vestiges of civilization, like water in restaurants. But a new study from Stanford University reinforces other recent scientific reports that rising heat, not lower precipitation, is what’s slow-cooking the state’s goose:

“We therefore conclude that anthropogenic warming is increasing the probability of co-occurring warm–dry conditions like those that have created the acute human and ecosystem impacts associated with the ‘exceptional’ 2012–2014 drought in California.”

In other words, get used to the dryness.

“When we look at the historical record, not only do we see a doubling of the odds of a warm-dry year, but we also see a doubling of the frequency of drought years,” study co-author Danielle Touma told Common Dreams. “Warm conditions reduce snowfall, increase snowmelt and increase water loss from soils and plants.”

Weather patterns and precipitation shifts may come and go, but global warming is forever, or at least what will probably seem like forever. That complicates policy-making strategy by politicians who would rather not factor perpetual drought into their public projections.

Tailoring conservation measures for the state is further complicated by the disparate conservation performance of its 10 hydrologic regions (pdf). The North Coast region was 17.2% better than 2013, compared to the San Francisco Bay’s low mark of 3.7%. The Bay Area represents 20% of the state’s water users.

The elephant in the room is the South Coast region, which includes Los Angeles, San Diego, San Bernardino and 53% of the state’s water users. They were just 9.2% better than the 2013 baseline, but that was a big drop from 23.3% the month before.

None of these numbers, of course, take into consideration how well a region was conserving water in 2013, before it became fashionable and necessary. The S.F. Bay region used 56.3 gallons of water per person per day, compared to 75 in the South Coast and 147 in the Colorado River region (El Centro, et al).   

Although residential water use is the subject at hand, agricultural interests use about 80% of the state’s water (pdf) in normal years and less in dry years. Last Friday, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced for the second year in a row that the federal government would not be delivering any water to the San Joaquin Valley, the state’s agricultural heartland.

The federally-run 80-year-old Central Valley Project regulates and stores water in the state’s northern half and then transports it to farmers farther south. It balances agricultural interests with the need to protect ecologically sensitive areas and endangered species. 

“The federal government's Central Valley Project is broken,” Don Peracchi, president of the hard-hit Westlands Water District told the Courthouse News Service. He warned that singular decisions can have long-term and far-reaching consequences:

“Its failure threatens the continued coordination of local, state and federal water agencies in operating the modern water system on which all of California depends. And as a result, some of the most vital elements of the state's economy are being allowed to wither and die.”

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

New Study Shows California Droughts Driven by Climate Change and Here to Stay (by Sarah Lazare, Common Dreams)

Central Valley Project Is "Broken," California Water Managers Say (by Elizabeth Warmerdam, Courthouse News Service)

Anthropogenic Warming Has Increased Drought Risk in California (by Noah S. Diffenbaugh, Daniel L. Swain and Danielle Touma, Stanford University)

New Study Turns Up the Heat on Megadrought Predictions (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Urban Water Conservation Drops from 22 Percent to Near 9 Percent in January (State Water Resources Board) (pdf)

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