California Drought’s Silver Lining: Sustainable Water Management!

(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Although California has a long history of periodic dry spells, the current drought — the worst since record-keeping began – is now entering its fourth year and there are those who say the state needs to brace for a megadrought that could last for 200 years. In a state so deeply associated with emerald-green golf courses, sparkling swimming pools, and lush desert oases, it has taken a long time – way too long — for politicians and citizens to understand that this remarkable situation calls for remarkable solutions.


Conservation Measures

Thus, for the first time in the state’s history, on April 1 of this year Governor Jerry Brown announced a mandatory 25% cutback for local water agencies. Faced with fines of $10,000 per day — lo and behold — in June the state’s urban areas slashed their water use by 27.3% and the following month, by 31.3%.[3] Other measures taken recently to encourage sustainable residential and agricultural water usage:

  • Rebates for tearing out grass, with outdoor irrigation being the biggest water use for most homes. The rebates have been popular. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, for instance, ran through $350 million in funds in little more than a month. [3]
  • Four-fifths of all water used in California goes to agriculture. But as of 2010, less than 40% of California’s farms used drip irrigation, which is known to be far more water-efficient than the prevailing flood irrigation[1]. Switching to drip irrigation, however, is expensive, which is why agencies like the Coachella Valley Water District have started offering rebates for farmers who abandon flood irrigation.[3]
  • In a state where water resources are highly deregulated and many farmers hold water rights that are more than 100 years old, state and federal agencies have taken the unprecedented step of slashing surface water deliveries to Central Valley farmers.[3] Unfortunately state regulations about farmers drawing groundwater from private wells, signed last year, will not be formulated until 2020.[1] But better late than never.
  • Governor Brown has called for “conservation pricing” that would entail “surcharges, fees, and penalties” to limit water use. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, tiered pricing, time-of-day pricing and seasonal rates are all considered effective ways to reduce water consumption.[3] For such policies to be put in place, water utilities will have to migrate more and more to holistic smart water management platforms.

New Water Sources

Above and beyond measures to conserve existing water resources, California is also faced with the need to cultivate new water sources. Thus, for example, in Carlsbad, a giant desalination plant — the largest in the Western Hemisphere — is gearing up to start producing water for San Diego County residents by the end of this year. The $1 billion project will deliver 50 million gallons of water a day.[2] Although environmentalists are deeply concerned about their impact on the coast and the ocean as well as the high energy needs of this and other planned desalination plants, these concerns are now balanced by the environmental damage being caused by rapidly depleting groundwater basins.

More efficient recycling of wastewater is another measure that is gradually gaining wider acceptance in California. In a water-challenged country like Israel, 75% of urban wastewater is recycled, mainly for irrigation purposes. California currently recycles only 13% of its municipal wastewater[1].

No Silver Bullets

Even the very strong El Niño forecast for 2015-16 is unlikely to solve California’s drought problem. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meteorologists are predicting there is a 95% chance that an El Niño will occur that is strong enough to bring above-average rainfall to California. They believe it will be as powerful as the two that dumped record rains and caused devastating floods to Southern California in the winters of 1982-1983 and 1997-1998.[4] However, only one above-average rainy season will not be sufficient to replenish the groundwater basins.

The California drought is a complex, long-term problem for which there is no simple “silver bullet” solution. In the long run California will ensure sustainable water resources for future generations through a combination of determined regulatory policies, best-of-breed smart water management technologies, and responsible consumption by individuals, agriculture and industry.


[1] Five Israeli Answers to the California Drought, Ha’Aretz, April 2015
[2] California looks to the ocean for water during historic drought, Aljazeera, June 2015
[3] As California drought drags on, hard choices lie ahead, The Desert Sun, September 18, 2015
[4] How much rain will it take to end California’s drought?, Redlands Daily Facts, September 19, 2015


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