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Five Surprising Winners During California’s Drought

It’s easy to list all the bad things that California’s drought has wrought across numerous industries and the environment. But there are also a few benefactors from the ongoing drought.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
The Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant’s tertiary treatment is seen at the Los Angeles Sanitation plant, where millions of gallons of wastewater are purified each day in Van Nuys, Calif. Water reuse is gaining traction with California’s drought.Damian Dovarganes, AP

Five years of drought in California have meant raging wildfires, dying trees, falling groundwater, dry wells, threatened wildlife and economic losses. It’s hard to imagine that there could be much to celebrate, but it turns out there are some people who are benefiting, even unintentionally, if you look closely enough.

Times of hardship often spur innovation and collaboration, and California has definitely seen some of that, along with some other benefits.

1. Landscapers

In response to record-breaking drought conditions last year, California Gov. Jerry Brown issued a mandatory conservation order for urban water suppliers that helped initiate or reinvigorate water agencies’ turf-removal programs. These “cash for grass” programs offer rebates per square footage of lawn that is replaced with drought-tolerant plants.

California currently has a $24 million budget for its turf-removal program and some water agencies are throwing extra money behind the efforts as well. The Santa Clara Valley Water District, a wholesale provider in Silicon Valley, spent $18 million between 2014 and 2015 on its turf rebate program, which was so popular it ran out of money.

Alan Hackler, owner of Bay Maples landscaping company in San Jose, told Water Deeply this spring, “Every garden we do is a lawn removal more or less.”

Landscapers such as Hackler can cash in on efforts to reduce outdoor water consumption, which can range from 50 to 80 percent of a household’s water use. Hackler has also taken his business a step further and helps to install rainwater-catchment systems and “laundry-to-landscape” systems that use washing-machine water for yard irrigation. “It’s gotten considerably more popular,” he said of home-scale water-reuse systems. “Before I used to encourage clients to do it, now I’ve got people calling constantly wanting to do it.”

2. Agencies Doing Water Reuse

Alan Hackler, owner of Bay Maples landscaping company in San Jose, Calif., installs a recycled water irrigation system and drought-tolerant plants at a home in Saratoga, Calif. (Tara Lohan)

Alan Hackler, owner of Bay Maples landscaping company in San Jose, Calif., installs a recycled water irrigation system and drought-tolerant plants at a home in Saratoga, Calif. (Tara Lohan)

The drought has been tough for some water agencies, but many are using the increased focus on water shortage and water supply resiliency to develop or expand water-reuse efforts.

Last year saw the birth of more than a dozen water “fill stations,” where recycled water (to be used for irrigation, not drinking) was offered free at designated areas. Nick Hansen at RecycledH2O has been mapping fill stations across the state.

Other water agencies are expanding “purple pipe” systems that distribute recycled water or, like San Francisco, are using regulations to spur small-scale recycled water districts and on-site reuse – helping to highlight the fact that 95 percent of water used in most office buildings and 50 percent of the water used in multiunit residential buildings is nonpotable and could be supplemented or replaced with recycled water.

Recycled water for drinking is also gaining more traction. “The current drought has underscored the value of recycled water as a major new source of drinking water,” Jennifer West, managing director of WaterReuse California, told Water Deeply.

3. Data Experts

The drought has helped to shine a light on the fact that there’s a lot of information the state doesn’t have about how much water it has and how much it uses. This has opened the door for data experts who can help make sense of the numbers (or lack thereof).

The California Data Collaborative, for example, formed early this year. The project is “a coalition of water utilities working together to share data and accelerate water efficiencies and ensure reliability in the face of our water supply challenges,” the project manager Patrick Atwater told Water Deeply.

Data collection during the drought has increased the popularity of companies such as Dropcountr, whose app works with water utilities to allow consumers to track their own water use and compare it to other users, helping to spur conservation.

4. SoCal Beachgoers

There aren’t a lot of reasons to cheer the stingy precipitation that California has received in the past five years, but a report by Heal the Bay pointed out a bit of a silver lining in its annual Beach Report Card for 2015–16. The organization reported that below-average rainfall in Southern California resulted in less runoff and therefore less pollution and better water quality at area beaches.

5. Desalination Industry

In December 2015, the Carlsbad Desalination Plant began supplying water, 15 years after its feasibility study was completed and 12 years after its environmental review began. It was a long time coming, but it’s now the largest ocean desal plant in the U.S.

And many more desalination projects are now planned for California, making the desalination industry a long-term winner in California’s ongoing water crisis. Because desalination plants often take a long time to get through environmental assessments and permitting in California, most won’t be proposed as an immediate response to California’s current drought, but given the state’s long-term outlook of water stress, there’s likely to be much more down the road.

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