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How to Increase California’s Water Efficiency

Californians have done a good job conserving water, but the state’s water issues will take much more than conservation to fix. Here are the steps we should be taking next to increase water efficiency during this drought and make lasting changes that will prepare us for the next drought.

Written by Robb Barnitt Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Top image: Spa Removers worker Juan Alexander empties a spa with a 400-gallon (1,800-liter) capacity for permanent removal at a residence in which the owner considered it "a waste of water." Damian Dovarganes, AP

While all eyes faced west for Super Bowl 50, a high-pressure system parked itself over Levi’s Stadium and much of California, leading to a month of warm and dry weather. What El Niño? February’s weather sure wouldn’t tip you off. Nor would the California State Water Resources Control Board, who continued California’s emergency conservation mandate through October of 2016.

Those in the water community have warned of depleting reservoirs, snowpack and groundwater for years, but it was Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2015 emergency conservation mandate that brought the concern front and center. Faced with the “worst drought in over a century,” Gov. Brown deputized the Water Board to cut residential water use by 25 percent from 2013 levels, or else. Consequences were sure to follow.

And consequences we’ve seen. Yes, communities have been penalized for disregarding the governor’s call to action. Yes, there is the unnerving trend of drought shaming: from neighborhood water snitching to baseball players to “wet princes.” And yes, there are millions in lost revenue that can be attributed to conservation success.

But there have also been good things. Californians have cumulatively met the governor’s unprecedented 25 percent conservation mandate in almost every month since it was issued. Rebate participation is at an all-time high, and exhausted in many parts of the state.

Another benefit is California’s surging “water IQ.” As San Antonio, Texas conservation leader Karen Guz said, “In a lot of places people reply ‘the faucet’ when asked what provides their primary water source.”

Not so in California. At least not anymore. Thanks to exhaustive coverage, discussion and concern, Californians know that much of their freshwater comes from Sierra snowpack. Schoolchildren can tell you how many gallons are required to grow a single almond. Brown is indeed the new green.

That “water IQ” is worth celebrating. The state, private and public water utilities, utility staff, home and business owners, and yes, the governor, should be applauded for how we’ve responded to crisis. Last month the Water Board announced that average per capita water use declined to 61 gallons per day, the lowest recorded since reporting began.

But here’s the rub: the crisis isn’t over. Not by a long shot and at least three years of above-average rainfall. The emergency mandate won’t last that long but our actions and our investments will, so here are three steps that will support water efficiency for this drought and the next:

1. You can’t manage what you don’t measure

Continued reporting will benefit the state. Existing measures have led to focused workshops and allocated resources in service areas that haven’t hit their marks. Continued accounting will identify trends and areas of improvement.

2. Pick the low-hanging fruit, not the whole tree

Not all regions are created equal – rainfall, evaporation rate and population density vary throughout the state, and the Water Board has done a good job in recognizing these differences in the amended plan. The same theory applies to households – certain households have a greater opportunity to conserve than others.

In the Santa Ana Watershed, Dropcountr partnered with OmniEarth, a geospatial analysis company, to map out household efficiency profiles – that is, those homes who can conserve the most. Empowering utilities to focus on the highest and most inefficient water users can realize conservation goals and result in durable water efficient behaviors that are cost-effective.

3. Empower the people

It’s no surprise some people have found conservation to be difficult – they can access their bank account, daily steps and thermostat from the convenience of their phone, but are forced to wait until the end of the month for their paper water bill? Feedback is important when you’re encouraging new behavior and people respond when made aware of their usage. In the City of Folsom, we’ve found an additional 8 percent conservation benefit among homeowners who can access their water usage on their smartphone. Rather than drought shaming, water utilities could be drought supporting the citizens they serve.

Under pressure, California has demonstrated an ability to work hard toward a goal. Drought response to date has been remarkable, and stakeholders at every level have sacrificed to reach the governor’s conservation mandate. Lessons learned and a nexus of political and technical investments taken will help us weather this chapter of drought and the next.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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