California has such a glorious climate that we can usually skip the forecast. Southern California? Mostly nice and sunny. Northern California? Aside from a few furious storms, much the same. But three straight winters of blue sky has been too much of a good thing, turning us into weather followers. We are desperate for rain.
So far, signs point to a fourth dry winter, with exceptional drought likely through January 2015 in 60 percent of the state, according to the National Weather Service’s Seasonal Drought Outlook. This area includes the Sierra Nevada, which provides much of California’s water in good snow years.
Meteorology is an uncertain science, however, and we can still hope that this winter will be the one to deliver us from drought. But we can do far more than wait for the skies to open and save us. Conservation has the potential to cut urban water use by 57 percent statewide, according to the 2014 analysis by the Pacific Institute (PI) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Moreover, the report found that the combination of conserving and reclaiming water is cheaper than developing new supplies.
Australia, where periodic drought is also a way of life, is far ahead of us in water conservation. While Californians use about 200 gallons per capita per day, Australians use just 75, according to the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the Australian Bureau of Statistics, respectively.
How did Australia manage this? A 2013 UC Davis study by Ryan Cahill and Jay Lund credited three main factors: higher water rates, which are close to 50 percent more than in California; nearly comprehensive adoption of dual-flush toilets, which use as little as 1.5 gallons; and permanent restrictions on outdoor use. Melbourne, for example, prohibits outdoor watering between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. all the time, not just during drought years.
In California, two obvious targets for conserving water are residential landscaping and leaks. Two-thirds of our urban water use is residential and about half of that goes to landscaping, said NRDC water expert Ed Osann. And 10 percent of our water is lost to leaks, according to DWR.
“We know how to conserve water,” Osann said. “We just have to start doing it.” The drought is nudging us. We used 10 percent less water statewide in September 2014 compared to a year ago, according to the State Water Resources Control Board.
And changing the way water is priced would push us to conserve even more, Osann said. Water rates are often flat, failing to differentiate between basic needs like bathing and laundry, and discretionary uses like sprinkling lawns. He advocated charging more for use above a baseline allowance, as is common for electricity and natural gas. In a recent pilot study in Riverside County, such tiered pricing cut residential water use by 15 percent.
Osann also recommended seasonal pricing, another tool used to cut power consumption. “Water costs the same year-round but is more expensive to supply in the summer,” he said. It takes electricity to treat and distribute water, and electricity rates rise in the summer when demand peaks. Likewise, water demand peaks when it’s hot: summer use rates can be double those of winter.
The major drivers of residential water use are wealth, lot size, and climate, according to UCLA sustainability expert Stephanie Pincetl, who helped supervise a 2014 research project that analyzed single-family residential water consumption across Los Angeles. The project found that mandatory restrictions are more effective than voluntary ones, cutting water use 23 percent compared to only 6 percent, respectively. “Just saying ‘please use less water’ is too vague,” Pincetl said. The project also found that people generally overwater their yards, which could be addressed by bumping up rates on outdoor use. Different rates for indoor and outdoor water would require separate metering, and this could be incorporated into the rollout of water meters in the Central Valley. “There are lots of places there without water meters and they’re mandated to be in place by 2025,” noted Pincetl. In the Bay Area and the rest of the state, dual water meters could be required for new construction and retrofits.
Why focus on cities when agriculture uses 80 percent of the water statewide? “We’re all in this together,” Pincetl said. “If we want to eat food that’s grown in California, we should allow agriculture to have the right amount of water. It’s kind of a zero-sum game.” California grows nearly half of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables produced nationwide, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. That said, agriculture statewide could cut water use by 22 percent and still maintain its irrigated acreage and crop mix, according to the PI-NRDC water conservation analysis.
Water districts can balance “sticks” like tiered and outdoor water rates with the new “carrot” approach of sending personalized reports on water consumption. These reports update people on how much water they use compared to matched households, with smiley or frowny faces as appropriate. This tactic encourages energy conservation, and the same holds for water. Such “positive peer pressure” reports cut water use by 5 percent, according to an East Bay Municipal Utility District pilot study funded by the California Water Foundation, a nonprofit that supports science-based solutions to our water needs.
“Changing people’s behavior is very difficult, and I like to call this approach ‘keeping up with the Joneses,’” said EBMUD spokesperson Abby Figueroa. “The biggest savings tended to be from people who got sad faces.” The reports incorporate techniques — such as amplifying motivation and increasing the frequency of triggers — found to change people’s long-term behavior by Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab. These home water reports are now being adopted by numerous other water districts in the Bay Area, said Jeff Lipton, spokesperson for WaterSmart Software, the San Francisco company that developed them.
Another key feature of the home water reports is detailed data on water use. “You can’t save water if you don’t know how much you use,” stressed Elizabeth Dougherty, founder of Wholly H2O, a Bay Area nonprofit dedicated to sustainable water management. An extreme water conservationist, Dougherty looks forward to getting the water statements that chart her progress. “It makes conservation super fun,” she said. Over time, she has pared her own water use to just 15 gallons a day. That might be too hard for the rest of us, but most of us could easily use less water than we do.
Robin Meadows is the reporting fellow for the 2014-15 Water Education Initiative.
Created by the League of Women Voters of the Bay Area Education Fund to promote better understanding of regional water issues, the initiative is underwritten by the Association of Bay Area Governments, Bay Area Biosolids to Energy, the East Bay Municipal Utility District, the League of Women Voters of Marin County, Louise Anderson, the Marin Municipal Water District, Marion Taylor, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, and the Sonoma County Water Agency.