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There’s Water, Water Everywhere In California. So Why Isn’t The Drought Over?

How the coastal state handles its ongoing crisis should matter to everyone

A firefighter carries a woman from her car after it was caught in street flooding as a powerful storm moves across Southern California on February 17, 2017 in Sun Valley, California.

For the first time in the nearly six years of significant drought in California, a slew of intense winter storms have overfilled reservoirs, flooded roadways, and returned a sense of possibility to the parched regions of the state. Who could blame any Californian for taking an extra-long shower or two when it’s suddenly so abundant?

But on Tuesday morning, NASA’s water scientist Jay Famiglietti wrote in a widely shared Los Angeles Times op-ed that even if the drought is technically declared over (which isn’t exactly the case), California will always be short of water. In case you’re confused about why you shouldn’t water your lawn with abandon—even if you just survived a flash flood—we spoke with water and climate scientists to get some clarity on the matter.

California has a hidden water “overdraft”—and it’s not alone

“Fifty-eight percent of the state is still classified in a drought by the U.S. drought monitor,” says Juliet Christian-Smith, a senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and an expert on California drought and water management policies. She urges that instead of just looking at hydrology—which is precipitation and soil moisture—we need to take a closer look at the gap between water demand and water supply.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]We use more water than we get. Just like a bank account, this means we’re in overdraft.[/quote]

Currently, California “is in a structural deficit. We use more than we get on an annual basis. Just like a bank account, this means we’re in overdraft,” Christian-Smith explains. Southern California, which does not have enough reservoir capacity, gets 80 percent of its water from the California State Water Project and the Colorado River, both of which rely on the ever-shrinking snowpack.

Of course, if you live (like I do) near a reservoir or dam whose excess is being shunted out spillways in dramatic displays, this water loss may be hard to believe. “It’s a hidden overdraft underneath our feet,” Christian-Smith explains. Ground water reservoirs in California are at historic lows due to the drought, and that water is not so easily replenished.

Moreover, 60 percent of the state taps that water, particularly in severely drought-stricken parts of California like the southern San Joaquin Valley, and agriculture is a huge drain on groundwater. “Eighty percent of the water used by humans in California is used by agriculture,” Christian-Smith points out. And that, unfortunately, is not well-monitored because meters on agricultural wells are “very uncommon.” Farmers are often afraid that opening themselves to monitoring will mean greater fees or fines, and policy has been slow to enforce such regulations.

A 2016 study in the journal Geoscientific Model Development from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis found that water demand will double by 2050, and supplies may not catch up. IIASA water program researcher Yoshihide Wada said in a statement about the findings that, “Our current water use habits increase the risk of being unable to maintain sustainable food production and economic development for the future generation.”

Climate change’s impact on supplies is huge—and mostly unseen

However, human consumption aside, climate change continues to pose the greatest threat to all water supplies. “There’s been a lot of focus on El Niño or La Niña,” Christian-Smith says, referring to meteorological terms for an exceptionally wet or dry year, respectively. “Climate change is La Madre (or ‘the Mother’). Our temperatures are five degrees warmer than they’ve ever been before. We have a fundamental change in when, where, and how we are going to get water.”

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]Temperatures are five degrees warmer than they’ve ever been. There’s a fundamental change in when, where, and how we get water.[/quote]

In fact, a brand new study recently revealed that the Southern California-dependent Colorado River flows have been shrinking due to climate change and will continue to do so by as much as 30 percent by midcentury and over 50 percent by the end of the century if we don’t get greenhouse emissions under control. With a Trump administration dead set on rolling back environmental protections and pulling out of the Paris accord, this will require creative strategies.

Julia Chunn, policy manager and climate scientist for Surfrider Foundation San Diego suggests, “We just need to think in terms of a new norm and changing weather patterns.”

A ‘conservation mindset’ works better when it’s proactive, not reactive

What this means for the average citizen is that even when the streets are flooding and the reservoirs are spilling over, we must set up a permanent conservation mindset. The city of Los Angeles has demonstrated, against the odds, that conservation is totally within reach with concerted effort. On October 14, 2014, Mayor Garcetti signed an executive directive that asked residents to reduce water use by 20 percent by 2017. Through a campaign called Save the Drop, which bridged marketing strategies of the private sector and the manpower of the public sector, they were successful.

“We identified our greatest opportunity to save water was around residential landscaping,” says Matt Petersen, chief sustainability officer for the city of Los Angeles.

Save the Drop has been effective because they detoured from unsuccessful past strategies like shaming consumers, and created a friendly mascot out of water. “We wanted people to think of water as their friend and ally and something they should treat respectfully,” says Ashley Jacobs, director for brand LA of the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Even when the streets are flooding and the reservoirs spilling over, we must set up a permanent conservation mindset.[/quote]

Chunn stresses that cities must “look at water recycling and storm water capture instead of turning to desalination.” Consumers can also do quite a bit to conserve.

Surfrider offers a program called Ocean Friendly Garden that teaches people to “Think of your house as a little mini-watershed, to conserve water, retain water, and increase your ‘permeability’ so that the rain that falls on your land stays there.

Likewise, Petersen recommends adopting the following strategies in order of importance:

  • Replace grass with sustainable landscaping or turf (look for rebates through your city, county, and water district)
  • Replace your toilet with a low-flow toilet (also look for rebates and incentives)
  • Shorten your showers to five to ten minutes
  • Don’t leave water running when you wash dishes
  • Don’t wash down your driveway
  • Capture water in rain barrels

As Petersen says, “Treat every drop as precious.” Climate change, aging infrastructure, and restrictive laws can negatively impact water supplies from Flint, Michigan, to South Africa. Embracing a conservation mindset now will be a crucial first step to avoiding water overdrafts all over the world.

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