Are Gov. Newsom’s drought measures enough?
By James Keck
Through water conservation efforts and technological advancements that make water use more efficient, Californians have learned to live with drought for decades. Yet these are only short-term solutions to a much larger problem and many experts are concerned that the state’s ongoing drought crisis could soon become untenable.
Over the last 10 years, California has experienced historic droughts. 2020-2021 was the state’s second driest year on record, and 2021-2022 isn’t shaping up to be much better. This comes on the heels of the state’s longest-ever drought, which lasted from December 2011 to March 2019.
California is inherently drought-prone. The southern region is naturally arid and the statewide climate is predisposed to wet periods punctuated by very dry ones. But climate change and rising temperatures have exacerbated these natural cycles, while population growth and increased residential and commercial demand have compounded the problem by further depleting already diminished water sources.
- The state’s 1,500 water reservoirs were at only 50% of their average levels in the summer of 2021.
- Since 2000, Colorado River flow has shrunk by 20% compared to the 20th century average. The river supplies much of the fresh water used in major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and San Diego and irrigates millions of acres of farmland.
- Snowpack, which many water management systems rely on to help replenish the water supply when it melts in the spring, has also dwindled significantly.
ust recently, the state’s Department of Water Resources announced that the State Water Project— which provides water to 27 million people and 750,000 acres of farmland — would not be granting any additional water supply requests for things like irrigation or landscaping and would only be allocating enough for health and safety measures, like drinking and bathing.
In response to the crisis, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency for all 58 California counties in 2021. Among other measures, the state banned wasteful water practices, including using potable water for washing driveways and watering lawns, and California residents were urged to curb their overall water use by 15%.
None of this is new to residents and businesses in California. Voluntary conservation measures have become a way of life over the last few decades, and can be effective in reducing water use and even replenishing water supply over a short period of time. Between 2013 and 2016, residential water use declined 21%, and as of 2020, urban populations were using roughly 16%less water compared to 2013.
While more stringent water conservation measures would certainly be more effective in reducing water use and mitigating the impacts of drought, the political ramifications are hard to ignore —particularly for a governor who just faced a recall. Lockdowns and mask mandates forced by the COVID-19 pandemic have left Californians with little appetite for further restrictions.
REDUCE, REUSE, DESALINATE
Water conservation is a key strategy for dealing with the current crisis. But conservation alone isn’t enough to resolve California’s drought problem long-term, particularly if what a recent study suggests is true: that the state may be entering the worst prolonged period of drought in more than 1,200 years.
So, what can be done? Water utilization technology in residential and commercial construction can help make a difference. Installing showers with flow restrictors, toilets that use less water when they flush, and employing more efficient water usage techniques in various industries, especially agriculture, are all helpful. Parts of the state have also experimented with converting medians and roadside embankments into catchment zones that direct stormwater runoff into underground tanks.
While these are all effective measures for getting the most out of the existing water supply, ultimately it comes down to increasing the amount of available water. Experts have said that California would need to get roughly 140% of its average annual rainfall to recover from the current drought. And since state officials haven’t come up with a way to control the weather yet, that means they’ll need to find more water elsewhere.
Water recycling, AKA water reuse or water reclamation, is one possible solution. This method entails repurposing water from a variety of sources, including municipal wastewater, stormwater, and agricultural runoff. This water can then be used for several purposes, such as irrigation for crops and landscaping, environmental restoration, or supplementing the municipal water supply.
In California today, about 10% of municipal and industrial wastewater is recycled, though it is less widespread in the rest of the country. That may soon change, however. WateReuse, a water recycling advocacy group, estimates that by 2027 the amount of recycled water produced in the United States will grow by 37%, from 4.8 billion gallons per day to 6.6 billion.
Desalination — the process of removing salt from seawater — also holds promise as a possible answer to California’s drought crisis. In Saudi Arabia, desalinated water accounts for about half of the fresh water supply for a population of 33 million people. California currently has 12 seawater desalination facilities, including one near San Diego that produces 50 million gallons of drinking water a day, enough for 400,000 homes.
However, the challenge of relying on desalination or water recycling as solutions to fresh water woes is two-fold: they’re time-consuming and expensive, though researchers are studying how to improve these processes to make them more efficient and affordable.
A number of funding proposals have been drafted in recent months to address drought concerns in California and the rest of the Western United States. The federal budget reconciliation package included $125 million in grants for alternative water sources, while a separate bill in the House would establish a program to provide $750 million for water recycling projects through 2027. Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s expansive infrastructure bill included $47 billion for climate resilience, which would help communities prepare for extreme weather events related to climate change, including droughts and wildfires.
Californians are doing their part to address the drought crisis. But ending it will require a multifaceted response involving various strategies, including short-term fixes like water conservation, along with proactive solutions that help supplement the state’s diminished water supply.
About the author: James Keck is a professor in the Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness program at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University.
CNN, The Southwest’s Most Important River is Drying Up
EPA, Basic Information About Water Reuse
New York Times, Infrastructure Bill Makes First Major U.S. Investment in Climate Resilience New York Times, The World Can Make More Water From the Sea, But at What Cost?Science, Large Contribution from Anthropogenic Warming to an Emerging North American Megadrought
State of California, California Drought Action
State of California, California Drought Update
State of California, Governor Newsom Expands Drought Emergency Statewide, Urges Californians to Redouble Water Conservation Efforts
The Guardian, ‘Truly an Emergency’: How Drought Returned to California – and What Lies Ahead
The Hill, In Shocking Decision, Drought-Stricken Parts of California Will Get 0% of Water They've Asked For
U.S. News & World Report, As Cities Grow, Wastewater Recycling Gets Another Look WateReuse, Water Reuse 101
Wired, A Massive Water Recycling Proposal Could Help Ease Drought