“It never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.” —John Steinbeck, East of Eden
California’s State Water Resources Control Board recently indicated that mandatory water restrictions could be lowered in some parts of the state later this spring. Such a move would come just one year after the wise decision that encouraged residents to save water in the midst of a severe, multi-year drought.
Regardless of the board’s decision, Californians need to shift permanently toward water conservation and efficiency. In fact, that’s not a bad idea for all Americans.
There’s no denying it: There was a lot more rain and snowfall in California this past winter than we’ve seen in recent years, especially the last five. Unfortunately, when it comes to the drought, a closer look at recent rain and snow trends makes it clear that saying “things are better” is a long way from knowing that “the drought is over.”
As of this writing. statewide snowpack is now at 87 percent of average—a big improvement over last year’s abysmal 5 percent, but, still, not even average. As for rainfall, El Niño took good care of parts of Northern California by filling some important reservoirs to their historical average levels. Southern California, however, has not been so lucky, with well-below-average rainfall this winter, despite a handful of storms.
The Central Valley’s agricultural lands remain locked in a drought, and farmers continue to pump the region’s dwindling groundwater resources, because there isn’t enough surface water from which to draw. Farms and other customers in the southern part of the state, which depend on water distributed through the Central Valley Project, just learned that they will get far less water than they requested.
In short, the drought is not yet over. The near-average precipitation received this winter has dented it, but not crushed it. In fact, the U.S. Drought Monitor still classifies much of the state as being in an “exceptional” drought.
It is foolhardy to expect that one near-average season of precipitation will keep drought conditions at bay, particularly as El Niño weakens. We need to fully embrace strategies like drought-tolerant yards, efficient fixtures and appliances, water-smart agriculture, and additional protections for groundwater. If we focus on what residents can do, then rethinking lawns, installing water-efficient toilets, and fixing leaks are effective ways to cut back on direct water use and keep gallons in reservoirs. In addition, we have to expand our notion of water use to include the water that goes into producing the food we eat, the energy we use and the products we buy. This requires becoming more energy efficient, reusing and recycling more, and wasting less food. Tools like the Water Footprint Calculator can also help consumers track and reduce how much actual and virtual water they’re using.
These actions may not always mean that there’s more water available in the local reservoir or aquifer, but an increasingly water-aware lifestyle requires us to look at the impact on our shared resources beyond city, water district and state borders. Californians can do it, and in fact, they already have, by nearly meeting the 25 percent reduction target on residential water use set by the governor last year. Importantly, they did so without dramatically affecting their way of life. California farmers have also become more water-efficient over the past decades, and many are now going even further by using sustainable techniques to protect the quality of water supplies. By building upon these efforts, even larger reductions in water use can provide stability, regardless of yearly fluctuations in rain and snowfall.
Local water utilities may be nervous, because reduced water use usually means less revenue, and ultimately, higher customer bills. But options exist that encourage conservation, including those already adopted in parts of California. One way is decoupling water sales from overall revenues, or tiered pricing, which provides enough water to meet basic needs for cheap or even free, and then adds increasing rates as customers use more.
Now is not the time to go back to the old ways of doing things. No harm can come from water conservation, no matter what part of the country you call home. In California and other Western states still enduring or recovering from the most recent drought, now is the time to stay efficient. Around the world, people are beginning to embrace the new normal—because it’s here, and it requires all of us to make changes that last a lot longer than just one year.
Peter Hanlon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. He is the deputy director of programs at GRACE Communications Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable food production and water use.