On May 10, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared that a drought emergency now exists in 41 of California’s 58 counties.

Newsom directed the state’s water board to consider modifying requirements for reservoir releases, as well as other conservation and mitigation strategies. He also gave state agencies more flexibility in adjusting regulatory requirements to address the drought and its impacts.

Riverside County, however, was not one of those 41 counties.

“We’re pleased that the governor is taking a county-by-county approach,” said Ashley Metzger, the Desert Water Agency’s outreach and conservation manager. “I think it makes a lot of sense. The last time (a drought was declared by the state, in 2014-2016), mandatory restrictions were imposed across the state. It was kind of a one-size-fits-all approach, and it really didn’t matter what your local supplies were.”

Eduardo Garcia, the District 56 state assemblymember, also praised the county-by-county approach.

“The drought is a different animal depending on the region of the state,” Garcia said. “I think we’re going into a really challenging time when it comes to the (lack of) rainfall, the (diminished) snowpack, our infrastructure setup for the conveyance of water, and how that impacts communities like ours and those that are similar to ours.”

By all accounts, the Coachella Valley is in a relatively comfortable position when it comes to the reliability of its domestic water supply for the immediate future—even in the face of the serious drought challenges facing most of the state.

“The western states, including California, are absolutely facing critical drought conditions,” said Katie Evans, the director of conservation and communications at the Coachella Valley Water District. “But as far as the Coachella Valley goes, we rely heavily on groundwater as our source of domestic water supply—and the beauty of doing that is that we are able to store a great deal of water in our groundwater basin. So, in wet years, we can take extra water, or additional supply, and put it into the ground. Then in dry years, we have a cushion to keep us sustainable during that time. It’s a simple metaphor, but we liken it to a savings account: When things are good, we put extra in. When things are bad, we’re able to rely on what we’ve stored. So when something happens like a drought—even a drought that has a major impact for a couple of years—we don’t see the impact from it that other regions do.

“If you can imagine an area that relies entirely on surface-water supply (provided) by a reservoir that gets filled up by snowpack, when there is no snowpack, that community is in bad shape. We’re really the opposite of that.”

Still, Evans said it’s important for the community to conserve whenever possible.

“We live in a desert, and technically, we’re always in a drought,” she said.

“What we’re really asking people to do, in the long run, is not necessarily conservation. What we’re really asking people to do is practice water-use efficiency. Make sure that the water you’re using is being used in an efficient and purposeful way.” Katie Evans, director of conservation and communications, Coachella Valley Water District

Garcia praised the local water agencies for providing good leadership and taking early steps to prepare for drier times.

“We have a very different setup when it comes to our water storage, our delivery system and, quite frankly, the affordability of water when compared to other parts of the state,” Garcia said. “That being said, we all are being asked (to help out) and should be playing a role in water-conservation efforts. … We just have to be smart about how we utilize our water.”

What specific actions should Coachella Valley residents and business owners take to do their part?

“Invest in long-term water-conservation savings, primarily outdoors or with indoor appliances,” said Metzger at the DWA. “So if you can remove your grass, that’s probably a level-one, ideal scenario. If you want to keep your grass, but be more efficient, then replacing your old sprinklers with pressure-reduction sprinkler bodies and efficient sprinkler nozzles or heads is a good step. Putting in a smart irrigation controller or eliminating some turf can be helpful. Is there some grass that’s purely aesthetic? Is it in your front yard, and you never go sit out there or take your dog or your kids out there? If that’s the case, then does it need to be grass, or could it be synthetic turf, or desert landscaping, or could it be concrete pavers or a patio? Just re-thinking outdoor space to be more water-friendly helps—and look to your water agency to see what (they have) available to help you. With indoor appliances, replacing washing machines and toilets are going to be your biggest savers. We offer an incentive for washing machines, and it’s with our incentives that we try to encourage people to conserve.”

Evans said her district does various things to promote water-saving efforts.

“The CVWD continues to encourage conservation through a lot of different ways, including through our tiered (customer usage) rates and through rebate programs,” Evans said. “We have landscape ordinances to make sure that new developments comply with lower water-use standards. We do water-waste patrols, and we have incentives and education classes. I would really encourage the public to get involved in those things.

“What we’re really asking people to do, in the long run, is not necessarily conservation. What we’re really asking people to do is practice water-use efficiency. Make sure that the water you’re using is being used in an efficient and purposeful way.”

Meanwhile, Garcia said his fellow legislators and the governor are implementing action plans to respond to the current drought.

“We’re seeing a proactive response to this drought threat that is no longer at our doorstep, but is now inside our house,” he said. “Right now, what’s important is to make sure that those communities that, in the last drought, literally did not have enough water to cook, bathe and clean with, be front and center in our proactive initiatives. I’m talking about places like Porterville and other Central Valley areas that truly bore the brunt of the last drought. We need to make sure that they continue to receive safe, clean drinking water, and it has to be as affordable as possible.

“I believe that’s the response that you’re seeing from our governor, who put forward a $5.1 billion package of immediate drought response and relief for these communities. Of course, there are a number of other policy adjustments that need to be made. There have been adjustments as it relates to water-quality standards for the purposes of moving water from one place to the other. The conversation about advancing the issue of storage projects clearly has been raised over the last few months in discussions about this drought. … We need to build reservoirs and other water-structure elements to be able to capture and store water, whether above or under the ground. We do have these circumstances where there are record-breaking rainfalls in the middle of these drought declarations, and much of that water is unable to be captured because of water-storage capacity issues.”

Due to climate change, future droughts may be even worse. Metzger, at the DWA, said that fact is on the minds of local water agencies—and that fact means it’s important that we start conserving now.

“Twenty years from now, with population growth, maybe we need a new reservoir,” she said. “But if we’re all conserving, then maybe we don’t need that new reservoir. That means less capital costs, as well as less (operations and maintenance costs) every year. Also, perhaps if we can conserve enough, we don’t need to find other more expensive sources of water to bring into the valley.”

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Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, after he and his wife Linda moved from Los Angeles to Palm...