Still reeling after our most recent multi-year drought, many San Diegans have decided to carry their water-saving practices forward, for good. During the drought, what used to be a mundane, taken-for-granted resource was now frequently front-page news. As a result, many of us felt a fundamental shift in the way we think about, talk about, and use, water. So, our showers are still shorter, our yards are now more richly landscaped with vibrant, hearty native plants, and we still care about what else is being done to conserve.
Residential water use makes up just over half our region’s overall consumption. That said, there are still many other areas where conservation can play an impactful role. Here at Coastkeeper, we found ourselves wondering, what are some of our local commercial and other non-residential spaces doing? Conservation practices on the commercial level can make a big impact on our region’s overall water use. Here are some examples of businesses and other organizations taking the lead.
- Hotel Indigo
San Diego’s first LEED-certified boutique hotel, Hotel Indigo has a number of practices in place that enhance the sustainability of its operations. Those that help save water – and benefit water quality – include the use of drought-tolerant native plants and high-efficiency irrigation in their landscaping, and green roofs that help filter urban runoff. Learn more about their sustainable practices here.
- Stone Brewing
From landscaping their famous beer gardens with low-water plants, to featuring a comprehensive and thoughtful Meatless Monday menu once a week, to using an on-site water reclamation system to reuse wastewater, Stone is a regional leader in putting commercial conservation practices in place.
- Balboa Park
The green heart of our city recently underwent some major efficiency upgrades that will reduce the park’s water consumption by about 2.4 million gallons a year. The changes made included the installation of hundreds of more efficient water fixtures across park restrooms, and upgrading the kitchens in nine historic buildings. Learn more about the overhaulhere.
- Snooze, an A.M. Eatery
This Denver-based brunch spot has three locations in our neck of the woods (La Jolla, Del Mar, and Hillcrest). They might be most popular for their pineapple upside down pancakes, but behind the scenes, Snooze has a number of environmental initiatives in practice, and even dedicates the whole month of June each year to educating their patrons about water conservation. Learn more here.
- Napizza Little Italy
At this location, Napizza conserves water by using a low-flow pre-rinse sprayer on their dishes, before popping them into an Energy Star dishwashing machine. Aerators on handwashing and prep sinks reduce use further, making Napizza a great place to grab a slice. Did we mention they use local veggies on their pies, too? Yum. Learn morehere.
So, next time you need a staycation, consider checking into the Hotel Indigo, then taking a nice picnic of beer, pizza, and pancakes into Balboa Park.
The numbers are in. California is conserving less water than it needs to. San Diego is doing even worse.
- California conserved less water this year than last year. In October 2015, California conserved 22.5 percent more than 2013. This year, California only conserved 19.5 percent.
- In October 2016, San Diego County conserved 12 percent more water than in 2013 — is this good? Not really. In October 2015 we conserved 22 percent more water than 2013. We can — and need — to do better.
- All local water agencies in San Diego County used more water this October than they did last October.
- Olivenhain Municipal Water District went from a commendable 25 percent water savings last year to a paltry five percent water savings this year.
Why are we wasting so much water? This is what happens when water agencies stop giving meaningful effort towards conservation. Almost 75 percent of the state is still in drought conditions. 100 percent of Southern California. We need to be doubling down on conservation, not giving up on it.
Drought Rages On, San Diego Uses More Water
Our water authorities rely upon wasteful water use. The more water we waste, the more money they receive. It’s no surprise that, after the state allowed our local water authorities to regulate themselves, they nixed conservation targets and water use steadily increased.
When Governor Brown mandated water conservation, the average goal of local water agencies was a 21 percent reduction in water use. Now that water agencies are allowed to set their own goals, 330 out of California’s 395 water agencies (including all the agencies in San Diego) have nixed conservation goals entirely, dropping the state average to two percent.
Don’t let the recent rains fool you. Drought is our new normal and the future will only be hotter and drier. Using less water is as important as ever to ensure reliable and affordable water for all.
The Journal of Environmental Management studied two Australian regions facing water shortages, Southeast Queensland and Perth.
- Strategy of Using Less: Southeast Queensland invested in conservation and efficiency. They saved big on lower energy costs and achieved a dramatic, permanent drop in water use per capita. Hooray!
- Strategy of Creating More: Perth invested in a desalination plant. Per capita water use dropped only slightly and Perth paid heavily in higher energy costs. Yikes.
Long term reductions in water use is the cheapest and most environmentally sound way to address California’s water management problems.
The Pacific Institute released an in-depth analysis on the costs of the different alternative water supply options available to California. The results:
- Cheapest: Stormwater capture at an average of $530 per acre foot of water.
- Most expensive: Seawater desalination at an average of $2,100 per acre foot. (San Diego County ratepayers pay $2,140 per acre foot from Poseidon’s desalination plant in Carlsbad)
- Middle ground: Water recycling projects, that turn wastewater into drinking water, fall somewhere in between. (City of San Diego’s approved Pure Water project will create 83 million gallons per day of drinking water by 2035)
Jo Ann and Ted, in Talmadge, tend to hear their neighbors gossiping quietly as they walk by their front yard, “Don’t they know we’re in a drought?!” Jo Ann and Ted do, that’s why their yard, packed with fruit trees and a jungle of colorful plants doesn’t use a single drop of extra municipal water.
Read about the simple, low-cost techniques, available to nearly all San Diegans, they use to grow a zero-water landscape without any gravel or cactus. It’s actually pretty easy.
Scientific study says that if carbon emissions continue unabated, the risk of a mega-drought could exceed 99 percent. Cornell Professor of Earth Science Toby Ault tells the Atlantic,
“This will be worse than anything seen during the last 2,000 years and would pose unprecedented challenges to water resources in the region. As we add greenhouse gases into the atmosphere—and we haven’t put the brakes on stopping this—we are weighting the dice for mega-drought conditions.”
San Francisco Bay and Delta Are Quickly Dying
Thanks to transfers of river water from San Francisco’s Delta and Bay to farmland and urban centers in Southern California, scientists report many species in the San Francisco ecosystem are in their “sixth extinction,” environmental science’s most-dire definition of ecosystem collapse.
For the last two decades, the State Water Resources Control Board has attempted to reach an agreement that would protect the ecosystem by diverting less water, but also not upset anybody who doesn’t want to use less water. This has been impossible. The agreement remains stalled while the San Francisco ecosystems near collapse.
You made it through the headlines. Enjoy a GIF.
Guest Author is Brook Sarson, H2OME
True Water Conservation requires an integrated approach and taking the initiative to be part of the solution. Jo Ann and Ted, in Talmadge, were reluctant to get rid of their front lawn because they did not know what it could turn into, did not want to put something in that required a lot of water and did not like the cactus and gravel look. But, we found a solution that worked.
We arrived at a design including fruit trees, natives and pollinating plants. We installed a 420-gallon rainwater tank that overflows into a basin in the front yard for passive water collection during the rainy season. We put in a simple Laundry-to-Landscape system to provide a consistent supply of water to fruit trees every week. This yard is augmented by good soil and mulch to create better absorption of water and prevent evaporation. In just a year, Jo Ann and Ted have a thriving oasis and more wildlife than ever before (lizards, butterflies, hummingbirds, bees). They have told me that they are amused to overhear their neighbors remark, “Don’t they know we are in a drought?” even as they watch their apples ripen without any municipal water.
Generally, with the right combination of strategies, people are seeing reductions by half in their water use. Here are some tips to help you get started at your own home.
- Start by REDUCING your water use.
Get rid of your thirsty landscape so you don’t need water in the first place. This doesn’t mean artificial turf, gravel and cactus, or hardscaping. It also doesn’t mean investing a ton of money in re-landscaping, tanks, or greywater plumbing. Property value can be preserved with the right plants in the right places and some well directed rainwater. Notice a return of butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees to our neighborhoods!
- PLANT THE WATER FIRST.
If you are preparing your landscape for redevelopment and you want to make the best use of your water resources, before you decided on plants and a design, figure out what greywater and rainwater potential you have. Create a water budget. Design your plantings to use the the easiest water to access and at the volumes that are plant appropriate.
- GET CREATIVE.
Sometimes, if you can imagine changing some personal habits a little or altering your routines, your water distribution will be more effective! Like changing your shower from a 2GPM shower head to a 1.5GPM shower head. With 20 minutes of showering a day you end up saving 10 gallons a day! That’s 3600 gallons for the year! Not to mention getting the water budget right for your landscape. 40 gallons a day might be too much for a drought tolerant landscape. Better yet, create an outdoor shower to avoid expensive retrofits and let the water go directly to the plants that need them, ending your need for irrigation.
- USE SMALL SPACES FOR BIG IMPACT.
This can look like many things, but often looks like a 205-gallon tank instead of a 55-gallon barrel. Did you know that a 1000-square-foot roof will shed 600 gallons in just one inch of rain? With 10 inches of rain on average in San Diego, that adds up to a lot of water. Think big for your water storage needs.
- GET THE COMMUNITY INVOLVED.
Getting your neighbors and friends involved can make short work out of a greywater or rainwater installation. Host a workshop for your friends and neighbors.
- DO MUCH OF THE WORK YOURSELF.
You just have to learn what your resources are, and make sure you get it done right! Connect with a local expert for a consultation, take their recommendations, and use them as your resource along the way. Buy a good book and follow the instructions. Learn about water budgeting. Take a class and make a friend to skill-share with to get the job done. You can find tons of good resources at www.h2o-me.com.
- LOVE THY NEIGHBOR.
Sometimes your neighbors don’t want to do what you are doing, but you’d be surprised how they can contribute if you just ask! Like one family who is borrowing their neighbor’s downspout to help fill their 1320 gallon rainwater tank.
- COOPERATION IS THE KEY TO ABUNDANCE.
In our community we have some amazing resources. You don’t have to do everything yourself, and often times we all benefit from working together. Bring a friend to a workshop so you each can internalize the parts of the information that you are best at. Get consultations from local experts in creating a water plan, developing a landscape plan, creating good soil, growing food, growing natives. Likely, if we all rely on people who are really skilled at what they do, we can create something far more abundant than if we try to do everything ourselves.
- GROW FOOD.
Did you know that your water footprint takes into account the food you eat? If your food is grown outside of San Diego, your water footprint is higher. Growing food in your own backyard with onsite water (rainwater for veggies, and greywater for fruit trees) means that you aren’t wasting oil to bring the food to San Diego and water, usually imported, to grow your food.
- We are ALL part of the solution to creating local water in San Diego.
If all homeowners in San Diego reduced landscape irrigation by 50% using an integrated approach to onsite water management, we would decrease our imported water needs by 20%, more than twice what the Carlsbad desalination provides for our county by much more energy intensive methods! Plus by rerouting our rainwater into our gardens, we offset storm drain pollution and by rerouting our greywater into our soil, we offset costly infrastructure upgrades to wastewater treatment facilities! If you don’t own your home, talk to your landlord, or your friends who own their homes. Turn the conversation up and the water use down! Join the movement.
We’re so used to planting green lawns in our yards that it may seem like “going brown” is the only way to turn off the garden hose and save water. But you don’t need to put up with a prickly dead lawn in order to be California-friendly. San Diego has tons of green, flowering, vibrant plants that have evolved to survive and thrive in our region. And they don’t need a ton of water or maintenance to stay healthy.
San Diego Coastkeeper fully supports lawns in areas where they are actually being used, like sporting fields or public parks. But we can’t support using water-intensive grass as a default landscape in non-functional areas. Turfgrass lawns generally take between 52-78 inches of water a year to stay alive, but San Diego only gets 5-10 inches of rain annually. When we make up the difference by running the sprinklers, we are wasting our precious water resources. It’s time to rethink what our default landscape looks like.
San Diego Coastkeeper has long been working to promote water conservation by supporting mandatory restrictions, advocating for water conservation in the media, and hosting workshops and events designed to connect San Diego residents with the tools and resources needed to make more effective, efficient use of our limited resources. We also worked with California Coastkeeper Alliance to design and implement “Back to our Roots,” a campaign promoting water savings by helping to instill pride in our beautiful native California landscape.
Water conservation is the smartest, most accessible way to ensure that we have enough water for the future and that we use it efficiently, but our region must work to improve conservation efforts. In our region, over half of residential water use is irrigation of outdoor, ornamental landscaping. You can help us return San Diego to its natural beauty and save water in the process. Not sure where to start? You can read the top ten ways to landscape responsibly, or you can support San Diego Coastkeeper today with a generous donation.
When we need it most, the San Diego County Water Authority has slashed our mandatory conservation targets from 25 percent to zero. Why? The Water Authority is the public agency that sells us our water; its member agencies bring in more money when we waste water and less money when we conserve water.
We called them out in the Voice of San Diego, detailing why mandatory conservation measures are imperative for our future, and why the Water Authority is working against the region’s best interest. You can read the full piece here, “San Diego Water Authority Is Pretending The Drought Is Over; It’s Not.”
The San Diego County Water Authority published a response.
First, the Water Authority claims that, thanks to its work pushing voluntary conservation, not mandatory, San Diego County has lowered our water use significantly, “nearly 40 percent between 1990 and 2015.” While these are great strides we’ve made as a region, it’s more useful to look at our water savings in times of greatest need.
Does Voluntary Conservation Work? Not nearly enough.
What about the time when it really matters? Did voluntary conservation measures in our last drought lower water use?
As the Equinox Center points out in its February 2015 H20verview, “between fiscal years 2010 and 2014 (the study period), San Diego County Water Authority’s (SDCWA) member agencies experienced a four percent (4%) increase in annual average residential water consumption on a per resident basis. … A SDCWA-wide decrease in overall water consumption per resident only surfaced one year during the study period: FY 2011. This was also the same year within the study period with the highest annual precipitation, as measured at San Diego’s Lindbergh Field.”
Water agencies love to highlight that water use since 1990 has gone down, but water use increased during the drought. It wasn’t until the Governor forced mandatory restrictions did we see significant water savings.
Now the Water Authority, with its move back to a zero percent conservation target, has put us back in the voluntary conservation measures that lasted from June 2014 to June 2015. These voluntary restrictions did not achieve significant savings. It’s the reason why the state of California forced us into mandatory conservation. See the graph below for the difference between voluntary and mandatory Gallons Per Capita per day for the water authority member agencies. Mandatory water conservation began in June of 2015.
Also, let’s not forget how in 2014 and early 2015, before the mandatory restrictions, we had to beg the cities to do real enforcement of existing rules. Remember the “water vigilante” stories? We made international headlines when the City’s complete lack of enforcement drove us to travel the streets recording evidence of water waste ourselves.
The Water Authority also touts the “diversification” and drought-resilience of San Diego County Water Authority’s supply portfolio as reason for letting go of mandatory conservation, specifically Poseidon’s desalination plant and the “conservation-and-transfer” agreements with Imperial County. But desalination is by far the most expensive, energy-inefficient water supply option available. Why have we spent $1 billion on a last-resort option when conservation offers so much more for so much less. The water transfers the Water Authority celebrates as “landmark” haven’t increased the diversity of our water supply, it’s the same water from our dwindling Colorado River supply, but from a different middle-man. You can’t stick two straws in the same glass and call it diverse.
This is what happens when a public agency, who survives off the sale of water, is tasked with setting water conservation mandates.
In Washington Post’s, “Why California’s local governments can’t manage their water — and why Jerry Brown’s proposal could help” Megan Mullin sums up the Water Authority’s response perfectly.
“… pursuing conservation is at odds with the traditional outlook of water resource management agencies. According to a study of agencies in California, the Pacific Northwest, and Washington, D.C., water managers measure success by their ability to deliver safe, affordable drinking water in as much quantity as people demand. Absent a mandate from above, these managers may perceive conservation efforts as a failure to perform their job.”
Our executive director, Tracie Barham, wrote this op-ed for Voice of San Diego. Tracie calls out the Water Authority for cutting mandatory conservation measures when we need them most.
Without mandatory conservation, San Diego is positioning itself to fall back into the same short-sighted planning that built the state’s drought inadequacies in the first place.
For decades, the San Diego region inched closer and closer to a drought crisis, pumping more water for more lawns from the ever-dwindling supplies in the Colorado River Basin and the Bay Delta. We were addicted, concerned with getting more water today, not the drought tomorrow.
Then we hit rock bottom. In 2015, after we failed to respond to voluntary conservation calls to action, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency. Finally, the state had a moment of truth: It was time to wean off the formerly sacrosanct approach of piping in more water and adopt the common-sense approach of using less. The state and region brought out an arsenal of incentives to encourage conservation, and in under a year we realized life was just as good when we used an average of 50 fewer gallons per person, per day. We lowered energy use, transformed our neighborhoods to reflect the region’s natural beauty and upgraded our technology. Since June 2015, San Diego had lowered its water use by a whopping 21 percent.
Meanwhile, the San Diego County Water Authority was fighting hard to get us hooked again. Why? It is the public agency that sells us our water; its member agencies bring in more money when we waste water and less money when we conserve water. It led the charge of water dealers across the state to successfully lobby the California State Water Board to weaken conservation regulations. Now, water agencies can set their own conservation targets and, unsurprisingly, the Water Authority is seeking to set ours quite low. At zero. Zilch. Nothing. Nada. From a 25 percent conservation goal to no need to conserve water anymore.
The message: “The drought is over. Use as much as you want.” But the drought, and the consequences of our dependence on imported water, are as severe as ever. Eighty-four percent of the state remains in drought condition. The Sierra snowpack, the state’s largest water storage, is currently at 8 percent. Lake Mead is about 50 feet away from provoking a federal level 1 water shortage declaration, which could cut off water to Arizona and Nevada.
The Salton Sea, the biggest lake in California, is on track to go completely dry because of water transfers that San Diego takes from the farmers. When it does, lakebed toxins like arsenic and selenium could be blown into the air, creating a poisonous, apocalyptic dust storm. Would this be our state’s newest environmental injustice, poisoning Imperial Valley farmworkers and increasing childhood asthma as the toxic plume creeps as far as Los Angeles, just so we can keep lawns green?
Despite the successes of conservation, the Water Authority would rather go back to business as usual, leave the hose running and cash in. This is what happens when regulatory powers roll over from lobbying pressure and legal threats of water agencies. The focus of water supply shifts from the ever-receding water line to the financial bottom line.
Supposedly, the Water Authority is a big proponent of encouraging conservation. But lots of organizations encouraged conservation over the last 50 years. The change that finally pulled us out of our water binge wasn’t an encouraging pat on the head and a reminder to do the right thing. It was cash. Fines for wasting and rewards for conserving. We were poised to show the world what is possible when you embrace a smarter future instead of burying your head in a lush, green lawn.
Now without mandatory conservation, San Diego positioned itself to fall back into the same short-sighted planning that built the state’s drought inadequacies in the first place.
But there is another way. We must completely adapt to the new landscape of water scarcity and continuing drought. We’ll need more than empty words; we’ll need more conservation incentives like turf rebates for water-wise landscaping and more conservation education for the public. We’ll need major investments for more wastewater recycling and stormwater capture and to continue water conservation programs that were already working.
We can stay on track toward a better future, despite the fact that the Water Authority is calling for zero percent conservation measures. But to continue on a path toward finally breaking our crippling, lifelong addiction to wasteful use of imported water, the Water Authority must stop saying, “I encourage you to conserve,” while it hands us a brand new, shiny garden hose.
Despite December’s onslaught of El Niño rains, the vast majority of our region’s water suppliers missed state-mandated conservation targets–for a second month in a row. In this new year, still firmly gripped by the worst drought in our state’s history, we cannot settle for this indifference and lose the progress we made in meeting conservation targets. Rather than viewing this drought as a temporary emergency – something to be survived until things return to “normal” – we must treat it as a transformative catalyst that pushes us to seek a more sustainable relationship with water.
A paradigm shift is long overdue.
When we conserve, water agencies make less money
The impacts of this drought, born from climate change and environmental variation, have been accelerated by laws and agency models designed for water acquisition and consumption rather than smart use and conservation.
A few years ago, in order to move forward with desalination, the San Diego County Water Authority signed a “take or pay” contract with Poseidon Resources, the developer of the Carlsbad desalination plant. That contract essentially stuck us with paying for the most expensive type of water supply currently in existence, whether the region could use it or not. Water agencies already have few real incentives to conserve, as it lowers their profits, and as we’ve recently seen in San Diego their reaction is to raise rates. With a bunch of expensive desalinated water coming down the pipes and an order from the governor to use less water, San Diego County water agencies in a tricky place, and they are looking for a tricky way out.
Water agencies are lobbying to save face
A more sustainable water future can be achieved by prioritizing and incentivizing conservation; embracing San Diego’s unique natural beauty through locally appropriate landscapes; and, supporting multi-benefit projects that reduce polluted discharges while producing new clean drinking water. Not coincidentally, multi-benefit solutions also minimize the use of and dependence on imported water and often reduce the costs to upgrade, add to, and maintain existing infrastructure.
Which brings us back to the tricky way out. Despite the responsible solutions listed above, San Diego water agencies continue to lobby Sacramento for exemptions from statewide conservation requirements — they want to continue the wasteful, yet lucrative, practices of the past, and save face for committing their ratepayers to unnecessary, expensive desalinated water. They have argued that because they have already invested in various energy-intensive, infrastructure-heavy water supply projects, San Diego shouldn’t have to conserve as much as other regions. As a result of this lobbying, the State Water Resources Control Board announced earlier this week that it would allow the San Diego region to use more water during the drought. This, despite the fact that we can meet our conservation goals and our quality of life here in San Diego is as good as ever.
The water agencies offer no good justification for these credits, and any move to allow our region to use more water will only benefit Southern California water suppliers. It hurts us, the taxpayers, who are saddled with higher prices for expensive water supply projects that we don’t need, while slowing our region’s ability to shift to a new normal based on a water conservation ethic.
Water agencies want to reward water use
With the State Board’s approval of the new regulations, San Diego is poised to use more water, while other communities have to tighten their belts even more to offset our increased water use– so that the state can still meet the governor’s required 25 percent reduction. A situation that rewards water use and punishes water frugality is the antithesis of what we must work towards. A true reward system built on equity would give the greatest recognition to those communities that have reduced demand and made investments in long-term conservation measures.
Water agencies are ignoring the opportunity
We must consider, fundamentally, how we’ll change our relationship with water going forward. We cannot, from an environmental or an economic standpoint, build costly desalination plants to continue feeding growth while maintaining lush tropical landscapes and ornamental lawns. The drought is a catalyst for change, but that change shouldn’t be a slew of new water acquisition projects, but instead a spark that ignites a new conservation ethic built upon smart and responsible water use, capture, and recycling. Our way of life depends on it, and the Constitution of California requires it.
The most important number to San Diego Coastkeeper is the power of one—you. Every day, we pursue more fishable, swimmable, drinkable water throughout San Diego County. And none of it happens without your passion, dedication and support.
In 2014, our staff of seven brought science, education and advocacy to bear on pressing water issues. Our negotiation, data and education efforts:
- Convinced the City of San Diego to unanimously approve a plan for Pure Water, a wastewater-recycling project that creates a new local drinking water source and stops polluted discharges to the ocean.
- Trained our 1,000th water quality monitor and launched a bio assessment program that measures ecosystem health by digging up bugs from rivers.
- Passed statewide legislation to allow rapid beach water quality tests that will let us know if water is safe to swim in less than four hours instead of 24 hours.
- Trained 44 teachers and taught 1,140 students with Project SWELL environmental education curriculum, helping them meet new Common Core requirements.
- Helped San Diegans do their part to address the historic drought by activating mandatory drought restrictions, in part thanks to the 10 legal and policy interns mentored through our Environmental Law & Policy Clinic.
Year in and year out, you are the support and inspiration that keeps us strong. We proudly share with you our 2014 annual report: an infographic that quantifies the “power of one” and an infographic about you and our goals for 2015.
We invite you to count the ways our team, along with you, improved fishable, swimmable and drinkable waters in San Diego County this year. And imagine what we will continue to accomplish, thanks to the power of one.
Happy fishing, swimming and drinking,
|Megan Baehrens||Liz Taylor|
|Executive Director||President, Board of Directors|
Though the State Water Board has had water use restrictions in place since August 2014–and they seem to be working, the Monterey Herald quoted Governor Jerry Brown recently saying he’s not ready to add to the restrictions statewide: “I’m reluctant to expand the coercive power of state authority,” Brown said. “In a democracy, it is fundamental that citizens be the driving force.” This is good news for those who think that regulation is not the answer. It is also a call to action; a time for individual residents and business to prove that we understand the gravity of the situation and will take care of our water, whether to protect habitat, to ensure enough supply for our growing tech industry or to keep rate increases under control.
San Diego County used 27% less water in December 2014 than it did last December. That’s even better than the statewide reduction of 22%. That’s right, the governor called for 20% reduction in use, and we did it. That figure includes residential use, industrial, agriculture…all the water. It’s a reason to celebrate. But how did we get there, and can we sustain it over the long term, which we must do to ensure continued environmental and economic health in the region?
When the governor declared a drought state of emergency in January 2014, our now four years of drought became national news. Despite cases of extreme need in other areas of California, in San Diego the message was particularly hard to swallow because our reservoirs were relatively full and regional agencies told us not to worry. After a few months of hot weather, a period when our region actually increased water consumption, and strong conservation advocacy by San Diego Coastkeeper, agencies and individuals responded by slowly adjusting their use. In part, this happened in response to regional mandatory restrictions.
What can we do? Think about using less and creating more. San Diego County is at the end of two very important pipelines. Our water comes primarily from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta in the north and the Colorado River to the east. Our region just approved Pure Water to generate 83 million gallons a day of clean local water to replace imports; and coalitions in North and South Counties are discussing similar efforts. With state drought funds being offered for large-scale projects, we need to focus on new and expanded potable reuse projects.
About half of our water use is outside the home. In addition to permanently adjusting our use so that this 27% decrease (and more) becomes the new normal, our personal choices and those of the building and landscape industry must turn to drought tolerant and edible landscaping, and we need governments to support that change. We live in a Mediterranean climate and should create beautiful landscapes that survive and thrive with little water. That means out with the turf and in with beautiful drought-tolerant plants (toyon stays green all year and bougainvillea comes in a palette of colors), or food crops that convert water into foods that nourish the body (and reduce your food’s carbon footprint).
“We need to treat water as the precious resource that it is. We need to be sensitive to the fact that many Californians don’t have or barely have enough water to drink, cook and bathe,” said State Water Board chair Felicia Marcus. “Hundreds of thousands of acres of agriculture have been fallowed, thousands of people are out of work, and fish and wildlife are struggling. Each individual act of conservation – such as letting the lawn go brown or fixing leaks – can add up to huge savings if enough people act.”
By thinking ahead, this can be a relatively painless process. Establishing new landscape requires an upfront investment of water, so timing is everything. Spend upcoming warm, dry months planning, then plant new growth during the cooler, wetter months. And, while you are at it, go ahead and turn the irrigation off to the grassy areas that are going to be replaced.
We’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news: California has found itself in the worst drought in recorded history. More bad news: Climate change and drought are trapped in a vicious cycle. As one gets worse, so does the other. This vicious cycle is called the “Water-Energy Nexus.”
But here’s the good news: If we do small things, the whole cycle can reverse and there’s enough water for everybody. Allow us to explain.
The 5 Steps of the Water Energy Nexus:
- Water Use=Energy Use
Water requires energy to extract, convey, treat, deliver and heat. Turning on the tap uses water as well as energy; nearly 20 percent of all the energy used by the state of California is spent on water use.
- Energy Use=Greenhouse Gasses=Rising Temperatures
This energy use creates greenhouse gas emissions and contributes to climate change. What’s one of the worst effects of climate change? Rising temperatures.
- Rising Temperatures=More Water Use
When it’s hot outside, keeping lawns alive, pools filled and crops growing all require more water.
- More Water Use=Way More Energy Use
As we put more demand on our water supply, we primarily rely on getting water from places further away, such as Northern California and the Colorado River Basin. It takes an enormous amount of energy to get water from other sources and bring that to San Diego.
- Vicious Cycle Engaged
As you can see, the more water we use, the more energy we use, the more we contribute to climate change and the whole process repeats, but at a faster rate than before. Staying trapped in this cycle is how we will continue our water supply crisis.
Breaking the Cycle
It sounds pretty bad, but here’s the good news I mentioned earlier: we can get out of this mess just as easily as we got into it.
The fact that water, energy, and climate change are intertwined can be just as big of an advantage as it is a problem. If we find the weakest part of the cycle and break it, the whole cycle reverses, our world begins to heal and things start to get better.
The weakest link: Lawns (and other simple stuff)
Research shows that our wasteful water use is by far the easiest part of the cycle to change. It requires the smallest changes in infrastructure and has the lowest impacts on our current lifestyle. And, over half of San Diego’s water usage goes towards outdoor purposes like watering lawns and keeping pools filled.
Our Australian neighbors with much hotter average temperatures use less than half of the water we do. Recent research from the Pacific Institute and the NRDC indicate that San Diego residents could lower their water use by 40 to 60 percent without any major impacts on their normal lifestyle. The study also indicates that businesses could lower their water use by 30-60 percent while maintaining business as usual. That kind of simple change could transform this vicious cycle into an awesome cycle of an increasingly sustainable society.
But history tells us that announcing the solution as “use less water” won’t get nearly enough people on board. Luckily, there are a few state and local policy and infrastructure changes that can help us all make the transition faster and with much less effort.
Here are three tricks and policies to help us end the cycle:
- Localized landscape subsidies or mandates
There are thousands of beautiful plant species native to San Diego. They all have evolved to thrive with the exact amount of rain and sunlight San Diego provides naturally. Landscaping with native species drastically reduces the amount of extra irrigation that non-native plants require to survive in our ecosystem. Both subsidies for native landscaping as well as mandates are good approaches depending on the situation. Our friends at the California Native Plant Society and great local landscaping companies like Schmidt Design, Revolution Landscape and others can offer advice on beautiful, productive landscaping.
- Water Lawns Less Often
San Diego is currently (as of November 2014) in Level 2 Drought alert, meaning we have temporary regulations on our water use until the drought is over. However, many municipalities have restrictions like these all year long. If we make our temporary restrictions permanent, we can build responsible water use into our lifestyle and our city’s infrastructure.
- Pricing that incentivizes conservation and discourages water waste
We think rewards and consequences that are actually important to us grownups, like cash, would encourage people to be more water conscious. By advocating for pricing structures tied to water usage, we hope to cut down on waste, increase conservation, and help keep the costs of our water down, all at the same time.
The power to solve our water crisis is in all of our hands. Luckily, the solutions are simple and based in common sense. Check out these easy tips for drastically reducing your water consumption at home.
What do you do to help conserve water? Tell us in the comments.