The Vicious Cycle Making Our Drought Worse and Worse (unless we stop it)

Colorado Delta PeterMcBrideWe’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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Rising Temperatures=More Water Use
    When it’s hot outside, keeping lawns alive, pools filled and crops growing all require more water.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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