They call drought the “creeping disaster,” for the way it comes over communities gradually—and for the way it unfolds, day by day, not with the drama of a storm or an earthquake, but with an ever-worsening dread. California just came off the driest year on record, and the nearly every corner of the state is gripped by severe drought. It’s so bad that within 100 days, 17 communities in California could simply run out of most essential commodity there is. Though northern California was blessed by a bit of rain this week, it will take far more than is forecast to end this drought.
More than most disasters, drought can create an atmosphere of fatalism. After all, what more is there to do than simply endure the days and weeks of dry weather, hoping for something to shift in the skies and bring back rain. But drought isn’t just about the weather. How Californians use water—or more importantly, don’t use it—will have an enormous impact on just how bad this drought becomes, and on whether the Golden State can prepare for a climate that is likely to be even hotter and drier. Here are five ways California could beat the drought.
Drip Irrigation: Agriculture in California uses about 80% of the state’s developed water supply, but without irrigation, fertile farmland like the Central Valley—which alone produces about 8% of the country’s farm product—would go barren. But much of that water isn’t used wisely, especially if it’s dispensed on crops via sprinklers or through flooding fields. But drip irrigation, which allows water to seep slowly into the roots of plants through a network of tubes and valves at the base of a plant, is far more efficient. First used widely in the arid farmland of Israel, drip irrigation greatly reduces the loss of water to evaporation—an increasing problem as California continues to warm—and to runoff. Drip irrigation is more expensive than the conventional alternatives, but with water in California getting scarcer and pricier, farmers may have little choice but to switch.
Xeriscaping: California is not a rainy place—which, of course, is half the reason most people live there. Even during a normal year, the state gets only about 22 inches of precipitation a year, near the bottom for the U.S. But you wouldn’t know that from the lush lawns that dot suburban homes from San Diego to Eureka. More than 50% of California’s residential water use occurs outdoors, and a typical lawn consumes an average of 57 in. of rain a year, according to the Association of California Water Agencies. But in a dry climate like California’s, a grass lawn won’t survive long without watering. The answer: ditch the grass. In xeriscaping, which means “dry landscaping,” homeowners replace thirsty grass with drought-tolerant native plants like wildflowers and succulents. Homeowners can even make money off the switch—the Santa Clara Valley Water District will pay homeowners $1 per sq. ft. to change their lawns.
Desalinization: As a coastal state, California isn’t short of water—it’s just short of fresh water. Desalinization technology—which converts seawater to drinkable water through a high pressure osmosis system that removes salt and other impurities—is already being used in water-stressed cities like Singapore. So it’s not surprising that California has explored the technology as well. More than a dozen desalinization plants have been proposed for California, including major systems in Carlsbad and Huntingdon Beach. But ocean desalinization isn’t cheap—about $2,000 per acre-foot, about twice as much as water tends to cost now—and it can come with environmental issues, as all that left over brine is pumped back into the ocean. There could be greener options—a California startup called WaterFX has developed desalinization technology that uses renewable energy, cleaning water through a solar still. But for now, desalinization doesn’t make much environmental or economic sense for California.
Water Recycling: Better than building massive plants to generate new water from the sea, Californians should try to get more out of the water they already have—by recycling it. The technology exists to clean and directly reuse wastewater, creating something close to a closed loop. Several years ago, water officials in southern California’s Orange County built the Groundwater Replenishment System (GRS), which takes in about 70 million gallons of wastewater a day, puts it through a multistep cleaning process, then discharges the treated water into the region’s aquifer. Some of the treated water forms a barrier against seawater, which has been infiltrating groundwater as the county has dried up. The rest actually goes to recharge the aquifers that supply drinking water to Orange County. Officially this method is called indirect potable use, but it’s really water recycling. Similar recycling plants have opened elsewhere in California, and while the reused water tends to be diverted towards non-drinking purposes like landscaping, the purification system makes it safe enough to drink. Given how valuable water is—especially in a dry state like California—recycling it makes perfect sense.
Conservation: The average home in California uses almost 200 gallons of water a day—but it doesn’t have to be that much. Something as simple as turning off the faucet when brushing teeth or shaving can save 10 gallons a day. Taking five-minute showers instead 10-minute ones can save as much as 25 gallons of water a day. And the savings are even greater if you switch to more efficient shower heads and toilets—the latter can use as much as a quarter of a household’s water. In California, water agencies usually offer rebates for switching out old, inefficient appliances. The good news is that Californians have been getting better at conservation and efficiency. Both agricultural and urban water demand in California have plateaued, even both the economy and population keep growing. And that’s a good thing—every indication is that California could be in for a very long dry spell. There’s not a drop to waste.