I came to a realization while driving up the coast the other day: I had forgotten what a green Los Angeles looks like. Heck, I forgot what a green California looks like!
This all happened while I was driving up through the Valley, past Thousand Oaks. There before me stood a sea of green rolling hills, while on the radio, Governor Brown was declaring the end of the drought emergency, lifting most of the statewide water restrictions across almost all of the California counties. The morning paper reported our snowpack in the Sierras finished the winter at 173% above normal!
For a second, I couldn’t help thinking, “We’re back! Maybe I’ll finally be able to take long showers, wash half-loads in ‘full’ mode on the washing machine, and crank up the irrigation controller for my newly replanted lawn!”. But then I came back to my senses.
There’s no going back to the days when water seemed endless. Because the water never was endless.
According to the Introduction to Water in California, part of the California Natural History Guide Series, California receives about 200 million acre-feet of water in an average year. 78 million acre-feet becomes runoff that we can use. As a rule-of-thumb, an acre-foot of water services about 5-8 people. That sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? But wait! Fresh water is needed in all of our riparian ecosystems too, so we can’t take it all. Adding the thirsty needs of agriculture, industrial uses, air conditioners, man-made lakes, ornamental landscapes, sports fields and swimming pools, and all of sudden, it doesn’t really seem like that much. Factoring the often forgotten figures related to waste and inefficiencies like leaky pipes and the safe margin shrinks a little further more.
California’s population is projected to reach 50-60 million people by 2050, so our water needs will only increase. Remember that 78 million acre-feet? That’s all we are ever going to get. To make matters worse, climate change makes the amount of water we receive much more unpredictable. A historical average might not be the future average as the cycle of droughts and wet years become more intense and extreme.
My point is that fresh water is not endless. Water is a precious and finite resource that will run out if we continue to treat it as if there is an endless supply.
I do believe that desalinization is in our water future. However, the plants of today are expensive, dirty, and take an inordinate amount of energy. Desalinization should be a method of last resort when we have exhausted all of conservation and storage options. We currently waste so much water. Water conservation is a low cost, low-hanging fruit that can extend our supply well into the future until we can develop desalination technologies that will be safer, cheaper and more ecologically responsible. So, please don’t increase your shower time 10 fold or rip out that drought-tolerant landscape. Please continue to be cognizant that our water future is determined by what we do today.
For more about the drought and saving water strategies, check out our past posts about the topic here.