Search results for drought

My un-irrigated “meadow” never looked so good! Photos by Gary Lai

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.

The green hills of Griffith Park.

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.

ElNino-Gary-Lai

As we watch the LA  river expel water at freeway speeds, we Californians will proclaim the end to a long drought.  Unfortunately, this is not the truth. “Epic” drought is a literal truth in our case.

The last 5 years was the worst drought in a millennia (I heard the worst Californian drought in 1,200 years!).  It’s going to take a bit more than even a record-breaking single wet season to get us back to where we were.  So, buckle up, ladies and gentlemen, we are up for a rough ride of mud slides, mosquitoes, fires, La Niña, and possibly more drought. But that’s why we all live in sunny SoCal, right?  For the theme parks…

That’s the funny thing about climate change. When you hear the talking heads in cable news, they talk about climate change like it is a John Cusack movie: we’ll wake up one morning and all of sudden Santa is putting presents under our tree in June.  No, it will be more like bad cosmetic surgery – whatever you had going on might have been bad, but whatever you did to try and fix it made it worse, and it will only get worse as you become older.

California has always been the land of drought and storms.  In a Civileats.com article, they quote UCLA historian Norris Hundley:

“It is a mistake…to think of California in terms of averages and regular cycles of precipitation.”

The article goes on to describe early California settlers’ descriptions of our weather conditions,  conclusions that the Sonoma Valley was “unsuitable for agriculture” in 1841 and that the Sacramento Valley was a “barren wasteland” (political haters add snide comment here).  Two decades later, Sacramento could only be transversed by canoe, and then was overcome with drought just two years after that.

Floodwaters in Los Angeles River destroy Southern Pacific railroad bridge. The photo was taken from North Figueroa Street bridge. Photo via Vintage Everyday.

Floodwaters in Los Angeles River destroy Southern Pacific railroad bridge. The photo was taken from North Figueroa Street bridge. Photo via Vintage Everyday.

Locally, depression era Angelenos had “dust bowl” droughts from 1929-1935 only to have the great Los Angeles flood in 1938 that caused great loss of life and spurned the channelization of the river which we are trying to desperately undo today. So, we’ve always had periods of highs and lows.  What climate change is doing is making those highs and lows more extreme, hence the worst drought in a millennia, and the worst El Nino ever recorded back-to-back.

As a water conservation and sustainability guy, I was recently researching the history of drought in California when I realized that drought has always been a part of my life. Big events in my life seem to coincide with big droughts. I thought it might be interesting to do a blog series on my experiences growing up in California during drought and put it in a historical perspective.

The first “big” drought that I remember was from 1976-1977 (ironically, the same time a little movie called Star Wars opened on the big screen… wonder if anybody remembered that movie?). During that childhood drought, homeowners were encouraged to put bricks into their toilets to take up space in the tank and reduce the amount of water per flush. Watching my dad slide a brick into the toilet tank was a surreal experience. My 10 year old brain told me, bricks and toilets don’t go together. That reassuring flush that I could always depend on just wasn’t the same after that heavy, bulky thing was dropped in the tank.  In fact, horrors of all horrors, sometimes the contents didn’t even make it down in the first flush! Gross!

But my dad – a child of the Great Depression and a thrifty-to-a-fault civil engineer – decreed that there would not be any water wasting in his household. California was in a drought and we were not to act like those wasteful, Dodger-loving, car-washing Southern Californians. Showers were to be strictly timed. “Number 2” would be the only reason to flush our brick-modified toilet.  Plants in the yard would only be watered by the San Francisco fog. And the car would only be washed when the caked up dirt caused a drop in it’s resale value. To me, this was the dumbest thing I had ever heard. I wanted my toilet to flush correctly. I wanted to take my 30 minute showers. Who ever heard of saving water? You turned on the tap and it always comes out.

Despite my vigorous objections, my dad was resolute in his orders. All that was left for me was to grumble and sulk. The year was 1976 and my dad was right about a couple of things: 1. Southern Californians love the Dodgers (well, at least until the Angels beat our beloved Giants in the 2002 World Series), and 2. the state was in trouble…water trouble.

Photo from July 6, 1976 Los Angeles Times: "California’s drought — now regarded as the worst in half a century — has begun to produce critical shortage that will leave some communities without drinking water, force some farmers to abandon irrigated fields, and, in a few cases, leave firemen without water reserves to fight wildland fires." Sound familiar?

Photo from July 6, 1976 Los Angeles Times: “California’s drought — now regarded as the worst in half a century — has begun to produce critical shortage that will leave some communities without drinking water, force some farmers to abandon irrigated fields, and, in a few cases, leave firemen without water reserves to fight wildland fires.” Sound familiar? Photo by: Steve Fontanini / Los Angeles Times

The question I always had was: why was that drought so bad (at least until this last one)? For one thing, 1976 was the first drought during what I would call the “modern” era of California. Prior to that drought, California was a boom state in population growth. Our population roughly quadrupled between 1928 and 1976.  California had a population of 15 million souls during the previous drought in 1959-1960. By 1976, the population had grown 143% to 21.5 million (we currently stand at 38.8 million). Quite simply, we had outstripped our infrastructure and had forgotten – or just didn’t anticipate – what drought would do to the state that had six and a half million more people living in it.

1960 to 1976 was worlds apart socially, culturally, and in every way possible for the American people, so our mothers, fathers, grandfathers, and grandmothers can be excused, I suppose. But this drought did hit like – ahem – a ton of bricks. It caused extreme local regional water shortages (an emergency pipeline had to built across the Richmond-San Rafael bridge as Bay Area reservoirs began to run dry) and in some parts of the Central Valley had to shut down all farming activities. It was a scary time for my parents who had seen tremendous social upheaval in San Francisco and in the country: from the Summer of Love, to a long foreign war, to the resignation of a president.

The good news is that after we finally got rain and snow during the 1977-1978 season, municipalities and water districts finally woke up and started to fund capacity and infrastructure improvements to try and take care of the next drought. The bad news was that this opened up a whole new set of problems…

Next Month:  “Love, Life, Per diem, and the Peripheral Canal”

Photo: The cracked and parched Lake Hume reservoir bed in Victoria.

Photo: The cracked and parched Lake Hume reservoir bed in Victoria.

Like California, Australia has experienced long periods of drought over the centuries. Australia’s most recent drought was labeled the Millennia Drought, beginning back in 1995 and lasting until 2012, drastically impacting the entire country’s infrastructure and lifestyle.

“It is clear that Australians use less water than Californians, with a similar climate, economy, and culture. If California had the same residential water use rates as Australia, it could have reduced gross urban water use by 2.1 million acre-feet.” – U.C. Davis Comparison of Residential Water Usage between California and Australia

In response to the severity of its long-lasting drought, Australia implemented serious reform at the state government level. For instance, regulators use satellite imagery to identify and impose fines for green lawns. Public government reports are used to reveal household water use, while shaming water-wasting individuals is considered an effective tool for reducing daily water consumption. A cap and trade system allows water and land owners to buy and sell shares of their water allotment. With signs of another drought affecting parts of Victoria and South Australia, the country is better equipped to conserve and manage their precious resource because these strict measures are already enacted.

Although Australia’s response to the latest drought may be considered radical measures by some Californians, it is clear the country has succeeded in significantly reducing their water usage, allowing the population to survive one of the worst droughts in history.

So what is keeping California from adopting similar measures?

Well, for one thing, there’s a reason why our drought is often referred to as an “invisible” problem. Culturally and subconsciously, some Californians have a hard time giving up or cutting back personal freedoms of water usage. And despite our individual efforts to save water, maybe we need radical reform to make the problem visible and the solutions more unified at the state and federal levels. California is not the only state in a drought, and it’s best for all citizens to recognize resources like water are not infinite, whether stricter measures are or not enforced.

All Photos by Linda Daley

All photos by Linda Daley

If you were to look around my home you’d find I’ve placed buckets in the tub, shower, and sinks. The reason? I am intent on conserving water during the drought by capturing as much of our household water for reuse in my gardens and flushing the toilet. The daily yields of greywater captured from the sinks and tubs have given me useful information about our household water habits and usage. For example, I discovered that running our shower water until it gets hot fills up a five gallon bucket in no time.

IMG_1691

At some point our buckets graduated from an everyday utility pail to decorative home accessory. How did this happen? I blame the process of trial and error. I managed to accumulate a number of pails and containers while looking for the best ones for collecting water. Rather than storing my “failed” purchases in a closet, I thought instead to keep them where they may be needed. Hence, one bucket started holding long stemmed flowers – just like the ones you see in the farmers market – to add cheer to the bathroom, while another one was flipped upside down to serve as a convenient table or seat next to the tub.

farmers market flower buckets

Not my best decisions. Luckily, my husband put a stop to it. So I am passing along a few tips in case you have not yet ventured down this path during these drought-conscious times.

Things to Consider When Purchasing a Bucket for Greywater Collection:

Bucket size: The first set of buckets I purchased were too large. At 15 inches in height, I kept scraping my calf against them in our small shower. For my 5’-7” height, a 9-10 inch high bucket with rounded edges solved the problem. I also think the rectangular, versus round, buckets capture more water. For the shower or tub, you can purchase the larger sizes, but you will need a smaller pail to pour the water into (see why below). A 12-15 quart pail works for me.

Plastic versus metal: A bucket full of water is heavy. I learned right away that I don’t have the strength to carry a 5-gallon container of water (what was I thinking!) to the garden. Although I like the look of galvanized metal pails, the plastic ones are a bit lighter, and every ounce matters when you are hauling water through the house. Don’t go cheap on the plastic either; they won’t last long with constant use.

Handles: Make sure your pail has handles. I use the smaller 5-6 inch high containers in my kitchen because they fit perfectly in my sink. These containers do not come with handles but then my backyard is also a short distance from the kitchen. Sturdy handles just make carrying the water easier. Look for the ones with sturdy grips. Your hands will thank you.

Color: The first set of buckets I used were painting buckets. They are bright orange. I developed a negative emotional response whenever I saw the bright orange. Color matters. Surprisingly, buckets come in neutral and other colors. I now prefer to stick to white. Otherwise, I get caught up with the whole matching-to-décor thing. And my husband will have none of that anymore.

Photo: Chuan Ding

Photo: Chuan Ding

It’s been over a year since our Governor officially declared a California state of emergency due to the state drought. However, it’s important to note average temperatures have been rising for over the past 15 years, meaning if the trend continues we are likely to face more extremely hot dry summers for years to come. Heat waves have already swept through Asia and Europe in the last couple weeks, during which time thousands of Europeans went out to seek relief out in the water. Swimming pools, public water fountains, mist fountains, and any body of water were popular destinations for families – and even pets – seeking relief during the heatwave and it’s no different here in Los Angeles when temperatures rise into the triple digits. With summer in full swing here in Los Angeles, the question arises, “How can we enjoy water in a time of drought?” in a city which has long relied upon swimming pools for summer relief?

Creative Commons Photo by Matt Deavenport

Creative Commons Photo by Matt Deavenport

But before we talk about any tips and recommendations, here are some facts about swimming pools every Angeleno should know:

  • There are 43,123 swimming pools in the Los Angeles basin, with an average depth of 5.5 feet and a surface area of 430 sq. ft. The average total volume is about 18,000 gallons per pool. This means that 760 million gallons, or 2,300 acre-feet of water, is stored in Los Angeles swimming pools at any given time. People in Southern California consume about 130 gallons of water per day, which means the amount of water in those 43,123 pools could provide water for all of our city’s residents for about 1.5 years.
  • Water evaporation from pools without covers accounts for around 2,000 acre-feet of water per year.
  • Families with swimming pools use an average of 22% – 25% more water than households without one, a figure cited from a 1999 study done by the California Urban Water Conservation Council surveying 194 homes with swimming pools.
Wikimedia Commons Photo by Jeff Sandquist

Wikimedia Commons Photo by Jeff Sandquist

So knowing all these facts, what are those 43,123 households with swimming pools to do outside of draining and filling in their pools? What strategies can pool owners take to efficiently enjoy their pool while wasting less of the precious resource of water?

Infographic via LA Times Twitter.

Infographic via LA Times Twitter.

1. Get a pool cover. Swimming pool covers can stop 90% of the evaporation rate, and in turn save 30%-50% total water loss. You might be surprised to discover a pool with a cover uses less water over three years than a turf lawn of the same size, and even a drought tolerant landscaped garden.

2. Keep the pool’s water level lower. Keeping the pool levels below the edge to reduce water loss caused by overflow and splashing.

3. Reuse the drainage water and spa backwash to water your backyard plants. Swimming pools seldom need to be drained, but when the need arises consider reusing the water. Just remember to neutralize the acids and do not use chemicals for 72 hours prior to draining. Pool water and spa backwash water (approximately 75 gallons per rinse), can both be used to irrigate a variety of salt-tolerant plants like oleander, rosemary, olive, aloe, deer grass and others once properly treated. More about reusing pool and spa water for gardens here.

4. Use a public pool: I’ve fond memories of learning how to swim as a child, and also spending hot summer afternoons with friends in Las Vegas, both done at public pools. Public pools are a more efficient use of water since the resource is shared amongst more people at once. Here’s more information about the best Los Angeles public swimming pools and water features.