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Water Lessons from California’s Drought

For most of the last century, California was synonymous with the good life – beautiful people doing beautiful things in beautiful places. Somehow, all that glamour has given way to a stark reality. Today still boasts unbeatable career opportunities, but it’s also home to confounding rental markets, health-care challenges, and the worst drought a heavily populated US state has ever endured. It might have something to do with the fact that California uses more water than any other state in the nation. While the world looks on at California’s struggles, the rest of the country is counting its blessings and gleaning whatever wisdom it can from the lessons the west coast is having to learn the hard way.

The threats aren’t always obvious.

The three most pervasive pollutants in our water are dirt, bacteria, and nutrients. Believe it or not, ordinary dirt is clean water’s Enemy #1. Much of it comes from construction projects and excess runoff. If we’re going to take big action to protect our water supply we’ll need to start thinking outside the box.

One-time decisions make a long-time impact.

You have a lot of control over how much water you use and how you use it. Some of our most impactful decisions, water-wise, only have to be made once. Even if you remember to turn off the water every single time you brush your teeth, you can still do more by making these water-friendly decisions.

Plant a drought-tolerant yard. Many plants and shrubs flourish with far less water than grass, so choose your groundcover wisely.

Choose air-cooled appliances. Why chill your food with water when you can use air? Yes, clean air is a valuable resource, but it’s a heck of a lot easier than water to renew.

Install a water-efficient showerhead and sink aerators. It might bug you a tiny bit in the shower. It won’t bother you at all on any faucets.

Compost. Stop using energy to chop your food into bits and water to flush it away. Composting is green to the Nth degree.

Install high-efficiency toilets. You’re not going to replace many toilets in your life, and when it happens, the choice is yours. Be on the right side of posterity.

Opportunities to save water are hiding in plain sight.

The best way to save water is to be more aware of it. Use this opportunity to trace all of its roles in your life. Think about where your food comes from and whether that makes sense. Watch your water bill and take action if it seems too high. Water your grass (and only your grass, not your sidewalk) during the cooler hours of the day. Your plants will be happier, and you’ll lose less water to evaporation. Implement grey-water reuse. As water professionals, we think about water a lot. If only one positive comes out of all these California water problems, we hope it’s that greywater hits the big time. So much of our household and even industry related water can be reused after the first time it’s used. It may not be drinkable, but water has countless uses beyond drinking. If you’ve never heard the word “greywater,” go do some research. If you have, get moving on this one. Greywater is the new black.

Our individual best might not be enough.

California’s historic drought has inspired an awful lot of number crunching. Unfortunately, in-depth analysis of water usage has yielded some inconvenient truths. Though the public water supply consumes the third-highest amount of water on a National level, it comes in a very distant third. Thermoelectric power and irrigation (the highest and second highest consumption categories) account for three quarters of all water usage. If we eliminated the public water supply altogether, we wouldn’t be able to save more than 25% of the water we use. While it is important for every citizen to be water conscious and practice conservation, it’s also vital that we develop more sustainable ways of growing food and manufacturing products.

Common sense is uncommon.

While a lot of attention has been given to the voices calling for shower limits and a ban on swimming pools, the initiatives that would have the greatest impact are fighting to gain ground. Most of California’s water is used for agriculture and industry, but a great deal of water-use data is hidden from the public. Emphasis is placed on the water consumption of private citizens while some causes of large-scale waste go unchecked. One man even installed an AstroTurf lawn to eliminate the water he’d been using to maintain his grass. He was hit with $4,000 in fines from his homeowners association!

Our water future starts with you.

The world’s water situation sounds pretty out of control sometimes. It’s easy to feel powerless and like our own individual actions don’t matter. You affect the big structures in our country, like communities and industries. Vote with your dollars to support companies that conduct business sustainably. Go to a local government meeting sometime. Get involved, share your opinions, and start conversations. Start small. If enough people do, we’ll change the course of water’s future.