May 2017: Water conservation needs to be a way of life

The drought is over! The drought is over!

Uhhhhh…really?

Yes, on April 7, the Governor declared that the drought that plagued California from 2011 through early 2017 had ended, thanks to the wettest winter on record in Northern California. Then, in late April, California’s main water regulatory agency ended mandatory conservation regulations for urban residents.

The State Water Resources Control Board’s decision means that urban water agencies (such as EBMUD) no longer have to prove they have enough water to withstand three straight years of dry weather. All other conservation requirements have ended, too, although Californians are still prohibited from engaging in “wasteful practices” such as watering their lawns while it’s raining or hosing down sidewalks.

But let’s face it. California remains distinctly water-insecure. The wet winter of 2015-16 and the very wet winter of 2016-17 don’t solve the underlying problems. Because only the northern part of the state generally receives rain and snow, any winter that’s drier than average has far-reaching effects. This is made worse by the fact that not much water infrastructure has been built since 1979, even though the state’s population has doubled since then.

Furthermore, the state's reservoirs are not big enough to hold even one year of precipitation and, due to limited spillway flow design, reservoirs cannot be quickly drained in anticipation of major storms. Without changes in water use, it would take about six dry years to deplete the state's undersized reservoirs.

So the bottom line is that we all need to continue the water conservation efforts that have become part of our lives over the last few years. Drought-tolerant landscaping with timed irrigation – watering early in the morning and reducing run-off by setting sprinklers for short periods of time but repeating the cycle 2-3 times – is both attractive and practical. Native plants are ideally suited for our long, dry summers. We still need to be vigilant about leaky sprinkler heads, not to mention running toilets and drippy faucets. Low-flow showerheads, buckets to capture water while it’s heating up … we’ve grown accustomed to them, and have realized that they’re not all that burdensome.

Under Gov. Brown, the state’s Natural Resources Agency has developed a California Water Action Plan, a roadmap for the first five years of the state’s journey toward sustainable water management. It was originally released in 2014, and revised last year; the 2016 update reflects both endorsement of the original goals and considerable progress toward them.

California’s recent water crisis is not thought to be part of a long-term change in precipitation but simply a symptom of natural variability. However, geophysicists have suggested that the record-high summer temperatures that accompanied the recent drought and made its impacts worse probably were due to human-induced global warming.

Check out Sustainable Lafayette’s website – Sustainablelafayette.org – for information about our local projects and events. Connect with community members who care about sustainability issues at our monthly “Green Gatherings.”

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