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“Water use in 2030 could be 20% below 2000 levels – with a growing population and healthy economy.” Pacific Institute, California Water 2030:  An Efficient Future
 
National Perspective
Almost every state in the U.S. is facing water challenges. In 2003 the General Accounting Office released a study that found that 36 states anticipate serious water shortages in the future – and that number doesn’t even include the states that didn’t respond – California, Nevada, New Mexico and Michigan – some of the states that face the most significant challenges. When we think about water scarcity we normally think about the southwest – but issues have arisen in unanticipated areas. In the south water has typically been abundant - but now Florida, Fulton County in Georgia and North Carolina are all scrambling to find ways to increase conservation and improve efficiency. The northeast is struggling with widespread water contamination issues. Water levels in the Great Lakes are falling. At the same time bordering states are struggling with invasive species such as the Zebra Mussel that clog pipes and damage water intake and treatment infrastructure. Farmers on the Great Plains, who rely on water from the vast Ogallala Aquifer, are beginning to see their wells dry up.

What is the cause of this new era of water scarcity? The main culprit is changing precipitation patterns linked to climate change. These changing patterns are leading to more frequent and extreme droughts in some areas (such as California), while causing more frequent and extreme flooding events in others (such as the mid-west). According to Peter Gleick, co-founder and President of one of the nation’s leading water think tanks, Pacific Institute,

“We’ve done a great job in the United States in reducing our vulnerability to drought by building massive infrastructure for storing water in wet periods, so we can use it in dry periods. The downside is it’s made us in a sense ignore water as an issue for far too long….We’ve stopped thinking about how to use water efficiently and effectively because we’ve assumed that it would always be there. That no longer is the case.”
 
State Perspective
Here in California we’re experiencing a wide array of water challenges – changing precipitation patterns and drought, diminishing snowpack, decreases in river flows, severe declines in populations of important fish species such as salmon and the Delta smelt, and rising sea levels in the San Francisco Bay that will likely to lead to saltwater intrusion.

California experienced the driest spring on record this year. Reservoirs are just 2/3 full. In June, Governor Schwarzenegger declared a statewide water emergency – the first since 1991. Some water agencies are charging heavy water users higher prices and many are imposing serious restrictions. Unfortunately, water experts don’t think that California’s water scarcity is a temporary problem. The onset of climate change paired with population growth and development means the business-as-usual scenario cannot be sustained. It’s time to tap into our virtual river - a combination of water-use efficiency, water recycling, improved groundwater management and capturing storm water before it becomes polluted.
 
Water Planning
So where should we start? Well, it seems like the first place to look would be California’s water plan. The Department of Water Resources released its latest water plan update in 2005. This plan is over 200 pages long and lays out three scenarios for future water demand. Based on these scenarios they provide water management recommendations for the next 25 years. The next update will be released next year.

While the 2005 update acknowledges the need to increase urban and agricultural water use efficiency and eliminate groundwater overdraft, the DWR’s projections and recommendations anticipate only limited adoption of efficiency measures. Even their most efficient scenario shows increases in urban water use, and only slight decrease (5-10%) in agricultural water use. The Pacific Institute pointed out that “The current DWR plan intentionally includes only modest urban and agricultural efficiency improvements….These estimates are nowhere near the levels already demonstrated to be technologically available and largely cost-effective today.”

In September 2005 the Pacific Institute released a parallel report, “California Water 2030:  An Efficient Future.” This report presents a “High Efficiency” scenario “in which Californians maximize our ability to do the things we want, while minimizing the amount of water required to satisfy those desires.” They employed the same model the DWR used to generate their three water demand scenarios, but modified the assumptions about adoption of existing water-efficiency technologies and using water prices to incentivize conservation. They found that water use in 2030 could actually be 20% below 2000 levels, even with a growing population and economy. Agricultural water use could be reduced by 20% by expanding efficient irrigation methods, but “without reducing crop area or changing crop type from the official state Current Trends scenario.” Some of their other recommended actions include:

Pricing
Eliminate pricing policies that subsidize inefficient use of water;
Implement new rate structures that encourage efficient use of water;

Appliances
Set new water efficiency standards for residential and commercial appliances;
Offer rebates for the purchase of these appliances;

Information

Create a statewide system of water data monitoring and exchange;
Make comprehensive water use data publicly available;
Implement comprehensive local groundwater monitoring and management programs statewide;
Create a system that provides farmers with immediate hydrological and meteorological information;

Buildings
Link water & development – before developments are approved require that they demonstrate water-efficient building design.
 
Good Signs
Here are a few good signs that we may be moving towards a more efficient water future:

AB2175: In May the California State Assembly passed AB2175 – a water conservation bill that aims to reduce California’s per person water use by 20%. The bill is currently in the Senate awaiting a vote.

According to the California League of Conservation Voters, AB2175 would:

  1. Require a 20% reduction in statewide urban water use per capita by 2020 and establish specific savings targets for each urban water agency.
  2. Reduce the target for those agencies that have already implemented specific water conservation best management practices or that already have low per capita water use.
  3. Require the Department of Water Resources to set a target for agricultural water efficiency.
  4. Require agricultural water suppliers to identify their cost-effective water conservation potential and adopt 5 and 10 year numeric water savings targets.
  5. Make compliance with these requirements a condition for receiving state water management grants or loans.

Green Building Code: In July California became the first state in the nation to approve green building standards to cut energy and water usage. The plan was adopted by the California Building Standards Commission, and requires that all new construction reduce energy usage by 15%, water use by 20%, and water for landscaping by 50%. A voluntary form of the code will kick in on July 1, 2009. A mandatory regulation should be in place by the end of 2010 or early 2011.
 
Learn More
To learn more about what you can do Click Here.
 
Footnotes
*Unfortunately, 2000 and 2001 are the most recently available years for state water use from the Department of Water Resources. In 2000 precipitation was 97% of “normal,” so this was considered an average water year.

**Of course, (we hope) no one person in California used this much water in 2000. California exports a significant amount of produce and growing these crops uses a lot of water. In 2000, 22% of the Nation's irrigation water was used in California. This highlights the opportunities we have to use agricultural water more efficiently.