California's Drought - We Can Do More Than Pray for Rain

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On Tuesday, the AP reports that the California Conference of Catholic Bishops asked people of all faiths to pray for rain in California, offering a suggested prayer for God to “open the heavens and let His mercy rain down upon our fields and mountains.” The dry conditions that California is currently experiencing  certainly warrant calls for mercy. We have just said farewell to 2013, the driest calendar year ever recorded across virtually the entire State. A glance out the window in almost every part of California confirms that 2014 is not looking much better so far. Our weather gurus offer little reason for hope, predicting measly if any amounts of rain and snow for the rest of the month.

Frank Gehrke, chief of snow surveys for the California Department of Water Resources, left, leads his group out to measure snow levels near Echo Summit on Jan. 3, 2014. (Photo Credit:  Steve Yeater/AP)

Is our only option praying for rain?  While it can’t hurt, there are important lessons to be learned from our current dry circumstances about what the earthbound among us should and should not do to help California weather this and future droughts. Here are a few important ones:

  1. Conservation and Reduced Reliance on the Delta Work

Despite the exceptionally dry conditions, vast regions of the State have no plans to impose water rationing or other mandatory conservation measures this year. The massive Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, serving close to 19 million people, has announced that it has enough water to serve its customers this year without requiring cutbacks in use, despite receiving only a 5% initial allocation from the State Water Project (its primary source of water imported from northern California). Similarly, the Contra Costa Water District in northern California does not expect to ration water to its Bay Area customers this year, despite warnings of very low allocations from the Central Valley Project, a key Contra Costa supplier from the Delta. 

What’s the secret of these water agencies that do not anticipate a problem meeting their customers’ water demands this year in spite of the record dry conditions? They planned ahead – knowing that droughts are a regular and predictable occurrence in California, likely to increase in frequency and duration in a climate changed future – and invested in sensible, local water supply measures that allowed them to reduce their dependence on fickle water supplies from the Delta. 

  • Both agencies invested heavily in water use efficiency and conservation measures that have reduced the demand for water from their customers – things like high-efficiency showers, low-flow toilets, and drought-resistant landscapes. Contra Costa’s neighbor at the East Bay Municipal Water District – which also expects to meet its customers’ needs this year without rationing – says that such investments have reduced water demands by one-third of what they were 40 years ago. 
  • Both agencies have seen a significant increase in water recycling in their districts in recent years, with Orange County operating the largest water recycling plant of its kind in the world.
  • Both agencies invested in significant storage capacity in the last couple decades, with Met building the 800,000 acre-foot Diamond Valley Reservoir, and Contra Costa more than doubling the capacity of the Los Vacqueros Reservoir in Brentwood. Both of these storage projects were built with little opposition and local funds, because they were projects that made sense from an economic and environmental perspective. 

As reporter Tom Barnidge of the Daily Democrat states:  “The lesson from all this is that conservation and planning works.”   Let’s take that lesson to heart and expand aggressive statewide investments in conservation, recycling, stormwater capture, and sensible storage, as the Governor’s draft Water Action Plan proposes to do.

     2. Don’t Do Additional Harm To Birds, Fish and Wildlife That Are Already Suffering

Our prized native fish and wildlife also suffer in periods of drought. Already, sizeable numbers of chinook salmon eggs have been dried up in the Sacramento and American Rivers due to lack of sufficient flows, and wildfowl are finding that refuges along the Pacific flyway are dry, depriving them of food and creating conditions ripe for overcrowding and disease. Salmon and other native fisheries typically decline in drought years, in part because existing water quality standards and other fishery protections are much weaker in dry years. We should not further imperil their already shaky existence by depriving fish and wildlife of the minimal water and flows that are called for by our water quality standards, endangered species protections, and other measures designed to protect the public trust.   

Nevertheless, some corporate agriculture interests are raising the call to target the very limited resources of these threatened species. Not only does this approach make little sense – depriving fish and wildlife of the very limited flows they receive in times of drought would barely make a dent in increasing water supplies because environmental rules aren’t significantly reducing water supplies; there’s simply not water available – but it further harms vulnerable, public resources at the expense of a powerhouse agricultural industry that has seen record revenues in recent years. It’s also incredibly short-sighted. Putting our threatened fish and wildlife in further jeopardy will likely lead to more stringent protections in future years. Instead, we should be devoting our efforts to recovering imperiled fish and wildlife populations so that they, too, can weather the occasional drought and last-ditch life support protections aren’t needed to protect them from extinction

As the Pope recently said:  “In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.” Let’s not pick on the defenseless, but learn the lessons of more progressive water districts and make the investments that will allow us to weather this and future droughts without further harming our parched fish and wildlife.

    3.    Take Charge of Your Own Water Use

Even if your water district isn’t calling for mandatory water use restrictions, learn about where your water comes from and think about what you can do to reduce your water footprint. Click here to enter your zip code and find out more about your water supply and whether your supplier is taking steps to secure a reliable water future by investing in sustainable water supplies. If it’s not, urge your elected representatives to do more to care for this precious resource. 

And here are some simple water-savings suggestions from our friends at The Nature Conservancy that include reducing the amount of water you consume by paying attention to what you eat and reducing your food waste. As TNC points out, “American households throw away about 30% of the food they bring home from the market. If we could eliminate that waste, we could supply the in-home water needs of 500 million people. That’s considerably more than the entire population of the U.S. today (317 million). Or better yet, we could allow that saved water to remain in our rivers, lakes and aquifers to support fish and other aquatic life that has become dangerously threatened by the depletion of freshwater sources.”

The more efficient we all are with our water use, the more there will be to go around.