As Obama Heads to Drought-Stricken California, Many Solutions Await

Some very important people – President Obama among them – will convene in California this week with a singular goal: to help Californians as we endure the drought

On Friday, President Obama will visit Fresno to highlight federal drought-relief efforts.  The day before, Los Angeles City Hall will host the President’s Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience.  In attendance will be top brass from the White House, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy; and Governor Jerry Brown and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. 

Last year was the driest year on record for California, and while we enjoyed some light rain last week, the drought hasn’t let up by any measure.  We’ve been hit by droughts before, but climate change will make "critically dry" years occur more frequently. It also will threaten the water we need for our homes, farms, and businesses.

It’s not just a lack of precipitation that’s causing the problem. For far too long Californians have used more water than we can sustain and done so in ways that are not as efficient as we could.  This system of too little supply and too much demand is finally catching up with us.   And as climate change becomes the “new normal,” our water woes will only get worse.

While we can’t make it rain, we can prepare for drier days.  The task at hand requires our government leaders to help us cope with the disaster today, prepare us for the chronic water shortages to come and protect this and future generations from the widening water scarcity impacts of climate change.  Everyone has a role to play – our federal, state and local leaders, as well as every citizen.   Outlined below are some of the solutions we can and should employ today at each one of those levels. 

Taken together, these solutions can provide more water for Southern California than is currently exported from the Bay-Delta in the north. Many California communities are already implementing them to improve water quality and become more resilient. Now it’s time to extend those benefits across the state. 

Federal Government:

  • Emergency Aid for Crop Conversion and Protection: Last week, the U.S. Agriculture Department announced $20 million in emergency aid to help California farmers protect their soil and upgrade irrigation equipment. That should help ranchers and farmers seed depleted pastures and croplands with fast-growing native cover plants to prevent irreplaceable topsoil from baking to dust and blowing away.  More is needed if we want to create a sustainable path forward for the San Joaquin Valley.
  • Financial Relief to Workers: President Obama signed the Agricultural Act of 2014 last Friday.  It should provide the first down payment for what is required to help farm workers laid off due to drought and farmers and ranchers who are suffering major losses.  But much more will be required.
  • Make California the Pilot for the National Drought Resilience Partnership: President Obama created the National Drought Resilience Partnership in November to help coordinate the work of federal agencies and drought-affected states. This is the forum for developing a portfolio of options for funding the investments we need. California is the place to start.
  • National Drought Preparedness Plan: President Obama should lay out a vision of national drought preparedness. This isn't just a California problem, after all. Drought affected about two-thirds of the continental United States in 2012 and was blamed for $30 billion in agricultural losses and another $1 billion in destruction from wildfires.
  • Disaster Declaration that Protects California’s Long-term Water Supply: The drought is a statewide disaster. But any federal emergency assistance should comply with key water and environmental protections because emergency aid will do little good if it sacrifices water quality and supply.

State Government:

  • Irrigation Infrastructure Upgrades:  Upgrading our irrigation infrastructure has the potential to save hundreds of billions of gallons of water each year. We need public-private partnerships focused on a single goal: more crop per drop.  This is crucial because more than 50% of the state’s 8 million acres of irrigated land relies on clunky, outdated systems that lose significant amounts of water to evaporation and spillage. More modern irrigation technologies can deliver just what is needed to each crop to maximize yields. The state can help facilitate, incentivize, and, in part, help finance these upgrades, which include more efficient irrigation practices (drip irrigation instead of flood/furrow irrigation), precise irrigation scheduling, regulated deficit irrigation, and similar practices to improve agricultural water use efficiency. 
  • Incentives for Water-Smart Technologies: Water-efficient technologies like WaterSense toilets, faucets, and showerheads and Energy Star clothes washers and dishwashers dramatically reduce water consumption per capita. State agencies can establish or expand rebates to customers for switching to more efficient appliances and for converting water-guzzling lawns to water-efficient gardens. Building codes and landscape ordinances can be strengthened to ensure that all new development is water-efficient.  And utilities can revise rate schedules for water and wastewater service to reward efficient water use and discourage water waste.
  • Emergency Drought Relief:  A bill by state Senator Steinberg is still being developed, but from what we’ve seen so far it looks good.  Investments like those under consideration for regional self-reliance create a drought resistant water supply, as the experience of some communities in southern California shows this year. But there are huge funding needs in terms of water recycling, stormwater capture, and conservation (which also creates jobs in local communities, creates open space and parks, reduces flood damage and water pollution, etc.).  This bill can and should provide funding for such immediate water supply benefits.
  • Comprehensive Water Bond:  Emergency relief is critical but won’t provide sufficient funding to secure widespread water solutions on the scale that California needs. The state has an opportunity this year to pass a water bond that invests in significant efficiency and conservation measures that will put us ahead of the game over the long term.  The bond should also incentivize regional self-reliance efforts in a way that will transform the way we view stormwater and recycled water and their ability to augment local water supply.

Local Governments:

  • Expanding “Cash for Grass” or “Lawn to Garden” programs: Cities can incentivize homeowners’ switch from grass lawns that require watering to native landscaping that does not. Many are already doing so.  For example, the Long Beach Water Department landscape conversion program provides a $3 per-square-foot incentive to replace grass lawns with more water-efficient landscapes. This is the highest landscape conversion incentive rate in California. To date, Long Beach has retrofitted more than 800 residential lawns and expects to reach 1,000 lawn conversions later this year. As a result of this and similar conservation efforts by Long Beach, water use declined from 167 gallons per person per day in 1980 to 110 gallons in 2010.  Other cities should follow Long Beach’s lead.
  • Municipal Green Infrastructure Plans: Pocket parks, rain barrels, cisterns and other types of green infrastructure allow communities to capture rainwater where it falls—instead of letting it pour off streets, pick up pollution, flood sewage plants, and end up contaminating our beaches. The water can then be stored for use or filtered into the ground, where it can benefit vegetation and replenish groundwater supplies. Cities throughout California can institute green infrastructure into all new development plans and incentivize businesses to adopt green infrastructure in and around existing structures. An NRDC report found that using practices that emphasize rainwater capture at new development and redevelopment projects in urbanized Southern California and the San Francisco Bay area – with only limited application to the existing built environment – could increase local supplies by more than 400,000 acre-feet per year by 2030.
  • Water Recycling and Re-Use: Cities are increasingly using recycled water, i.e., thoroughly treated “wastewater” meeting all state and federal drinking water standards, to irrigate parks and lawns and recharge groundwater supplies. Cities and utilities must provide expanded water recycling programs. 


There is also a lot the public can do to help.  Governor Brown has asked all residents of the state to voluntarily cut their water use by 20%.  Here’s how you can do your part:

  • Repair leaks in your home:  Add a small amount of food coloring to the water in the tank behind your toilet, and if any color shows up in the bowl within 15 minutes you’ve discovered a leak that may have been running for months undetected.  If you have a faucet or showerhead that drips, or a toilet that runs all the time – that is water that could be saved.
  • Take Advantage of Incentives to Upgrade Appliances and Landscaping:  Seek out state and local programs that help pay for water-efficient clothes washers and other home appliances.  And do the same with ways to make your lawn more water-efficient. 
  • Use the dishwasher rather than wash by hand: Although some people are very efficient at washing by hand, most of us aren’t and that means up to 27 gallons of water per load. A new Energy Star-rated dishwasher can consume as little as 3 gallons per load.  But DO hand-scrape food off instead of pre-rinsing your dishes.  Dishwashers are built to remove food residues, and pre-rinsing can waste 5 or more gallons per load.
  • Use a carwash:  Washing your car by hand not only uses 100 gallons of water or more in one go, but may also result in contaminated water containing brake fluid, oil, and other automotive fluids entering waterways through storm drains. Carwash services are required to channel water to treatment plants and the most efficient use less than 40 gallons of fresh water per wash.
  •  Get a pool cover:  Any family fortunate enough to have a backyard pool can help save water by using an inexpensive floating pool cover.  Even in coastal California, evaporation rates are substantial: A typical back-yard pool in Los Angeles can lose nearly 40,000 gallons a year to evaporation, and pool covers can pay for themselves quickly. 

I have no doubt the President’s Task Force will talk about the importance of planning for climate change – that’s their charge after all.  And I hope President Obama does the same.  Fortunately, California has never taken a duck-and-cover approach to climate change.  Indeed, California is actually ahead of the game compared to most states when it comes to planning. But the current drought highlights how much work remains to be done – in California and across the entire country – when it comes to implementing on-the-ground solutions to our water challenges. 

This drought is a critical opportunity for our leaders to step up – to initiate solutions that will help make our communities ready for this challenge.  The simple truth is that it’s time to invest in preserving our water.

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