The other day, an acquaintance in Berkeley admitted to me that he had washed his car. The horror! In California these days, that’s akin to kicking a puppy or dumping toxins into a stream. The state is in its fourth year of crippling drought, and it looks like the situation is only going to become more dire. As the supposed sinner sudsed up his car, a passerby shot him dirty looks. But he had a response ready should anyone scold him for his profligacy (and yes, there’s a hashtag for that: #droughtshaming): For two weeks, he had placed buckets under the bathtub faucet to collect water from his showers to use on his wheels.
A couple years ago, that would’ve seemed crazy. Not today. Now millions of Californians are increasingly turning to gray water for everything from cleaning to keeping plants hydrated. The ways that Californians are coping with water shortages go far beyond their showers, and they are making a dent: Urban water usage fell a record 29 percent in May compared to the same month in 2013.
So let’s take a look at how the drought is spurring innovation, changing behaviors, and upending notions of what’s acceptable and what’s attractive.
Not Flushing, with Pride
Potty mouths are proliferating—one’s bathroom habits are now a topic of public discussion in the state. “[Don’t] flush more than you have to,” Governor Jerry Brown told Californians as the drought worsened. Toilets are the biggest indoor water hogs, accounting for up to 27 percent of use. Easy solution: If it’s yellow, let it mellow. Unfortunately, most people are reluctant to do so. According to a recent study, the four main barriers to reducing flushing are “disgust sensitivity, habitual nature of flushing, norms regarding cleanliness, and lack of pro-environmental motivations.”
Overcoming the ick factor on a large scale may be an insurmountable challenge, but at least one company has developed a market solution: Why Flush. Simply spray some of the citrus-based concoction in the bowl after urination to “neutralize” the contents. The creators claim that a 16-ounce bottle can save 1,200 gallons of water. At least some people are convinced; in March the company temporarily sold out of the mixture.
The state is also taking steps to address the waste-related wastefulness. Toilet flushing and sink usage guzzle 443 billion gallons of water a year in California. New low-flow efficiency standards, which affect toilets, urinals, and faucets sold after January 1, 2016, could save 105 billion gallons per year.
Americans love their yards. Nationwide, landscape irrigation guzzles about one-third of all residential water, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Water restrictions in California, however, have turned lush lawns into crispy brown expanses. Some desperate homeowners are camouflaging the problem by painting their lawns green. A paint product, Lawnlift, made by a San Diego company, is carried in 45 retail outlets, with two to three new retailers picking it up each week, owner Jim Power told the Whittier Daily News. Lawn Paint Pros, a landscaping company in SoCal that greens up dead turf with the product, which has the consistency of Elmer’s Glue, has seen business increase by 5,000 percent.
A coat of paint isn’t a permanent fix, of course. Californians are increasingly giving up lawns entirely and instead planting drought-resistant native vegetation. With many water districts offering $1 to $4 per square foot of turf removed, the state is moving toward Governor Brown’s goal of ridding the state of 50 million square feet of lawn. As more residents make the switch, pollinators and other wildlife could benefit from healthier, more diverse urban ecosystems. But experts warn well-intentioned businesses and homeowners that not all drought-resistant plants are created equal—many stores sell invasive species that could wreak havoc. The Los Angeles Times provides a list of plants to avoid, the California Invasive Plant Council has loads of information, and the nonprofit PlantRight is working with nurseries to ensure that invasives aren’t on offer.
By now everyone knows how thirsty almonds are and that agriculture accounts for 80 percent of human-related water usage in California. But enormous quantities of water also go down the drain as food waste—perfectly edible produce that’s pitched because it isn’t flawless. NRDC (disclosure) estimates that 10 percent to 30 percent of discarded produce is tossed solely because of its looks. Several new initiatives have popped up that aim to divert food from the landfill. Imperfect, for instance, buys ugly produce from farmers and delivers it to consumers doors—at a cost that’s 30 percent below what grocery stores charge. Bon Appétit Management Company is also curbing food waste and has salvaged 47 tons of produce that aren’t grocery-store perfect to use at cafés, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. And one Twitter feed, @UglyFruitandVeg, celebrates ugly produce with funny and occasionally risqué photos of ill-shapen fruits and veggies.
— @UglyFruitAndVeg (@UglyFruitAndVeg) July 8, 2015
Other food revolutionaries are creating alternatives to an enormously water-intensive staple: cattle. Insects are gaining some ground as the other red meat (though, there is also an ick factor to overcome there), and tech companies are making strides in engineering faux beef products with textures similar to the real thing.
Hacking the Water Problem
“Water so far has pretty primitive technology being applied to it,” David Sedlak, codirector of the Berkeley Water Center at the University of California, Berkeley, told Forbes. That’s changing, as Silicon Valley creates products to help reduce water use. Tech isn’t a silver bullet—mostly we’re looking at new policies and better management—but it could help meet stronger water standards.
Cities are increasingly rolling out smart meters like those made by T2, for instance, to track usage more efficiently than the traditional house-call approach. And San Francisco startup WaterSmart aims to demystify water usage to spur people to cut their flow. The company works with water utilities to gather customers’ meter readings, combine that info with variables like home age and occupancy rate, and reveal the heaviest users. The firm nudges consumers toward more efficient behavior by tapping into peer pressure and a sense of competition: WaterSmart sends personalized reports that spell out how much of the precious stuff clients are using compared to their neighbors, then scores their usage. Bonus: The system can also help detect enormously wasteful leaky pipes. Another startup, DropCountr, is taking a similar approach with an app that provides daily water-usage info.
On the agricultural side, innovations include Hortau’s and Tule Technology’s sensors, which tell farmers exactly how much water they need to sustain crops. WellIntel’s sensors monitor groundwater using sound waves, providing much more accurate measurements than traditional methods and staving off depletion of important backup sources. And PowWow Energy’s software automatically texts farmers if there are leaks in their irrigation systems.
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California can’t afford to fail in tackling water scarcity. And while the state has made headway, there’s still a grave need for better technologies, plans, policies, and behaviors. Whatever the state comes up with could spread to the rest of the country and perhaps beyond. After all, it wouldn't be the first time, and the Golden State isn’t the only place threatened by drought. It may be a good idea for others to start taking buckets into the shower with them, too.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.