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How California Will Weather Drought

Recurring drought in the Golden State has convinced most of us that there’s simply not enough water to go around. But that’s actually not true.

Water use: immense. Water supply: insufficient.

At some point every year, we hear the same old story coming out of California. During the state's recent (and lengthy) periods of drought, the deficit is felt all over. Reservoirs, mountain snowpack, soil moisture, and river levels are hitting near-record lows.

The Salton Sea coastline, California Richard Trible/iStock

But is the gap between how much water Californians need and how much water is available really unbridgeable?

Not necessarily. Each year, California uses at least six million acre-feet more water than the rivers and aquifers can sustainably provide. (Some perspective here: Just one acre-foot of water equals roughly 326,000 gallons.) But a report by NRDC and the Pacific Institute shows that if the Golden State were to make a few improvements in four key areas, it could save more than twice that. Here’s how:

Step 1: Fix irrigation.

If local agriculture producers used smart irrigation scheduling (meaning they watered crops only when they most need it) and expanded more-efficient drip and sprinkler technology, they would save the state up to 6.6 million acre-feet of water.

Step 2: Be smarter in cities.

Fixing leaky pipes in buildings and under the streets, boosting the efficiency of cooling towers, swapping out water-wasting plumbing fixtures and appliances, and replacing turf grass with native, drought-tolerant plants: This multipronged attack would stop a slow but steady stream of up to 5.2 million acre-feet in wasted water.

Step 3: Recycle more water.

It might seem like an obvious strategy, but Californians aren’t doing enough of it. They could tap up to 1.8 million more acre-feet of recycled water by installing gray water systems to water lawns and flush toilets and by using recycled water to irrigate crops.

Step 4: Capture stormwater.


Up to 630,000 acre-feet of rainwater could be harvested in barrels and cisterns—and then used during dry months. Or these riches from the sky could be directed to open spaces to filter down and recharge groundwater supplies.

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