Apr 01, 2015

Weathering the Drought

Improved conservation & efficiency measures help California deal with water scarcity

water efficiency conservation California drought

Although I was not living in California at the time, many have told me that the historic California drought of 1976-1977 was one they may never forget. In modern history, it probably was the most difficult, detrimental drought ever recorded in California, hurting business and industry financially and creating difficulties for the state’s 20 million residents.

Some areas of the state, such as north of San Francisco, were restricted to just 44 gal per day of water per person. At the time, the average Californian used more than 100 gal of water per day. Other effects of the drought included:

  • Thousands of acres of farmland turned to dust due to lack of water, causing food prices to rise throughout the U.S. California produces half of the nation’s fruits, nuts and vegetables.
  • Hydroelectric power generation declined, causing state utility companies to turn to imported oil to generate electricity, reducing profits and resulting in eventual cost increases that were passed on to consumers. 
  • Fisheries suffered as water flowing in 22 of the state’s streams essentially dried up.
  • Manufacturers, many of them realizing for the first time how water-dependent they were, had to scale back operations due to water restrictions.  
  • Commercial office buildings were asked to cut water consumption virtually in half; after the drought ended, most reported they were unable to accomplish this even with strict measures in place.
  • Thousands of acres of landscape areas, both private and public, were lost, costing millions. 

The biggest fear was forest fires. Along with fire retardants, millions of gallons of freshwater are needed to fight them, as greywater or saltwater can corrode firefighting equipment. Using water to fight fires meant less water for consumers and industry. The state had several forest fires in 1976 and 1977. The two that stand out were a blaze in Mount Diablo, west of San Francisco, and a much bigger and more serious fire at Big Sur, south of the city, which required firefighters to come in from all over the western U.S. to fight it.

Now that you have a taste of what it was like 30 years ago, you might wonder why little, if any, of this “drought suffering” is occurring today. In the past few years, drought conditions in California have become about as bad as they were in the late 1970s. In some ways, they are worse—instead of 20 million people, the state is now home to 38 million people. You would think things would have become dire at this point, but they have not, and there are a number of reasons for this.

The Study

In May 1978, the California Department of Water Resources commissioned a study investigating why the 1976-77 drought was so bad, what steps the state took that helped ease the suffering, and what mistakes were made. More importantly, it included suggestions for ways the state could better handle future drought. While many consumers and businesses in California essentially forgot about the drought almost as soon as it was over, these investigators were well aware that California had a history of drought and would assuredly have more in the future.

The 238-page report laid the groundwork for dealing with future drought. One of the suggestions in the report was to develop larger reservoirs to hold water. For instance, a Southern California reservoir that was planned in the late 1970s and built in the 1980s was enlarged by 60% 20 years later to hold more water. Increased water capacity throughout the state has proven invaluable. Essentially, the report emphasized that the state must have enough water capacity to “save for a rainy day”—except in this case, it was lack of rain that caused the tough times.

As a result of the study, greater emphasis on the need for water efficiency also emerged. This was a relatively new term to many Californians, who often mistook it to mean water conservation; however, there is a major difference between water conservation and water efficiency.  

Water conservation typically refers to steps to restrict water use and consumption during an emergency or drought. Water efficiency deals with longer-term efforts to reduce how much water is used and, most importantly, to eliminate water waste. It is this reduction in water waste that appears to be the key reason why California is not suffering today the dire consequences of drought it did in the 1970s.

Eliminating Water Waste

While fixing leaks and broken pipe is certainly an important way to eliminate water waste, the bigger, longer-term picture requires something more. Consumers and industry must know how much water they are using now in order to find ways to use less in the future.

As an example of how important this is, in 2008, the nonprofit research group the Pacific Institute reported that there was “no system to measure or monitor how much of our water is being used by agricultural interests—and therefore we have no idea what our state’s water needs and policy should be going into the future.” With this knowledge, the report also stated that California farmers could save billions of gallons of water every year by expanding practices such as “installing drip irrigation (about 60% of California agriculture [was] irrigated using flood irrigation methods in 2008), switching over to crops that require less water and yield higher prices, and managing irrigation with technology instead of visual inspections.” (The Pacific Institute found some California farmers were growing rice and cotton, crops heavily dependent on water, in what essentially is a desert climate.)

This same benchmarking has been implemented to help use water more efficiently in all types of applications. For instance, in a typical facility, the greatest amount of water is used—and wasted—in the restroom. In the early 1990s, people were shocked to learn that a typical flush urinal uses about 35,000 gal of water per year. This meant billions of gallons of water that could be used for irrigation, manufacturing and even showering were essentially wasted to flush urine down the drain. Eventually, new technologies were introduced that reduced the amount of water used by urinals, and in recent years, waterless urinals have been developed that operate effectively without any water whatsoever.

This trend is happening with all types of restroom fixtures. High-performance toilets use half the water or less that they used in the 1990s, and with the simple installation of aerators, faucets that used more than 2 gal of water per minute now use less than half that amount.

Finally, a big step toward water efficiency is the use of recycled and reclaimed water, something that was minimally in place in 1970s California. Reclaimed or recycled water is former wastewater that has been treated to remove solids and impurities, and is used for landscaping irrigation, recharging groundwater aquifers, and meeting commercial and industrial water needs.

All of these steps are examples of why the current California drought has had less impact on the state. These steps and the way California has handled this situation can and must be replicated in other states, whether they are in drought or not. Many observers believe water will be the oil of the 21st century. If we conserve now and use it more efficiently, then water will be less of a concern going forward. WQP


About the author

Klaus Reichardt is founder and CEO of Waterless Co. Inc. Reichardt can be reached at [email protected].