When it Comes to the California Drought, Now is Not the Time to Relax

Alfalfa fields under irrigation near San Miguel, California.

California's State Water Resources Control Board recently indicated that it may lower mandatory water restrictions in some parts of the state by May. Such a move would come just one year after the wise decision to encourage residents to save water in the midst of the severe, multi-year drought. Regardless of the board's decision, Californians should avoid the temptation to go back to the old ways and instead, make a permanent lifestyle shift towards water conservation and efficiency, something all Americans should do.

There's no denying it: rainfall and snowfall in California this past winter were a lot better than the last five years. Unfortunately, when it comes to the drought, a closer look at recent rain and snow trends makes it clear that "better" is a long way from "over."

What's the Current Status of the Drought? 

Statewide snowpack is now at 87 percentof average, a big improvement over last year's abysmal 5 percent but, obviously, still not even average. As for rainfall, El Niño took good care of parts of Northern California by filling up some important reservoirs to historical average levels. Southern California, however, has not been so lucky with well below average rainfall this winter despite a handful of storms. The Central Valley's agricultural lands are still locked in a drought and farmers continue to pump dwindling groundwater resources since there isn't enough surface water to draw from. Farms and other customers in the southern part of the state which depend on water distributed through the Central Valley Project just learned that they will get far less water than they requested.

In short, the drought is not over. The near-average precipitation received this winter has put a dent in, but not crushed, the drought. In fact the US Drought Monitorstill classifies much of the state as being in an "exceptional" drought.

Should It Be Water-Using Business as Usual? 

So why even consider giving the green light to a return to wasteful water ways?

With a changing climate it would be foolish to expect that one near-average season of precipitation will keep drought conditions at bay, particularly as El Niño weakens. If a drier California is indeed the new normal, then improved water conservation and efficiency must become part of everyone's lifestyle. We must fully embrace strategies like drought-tolerant yards, efficient fixtures and appliances, water-smart agriculture and additional protections for groundwater. We must also start to look at California's drought as everyone's drought.

If we focus on what residents can do, then rethinking lawns, using water-efficient toilets and fixing leaks are effective ways to cut back on direct water use and keep gallons in reservoirs. In addition, we have to expand our notion of water to include virtual water use as well - the water used to produce the food we eat, the energy we use and the products we buy. This means being more energy efficient, reusing and recycling more, and wasting less food. Tools like the Water Footprint Calculator can also help consumers track and reduce how much actual and virtual water they're using.

These actions may not always lead to more water available in the local reservoir or aquifer, but a more water-aware lifestyle means we look at the impact to our shared resources beyond city, water district and state borders. Californians can do it, and in fact, they already have by meeting the 25 percent reduction target on residential water use set by the Governor last year. Importantly, they did so without dramatically affecting their way of life. California farmers have also become more water efficient over the past decades, and many are now going even further by using sustainable techniques to protect the quality of water supplies. By building upon these efforts, even bigger reductions in water use can provide stability regardless of yearly fluctuations in rain and snowfall.

Some water utilities may be nervous because, with the way pricing is structured, less water use means less revenue and ultimately, higher customer bills. But there are options that encourage conservation, including those already adopted in parts of California. For example, decoupling water sales from overall revenues or tiered pricing which provides enough water to meet basic needs for cheap or even free, and then at increasing rates as customers use more.

Now is not the time to rest on our laurels or, worse, go back to the old ways of doing things. No harm can come from water conservation and efficiency, no matter what part of the country you call home. Particularly in California and other western states still enduring or recovering from the most recent drought, now is the time to stay strong. Around the world, people are beginning to embrace the new normal. It's here, and it requires us all to make changes that last a lot longer than just one year.

Image "Alfalfa fields under irrigation" by Ken Figlioli on Flickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.