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Water Conservation in Good Times and Bad

All life needs water to live, but sometimes rain doesn’t come. Droughts have happened periodically all over the world, but some of the droughts we’re experiencing now are the worst on record. California has been in the middle of a drought for over four years now. There is so little water that the government has put mandatory water restrictions in place. Even a temporary lack of water can cause moisture stress in plants, as anyone who has ever forgotten to water their garden knows. When it happens to a whole region, the consequences are severe.

A drought happens when there is a lack of water, and these have been going on for as long as recorded history. Droughts happen for three reasons. The first is climatological. Changing weather patterns cause less rain and snow to fall down. Sometimes these patterns are cyclical, like parts of the world that have a hot dry season and a monsoon season. El Niño, a particular change in ocean currents in the Pacific, causes hotter and dryer weather over long cycles. A smaller area can also experience drought conditions for unknown reasons related to the weather. We can tell when a drought is happening through weather patterns, but they are hard to predict. This is called meteorological drought, and it is accelerating in many places due to climate change. Some areas are getting historic flooding and others historic drought.

The second reason is agricultural drought, and is directly caused by people. The amount of water a particular region can absorb depends on its plant life and its soil. When people clear away too many plants, over-farm the land with plows, and don’t add more organic material, the water that does hit the earth runs off. Over-farmed land is also very vulnerable to wind erosion. The lighter water-absorbing parts of the soil can get blown away. Just this alone can cause a drought even if the rainfall remains the same. If there is a meteorological drought going on in a region experiencing agricultural drought, the problems are multiplied. A history of the Dust Bowl era of the Great Plains is an excellent example.

The third reason is hydrological drought. Many regions have water reserves locked deep within the earth. Even if there is drought above, plants can push their roots down to get water from below. There could also be a river or lake nearby that soaks water into the surrounding soil. But if these water sources don’t get enough rainfall, or if the water is diverted by people to other uses, then hydrological drought happens. This is the slowest of the types of drought to develop, and one of the hardest to fix.

California’s Drought

California is now entering its fourth year of the worse drought seen in the region in 1,200 years. The consequences of this drought are severe not just for residents but also for people across America. The Great Plains may be the breadbasket of the nation, but California is the salad bowl of the nation. Most of the nation’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts come from Central California, one of the hardest hit regions.

This photo slideshow from ABC News shows the damage in far more detail than mere words can describe: California is experiencing all three kinds of drought. Snowpack levels are at the lowest levels seen since recording started. Modern agribusiness forms of farming almost always cause agricultural drought over time. And, as the pictures show, the lakes, wells, and rivers of California are extremely low.

The governor has issued mandatory water restrictions for all residents. Municipalities must show an overall 25% reduction in water usage or be fined. Residents who use more than 135 gallons a day must cut back their usage by 35% or face fines. Many towns have issued no-watering day orders, or even asked residents to just let their lawns go brown. People are even covering the lawn with astroturf or painting the grass with green! Farmers are also scrambling to deal with the new restrictions. Though the water restrictions do not extend to agriculture, farmers have submitted a plan for voluntary water restriction to the state to avoid the government making that decision for them. Many farms have cut back their production to conserve water.

That hasn’t stopped some areas from flouting the restrictions. The wealthier neighborhoods of California use around three times as much water, and some houses have decided to flout the restrictions. Many golf courses are also ignoring the restrictions so they can keep their businesses running. Protests have also started at water bottling plants inside California, although bottled water makes up only a tiny percentage of California’s water usage and some areas are depending on bottled water just to survive. In at least one town, residents have to go to the fire station to fill up water tanks just so they can flush their toilets by hand.

The Dust Bowl drought lasted for eight years driven mostly by bad agricultural processes. Farmers have learned a lot since those days, but in California in the state that it’s in even a little plowing may be enough to cause sediment to rise up with the wind. Might we see more dust bowl-like storms in the future rolling through California? Or even human migration out of California to less-parched areas?

They’ll have a long way to travel. While California is the hardest hit area, many places are drying up. Take a look at the U.S. Drought Monitor at Whether these other areas will develop into a problem like California or not remains to be seen

What Can Be Done?

The average American uses more water than really necessary for daily living, but there are ways to reduce the amount of water you use in your household. We’ve prepared a checklist of things to try for your house.

  • Find out your monthly and yearly water usage. Your water bill should have statistics about your water usage over time. Make a challenge for you and your family to cut your monthly usage by 10% over last year, or even 25% if you’d like to meet California’s new standard.
  • Get your plumbing inspected for leaks. One hidden leak can waste hundreds of gallons of water without you knowing it. Outside spigots dripping into a hose are a prime target.
  • Replace your faucets, toilets, and shower heads with low-flow options. This is a very simple way to reduce a lot of water usage at your house. A quick way to reduce your toilet water usage is to put a brick sealed in a baggie into the toilet tank.
  • Time yourself how long it takes to shower. Try to cut it down. If you prefer baths, see how low you can fill the tub and still enjoy it.

  • Do you leave the water running when you shave or brush your teeth? Turn off the faucet!
  • Swimming pools use a lot of water. Consider filling yours in or talking with your dealer about conservation efforts you can use with your pool. For instance, keep a cover on the pool when it isn’t in use to reduce evaporation. Or, for a lower maintenance option consider converting your pool to a natural pool.
  • There is a debate on whether or not dishwashers save water or not. If you leave the faucet running while you rinse your dishes that will definitely boost your usage. If you prefer hand-washing, don’t let the water run. If you prefer using a dishwasher, get an efficient one.
  • Consider getting a front-loading washer or a vertical-axis washer with wash plates. Traditional washers need a lot of water to make clothing float enough to churn. These newer models use much less water. You can also look for Energy Star labeled washers, which will use less energy and less water.
  • Many would tell you to water your lawn less or switch to an artificial lawn (or even paint it), but our stance on lawns is pretty clear. They’re not productive and they don’t help your resilience one bit. Consider ripping up your lawn and replacing it with a food producing garden, or at the least you can replace it with native drought resilient plants.
  • If you have a garden, use techniques like drip irrigation and mulching to improve the water retention around your crops.
  • You could also install a greywater system that recycles your sink and washing water into the garden, although if you are growing organic crops you’ll need to do your research and make sure you use organic soaps and detergents.
  • Depending on your area, you can try xeriscaping. This is a type of landscaping that uses plants that don’t need traditional irrigation.
  • Wash your car at a car wash, or let the rain do it for you.
  • If you really want to go far, install a composting toilet or use a humanure system. Much of the water used in a day goes toward the toilet.
  • Another thing to try is to build a rainwater system. These divert rainwater from roofs into barrels for use in the home. Check your local regulations to see if this is legal for your area.

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