Where heretofore the primary focus had been on mitigating water and wastewater impacts on energy resources and infrastructure, 2014 priorities shifted to the California drought.
Water Year 2014 (October 1, 2013 through September 30, 2014) was the third driest in California’s 119 years of recorded hydrological history. The situation was compounded by the fact that 2014 followed two consecutive dry years. It was also the warmest year on record.
The convergence of these events caused a significant decline in inter-basin water transfers and both surface and groundwater storage, forcing water providers and customers to drill more wells and pump local groundwater from increasing depths. Despite some early precipitation in water year 2015, California’s water situation remains dire:
- According to the USGS, at the end of water year 2014, reservoirs statewide were at 57% of average levels.
- In normal and wet years, groundwater is used to supplement surface water supplies. Typically, groundwater comprises about 30-40% of the state’s total water supply portfolio. During droughts, however, many areas must substantially increase groundwater pumping, exacerbating already over-pumped aquifers. The amount of water supply available in California’s “hidden” (underground) reservoirs cannot be definitively determined; however, data collected and compiled by the state Department of Water Resources show that groundwater basins have been severely depleted since 2002.
- A recent study by NASA estimates that California needs 11 trillion gallons of water – nearly 4 times annual urban water demand – in order to restore water storage to pre-drought levels.
The drought is a dramatic reminder of the undeniable interrelationships among water, energy and climate:
- Surface water supply shortages caused a need to pump more groundwater from lower depths.
- Groundwater supplies of lesser quality needed additional treatment.
- Some water utilities needed to change the direction of flows within their systems in order to integrate more local water supplies. Some of these changes increased the amount of energy needed to deliver water to customers.
- Increased energy consumption increases greenhouse gas emissions.
Despite vigorous pleas from state policymakers, water utilities and industry leaders, public response was fairly lackluster: the State Water Resources Control Board reported cumulative water savings from June through November 2014 of about 105 billion gallons, an average reduction of 8.4% from 2013 water demand for the same six month period.
This is considerably less than the 20% reduction that Governor Brown urged in his April 2014 Executive Order, and only 8% of the 1,260 billion gallons used statewide each year for landscape irrigation alone.
In fact, despite all of the scientific studies and the press, many Californians have remained unpersuaded that the problem is urgent and real. Many have seen extended dry periods come and go, and rain has always eventually come to bail us out. In addition, saving water in one location does not alleviate water shortages where the problems are most severe, such as remote rural communities unconnected to large water systems that rely solely on local groundwater wells that went dry.
To combat apathy, the state’s water conservation website Save Our Water launched a new campaign: Saving Water, Rain or Shine. This is certainly the right message; however, based on the tepid responses seen in 2014, education alone will not be enough.
True water market transformation will ultimately require a robust portfolio of strategies and actions – some voluntary and some mandatory – from aggressive water education, to strategic water conservation rate structures, best-in-class water efficient retrofits, new codes and standards, more production and use of recycled water, and constant refreshes of technologies that save water, save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.