It rained and snowed with a vengeance in California this winter, bringing an end to the state’s six-year drought.
But just because nearly all of the Golden State’s reservoirs are now filled to the brim — with some even spilling — that doesn’t mean conservation efforts that worked well are being abandoned. Far from it, in fact.
"Water conservation is a way of California life from now on,” Steven Moore, a member of the state’s Water Resources Control Board said after a recent meeting.
Elsewhere around the country, from Texas to Georgia and Florida, saving water has become the norm as whole regions adapt to periodic droughts while their populations grow rapidly. Even in states with abundant rainfall, water infrastructure problems — such as Flint, Michigan’s lead pipe contamination — have grabbed national headlines.
Gov. Jerry Brown officially declared California’s drought over for most areas of the state on April 7. However, regulators said they’ll continue to punish wasteful water practices such as hosing down sidewalks or watering lawns during or directly after rains. The state will also establish multi-year programs that mandate conservation, officials said.
Brown, while praising urban residents for reducing water use by 25 percent in February of this year over the same month in 2016, also warned that groundwater levels are still dangerously low in some areas and reminded Californians that the next drought could be right around the corner.
Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the huge Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, echoed Brown and said that although this drought emergency has ended, the need to conserve continues.
“Southern Californians learned a lot about water conservation during the latest drought,” he said in a statement. “We cannot afford to forget those lessons.”
Bob Muir, a spokesman for the district — which provides up to 2 billion gallons of water daily to 19 million people in its 5,200-square-mile service area — said saving water will play a “fundamental role, not only in responding to dry times, but more importantly making life in Southern California more sustainable.
“When you look to the future and the way Southern California may grow and prosper, additional water demands will have to be made up by investment in conservation, water recycling and cleaning up our groundwater basins. We are reaching an era of limits on our supplies that we get from the Colorado River and from Northern California.”
He said while Southern California’s population has grown by 4 million people over the past 25 years, its water use has declined.
“We’re doing that because of the changes we’ve made in conserving water and managing our demands,” he said.
Because 30 percent of district water use goes for irrigating lawns and shrubs, he said his agency began encouraging homeowners to switch their grass turf yards to native plants about a decade ago.
“We also asked them to use timers and get (self-programming) smart irrigation controllers, which are considered pretty conventional now,” he added.
Muir said a 1992 dry spell got most Californians to drought-proof the insides of their homes by replacing water-wasting toilets and shower heads with high-efficiency models.
“Now when homes are sold, they have to be brought up to water-efficiency codes, so that’s become part of the business norm,” he noted.
Because the main sources of the district’s water — Northern California streams and the Colorado River — are limited, he said the district may partner with Los Angeles County sanitation districts to build a large regional water recycling project in the Carson suburb that would purify waste water and then pump it into groundwater basins in Orange and Los Angeles counties for later use.
Dubbed “direct potable reuse,” he said this is a successful system that’s been employed for a decade in Orange County and is considered “state-of-the-art.”
Muir said desalinization could also play a role in providing more water, as could several new off-stream reservoirs in Northern California.
However, he said desalinization isn’t a “silver bullet,” though it can provide water on a more local level, like it’s doing now in Carlsbad. In that town north of San Diego, the aptly named Poseidon plant — which opened in 2015 — has a capacity of 50 million gallons of water a day.
Jim Thorne, an environmental research scientist at the University of California, Davis, agreed that most Golden State residents have embraced conservation efforts. But he warned that the effects of the drought aren’t over. More than 100 million trees — most of them in the Sierra Mountain Range — died during the drought and others were so weakened that they may be susceptible to disease and predators in coming years.
“So it’s not just a water-accounting thing, though that’s certainly a huge part of it,” he said.
Though the reservoirs may be full, he said heavy pumping of water from underground aquifers in the Central Valley has caused the ground to subside. That’s made irrigation canals crack and roads buckle in some places. Scientists say it also may have permanently depleted storage space in the huge aquifer under California’s Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys.
Over-pumping from groundwater basins along the Pacific coast has allowed seawater to infiltrate aquifers in places such as the Pajaro Valley near Santa Cruz — which is three miles from the ocean.
“Agriculture uses 80 percent of the water in California,” he said. “And when allotments to farmers were cut because of the drought, they sunk deep wells. But for the most part, those withdrawals aren’t monitored, so we don’t know how much remains. However, the deeper you go, the saltier and the lower quality the water gets.”
In Texas, Daniel Rodriguez, legislative director for the Texas Association of REALTORS®, said conservation is playing an important part in planning for his state, too. Texas went through a major drought earlier this century that led to the passage of a $2-billion state water bond in 2013 that earmarked at least 20 percent of the funds for conservation efforts. The state already has some of the strictest rules in the country for high-efficiency plumbing.
“Right now, we’re trying to figure out from a long-term standpoint what Texas can do when we enter our next drought — which we know will be coming — and what we can do to mitigate water shortages,” he said.
He said Lyle Larson, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is working on ways to capture storm water runoff.
“We’ve been told more than 100 million acre feet of water flows into the Gulf of Mexico each year, but that we only use about 10 million acre feet,” he said. “So if we can capture some of that and put it in underground storage for future use, that would be a great benefit.”
He said Texas is blessed with around a dozen rivers and seven aquifers from which to draw water. But when drought hits, parts of the Lone Star State — particularly in the west — can get mighty dry, he added.
“And we’re getting more and more people moving to Texas — upwards of 1,000 — every day,” he added. “So we have to be better stewards of the water we have.”
In the east, Florida last year created the Central Florida Water Initiative (CFWI), a water-supply planning endeavor that calls for setting water-flow rates from springs and coordinates the State Department of Environmental Protection, the State Agriculture Department and regional utilities and water authorities.
The legislation — which was opposed by environmental groups as too weak — also would establish management plans for farming around Lake Okeechobee, the Caloosahatchee Estuary and inland portions of the Caloosahatchee River watershed, as well as the St. Lucie River and Estuary.
Andrew Rutledge, a public policy representative for Florida REALTORS®, said the northern part of the state has abundant water supplies from rivers and springs. In the central and southern portions of the state, however, it’s a different story.
“There have been water wars in Florida over that resource that have gone to the courts,” he said. “We don’t want to go that way again, so the CWFI was created to bring together management districts to make sure they don’t run out of water, fund new water-treatment plants and work on conservation measures.”
He said one of the other major water issues facing the state is the health of Lake Okeechobee and the Florida Everglades, both of which have suffered from pollution and other problems.
The quality and clarity of Florida’s waterways have also hit homeowners in the pocketbooks. A 2015 study done for Florida REALTORS® showed that property values declined when the water fronting property in Lee and Martin counties in southern Florida was murky from algal blooms caused by water being released from Lake Okeechobee. There is a direct relationship between water quality and home prices, the report said.
To the north in Georgia, the rapidly growing Atlanta area has also been hit with drought in recent years. The region has limited groundwater supplies — around 1 percent — because of its granite geology. It gets roughly 70 percent of its water from the Chattahoochee River, which originates in the southern Appalachian Mountains and flows southwesterly through the Atlanta metropolitan area before ending in Lake Seminole, at the Georgia-Florida border. The major reservoir on the river is Lake Lanier.
For the past two decades, Georgia, Alabama and Florida have been in the so-called Tri-State Water Wars, fighting over access to stream flows from two shared river basins, the Chatahoochee-Flint-Apalachicola and the
Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa — both of which are critical to meeting Atlanta’s water needs. The three states continue to battle in the courts, with Alabama and Florida arguing that Georgia takes too much water. Florida, for its part, says the environment supporting oyster beds in its Apalachicola Bay in the Panhandle Region have been severely damaged by removal of water by Georgia.
Regardless of the outcome of those cases, Atlanta’s Metro Water District — which has a “My Drop Counts” motto — has adopted numerous water conservation measures since it was created in 2001. Over the past 16 years, the region has grown by more than 1 million people, while water use has dropped by 10 percent, officials said.
The population continues to grow, however, so in order to keep up with demand, the District has pledged to work “with local, regional and state governments, as well as water utilities and a host of stakeholders to promote some of the most aggressive water supply and conservation efforts in the country.”
In early April, the region remained in Level 2 drought status, which — among other things — prohibits washing streets, sidewalks and driveways, and limits outdoor watering of lawns, gardens and trees to the hours of 4 p.m. to 10 a.m., a maximum of twice a week. The drought designation covered 52 counties in North and Middle Georgia, including all 15 counties and 93 cities in the Metro Water District.
“At this stage, we should assume that this will be a multiyear drought,” said Boyd Austin, chair of the Metro Water District. “We must be responsible stewards of our water resources. That means watering only when it’s necessary, not twice a week just because that’s allowed. I’m confident that our region, its local governments and its residents will take the necessary steps during this drought to conserve water.”
Even with an adequate supply of water, in Michigan, which is bordered by the Great Lakes of Erie, Huron and Michigan, the current infrastructure and the delivery of quality water to residents have failed. Residents of Flint got good news in late March when a federal judge approved a settlement requiring the state to pay up to $97 million to the city to identify and replace up to 18,000 unsafe water lines by 2020.
The deal comes three years after Flint’s water supply was contaminated with lead when the city — which had been taken over by a state emergency manager after falling more than $25 million in debt — switched from receiving water from Detroit Water and Sewerage to the Flint River. Detroit Water draws its supplies from Lake Huron and the Detroit River.
The Flint water crisis began when dangerous amounts of lead leached out of the city’s pipes and into the drinking water of Flint’s homes and schools following a decision by Flint and Michigan officials to use the Flint River as the city’s primary drinking water source without first treating the water to prevent corrosion.
Flint River water that was treated improperly to control corrosion caused potentially dangerous lead from aging pipes to leach into the city’s water supply. More than 100,000 residents were exposed to high levels of lead in their drinking water. That figure includes as many as 12,000 children, some of whom were found to have high lead-levels in their blood by medical researchers. Thirteen criminal cases against state and local officials were ultimately filed as a result of the crisis.
Civic and environmental groups praised the settlement. Dimple Chaudhry, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, called it a “hard-fought victory that means safer water for Flint.
“For the first time, there will be an enforceable commitment to get the lead pipes out of the ground,” she said. “The people of Flint are owed at least this much.”Brian E. Clark is a Wisconsin-based journalist and a former staff writer on the business desk of The San Diego Union-Tribune. He is a contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Dallas Morning News and other publications.