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Water cuts are coming for the West, including Colorado, as ongoing drought worsens

June 2, 2022, 2:13 pm
The shrinking Colorado River (Water Education Foundation photo).

MONTEREY, Calif. — If Californians don’t change the way they consume water, officials are warning, sweeping, statewide mandatory cuts may be unavoidable.

Three years into a severe drought and with water supplies plummeting, lush green lawns and the careless use of drinking water are no longer realistic in California and throughout much of the West, experts say. It will take changes to personal behavior, consistent messaging from state and local water officials and historic investments in programs and infrastructure that promote conservation to survive an indefinite state of drought.

There is no choice but to conserve, said Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

“There’s nothing voluntary about what we need to do,” he said. “We have a system of moving water around the West from wet places to dry places so dry places can look green. It’s illogical.”

Last month, California water regulators ordered local water suppliers to implement conservation plans that would prepare their areas for a 20% shortage of the local water supply. And on Wednesday, new drought rules took effect in Southern California; some 6 million residents may now irrigate lawns just once or twice a week.

Statewide, purely decorative lawns throughout college campuses, office parks and hospital complexes are likely to deteriorate from green to brown by the end of the summer with new regulations that ban watering grass at industrial and commercial properties. Turf used for recreation or community gatherings, such as parks and sports fields, are exempted from the new rules. Regulators also directed local water suppliers to enforce a ban on watering home lawns more than twice a week.

“The severity of this drought requires all Californians to save water in every possible way,” said Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, in announcing the new regulations.

Still, regulators said, half of the state’s 436 water suppliers have not yet implemented conservation methods aimed at reaching required savings. Three dozen water suppliers don’t even have drought plans, according to the board. 

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom last month warned he might impose mandatory water restrictions statewide if residents and water suppliers don’t meet conservation goals in the coming months. But relatively minor adjustments could make a major difference, experts say.

Meeting statewide conservation goals may mean five-minute showers; not flushing the toilet as often; watering lawns once a week or removing them altogether and replacing them with native plants; running dishwashers and washing machines only with full loads; and cleaning driveways with brooms instead of water. 

Elsewhere in the nation, some regional water districts have imposed restrictions on nonessential water use for years. Whether Californians and others across the West will change their behavior is unclear.

Changing water habits

Santa Monica, California, has been preparing for this moment for the past decade. City leaders have invested over $200 million in water recycling projects, upgraded water treatment facilities to increase efficiency and restored contaminated basins to hold groundwater so that the city, which skirts the coast outside Los Angeles, no longer imports most of its water from Northern California or the Colorado River.

The city replaces old toilets for free, hands out low-flow shower heads and hose nozzles, and issues rebates for new high-efficiency washing machines and for replacing grass lawns with sustainable landscapes.

With these programs in place, Santa Monica already is prepared to meet the state’s latest conservation requirements, said Sunny Wang, water resources manager for the Santa Monica Public Works Department.

“Conservation is not something you can achieve overnight,” he said. “We haven’t taken our foot off the gas pedal since the last drought. It’s a long, behavior-change process that needs to continue. The education component never stops.”

Conservation should not feel like belt-tightening but like an opportunity, said Heather Cooley, director of research at the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based think tank. She and her colleagues found in a recent study that California could reduce urban water use by more than 30% by making sustainability investments, tripling water reuse and recycling and recapturing rainwater. 

The American West’s culture around water must become more realistic, she said. Climate change is making the region—already two decades into the worst megadrought in 1,200 years—hotter and drier. Adopting sustainable practices and investing in new infrastructure not only will save water, but also cut greenhouse gas emissions that worsen climate change, Cooley said.

“We can still wash our clothes. We can still have beautiful landscapes. We can still shower and flush the toilet,” she said. “We just need to do it efficiently.”

Throughout the West, grassy outdoor landscapes don’t match the native arid ecosystems, said Amanda Begley, associate project manager for the Water Equity Program at TreePeople, an environmental education program serving Southern California. Native plants and trees such as sage brush and oak use less water, cool neighborhoods and attract biodiversity, butterflies, birds and bees.

“Now that we’re up against a wall, we can’t really ignore the climate we’re in anymore,” she said. “Are lawns the best use of our drinking water? I think no.”

But replacing lawns costs money. Communities throughout California provide rebates to incentivize new native landscape investments, but many people can’t afford the upfront price tag, said Bruce Reznik, executive director of Los Angeles Waterkeeper, an environmental advocacy group. Direct-install programs can lift the financial burden for low-income households, he said.

“It’s doable,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be cheap. But it’s going to be doable.”

‘We should all do our part’

States and cities across the West have taken steps in recent years to account for drought, which has devastated the Colorado River and drastically lowered water levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

Water regulators in southern Nevada are increasing rebates for homeowners and business owners to remove their grass, adding to a successful lawn-removal program in the region. Turf already is banned for new developments. Nevada lawmakers last year passed legislation that prohibits Colorado River water to be used on “non-functional” grass at commercial properties, apartment complexes and street medians. The law goes into effect by 2026.

Some cities in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and Utah also have lawn watering restrictions in place. Colorado lawmakers this year passed a bill that pays residents to remove their ornamental lawns.

Cities generally are using less water than ever before, even with booming population growth, said Mark Squillace, a professor of natural resources law at the University of Colorado Law School. Tackling water shortages means changing the way states manage water, he said, especially for infrastructure projects that divert limited Colorado River water and for agriculture, which accounts for around 80% of water use in the West. 

Drinking water sometimes is used to grow water-intensive crops such as alfalfa, he pointed out, most of which are exported to other countries. He finds this “insane.”

“We should all do our part, but we should recognize that we’re not going to solve our problems on the backs of our cities,” he said. “We should be more conscious about using water in our lives and in our homes. But at the end of the day, it’s not going to be enough.”

While statewide water restrictions may be inevitable, Squillace is hesitant to say they’ll solve water shortages. Solutions should be tailored for their communities, he said.

During the last drought, which lasted from 2012 to 2016, then-California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, mandated a statewide 25% reduction in urban water use in 2015—a year after he asked for a voluntary 20% conservation. Water agencies that didn’t comply faced fines of $10,000 per day.

While Newsom has asked Californians to voluntarily cut their water usage, the state has not mandated broad reductions. Part of that is because Californians have conserved more water in recent years, using far less than they were in previous decades, said Alvar Escriva-Bou, a senior fellow at the San Francisco-based Public Policy Institute of California Water Policy Center. It’s now difficult to conserve more, he said.

However, he added, fatigue and stress around other issues facing the state also have prevented bigger reductions among Californians. Indeed, a statewide survey conducted by the center in May found that the drought was last among top issues facing residents, surpassed by jobs and the economy, housing costs, homelessness and gas prices. The same survey in 2015, during the heart of the last drought, showed that water supply was the most important issue for Californians. 

“Given this situation, where we’re living with so much stress, the government has decided to try to avoid any impulsive mandates,” Escriva-Bou said. “The messaging at the state level is not as powerful.”

Of the $2 billion Newsom proposed in his budget for drought response, $100 million would be set aside for messaging, attempting to persuade the state’s 39 million residents to conserve water. Meanwhile, local water suppliers are racing to avoid potentially painful cuts.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which covers 6 million residents in parts of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Ventura counties, declared a water shortage emergency in April. As part of that measure, the district is limiting lawn watering to just once a week. It was the first time the water district took that step. If conservation measures aren’t followed, the district could ban all lawn watering by Sept. 1.

The Ventura County Public Works Agency has a mandatory lawn watering schedule for the area: Addresses ending in an even number can water their lawns on Sunday, while odd-numbered homes can water on Saturdays.

Residents typically don’t face fines right away for violating rules. Only after a second written violation within a year would officials begin fining residents, starting at $100 and growing to $500 after the fourth notice. If customers continue to violate conservation measures, they could have their water disconnected.

The system is not perfect, said Joe Pope, director of water and sanitation at the Ventura County agency. Neither he nor the public likes it, he said, but they know they need to step up to conserve water more aggressively. 

“We want to make sure there’s water to flush the toilet, bathe and cook with,” he said. “I think most people get it. They understand there’s some shared pain that everyone has to have to make this work.”

Editor’s note: This story was produced by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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