Drought Spurs Worry, Opportunities for Water Solutions in California

Water experts believe efficiency measures and technological innovation will help California meet the needs of its 40 million thirsty residents without expensive interventions like desalination plants — even as droughts figure to elongate, intensify and increase. 

(CN) — In “East of Eden,” author John Steinbeck’s magnum opus about life in California’s Salinas Valley, a character says the following:

“During the dry years, the people forgot about the rich years, and when the wet years returned, they lost all memory of the dry years.”

The quote was brought up Thursday by Gary Kremen, a Santa Clara Valley Water District board member, during a panel discussion about water issues in the Golden State hosted by California state Senator Josh Becker.

Given the recent trends in the state, the discussion was surprisingly upbeat. 

“We can do this,” said Felicia Marcus, a fellow at Stanford’s Water in the West program and former chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. “We just have to build more efficient communities and use technology to track every drop.”

Marcus joined other distinguished state water analysts, including Newsha Ajami, the director of urban water policy at Stanford. 

Ajami said that while the current drought and the prospect of prolonged periods of dryness in the future are worrying given that the current water system in the state is beset with inefficiencies. If fixed, however, the system can provide ample latitude for water managers to provide enough water to agricultural businesses, urban water users and the environment. 

“There is so much fluff in the system,” she said. “And so much of that has to be captured when we think about the future.”

Part of the issue, according to Ajami, is our inability to use water meters in a more effective way to provide water managers with better data. Some communities are entirely without water meters — a typically rural problem. In the cities, many large apartment complexes with multiple units only meter water collectively rather than using sub-metering, which would track individual unit water usage and provide a more accurate picture. 

“The fact that we do not meter one of our most precious resources is a major problem,” Ajami said. 

The program director was also leery of large expensive solutions like desalination plants, particularly given that water usage patterns in California and around the country indicate households use more water to take showers and flush toilets than to drink. 

“I disagree with using tons of resources to clean the water up just to flush it down the toilet,” she said. “Before we transition to desalination, we need to come up with better ways to manage water in our cities and communities.”

Marcus agreed, pointing to projects focused on recycled water, which uses new technology to purify wastewater and render it potable for households. 

“It’s a very exciting time in the recycled water world,” she said. 

In Orange County, for instance, the water district is launching programs to use recycled water for irrigation at parks, schools and golf courses. Recycled water can also be used in various industrial settings like carpet cleaning and car washes. 

Similarly, the district is using recycled water to replenish groundwater aquifers that have been depleted as water users draw down the underground reservoirs to make up for the dearth of surface water. 

“It proves clean, safe and affordable water and we are on the cusp of seeing really take off,” Marcus said. 

The Santa Clara Valley Water District has plans to make recycled water part of its portfolio, pledging to draw 10% of its capacity from recycled sources. San Diego is also implementing similar projects and goals. 

While optimism around innovation and efficiency was expressed, the panel members also laid out concerns as the state braces for what figures to be another season of conservation measures and wildfires. 

“We are beyond concerned; we are a little bit scared,” Kremen said at one point. 

On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor issued its weekly report showing 26% of California is in exceptional drought — its worst category — up from 16% just a week before. 

“If I had to place a bet on this being the worst fire season ever in California, or not, my chips are shifting in a not good direction,” Stanford professor Michael Wara tweeted Thursday. 

Daniel Swain, a forecaster for the National Weather Service, noted that ancillary signs like soil moisture content and vegetation dryness are also indicative of a dire fire season. 

“The level of landscape flammability — especially in denser brush and forests — is genuinely scary,” he said. 

But he also noted fires are generated by random acts like muffler backfires in cars or sparks off of faulty transmission lines, so California could conceivably escape a terrible fire season with a little luck. 

But the panel agreed on one thing: California’s present drought is more of an indication of a new normal, rather than a passing aberration. 

“We know cookie-cutter solutions will not work,” Becker said. 

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