September 24, 2017
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Why California Is Challenged by Its Mind-set of Plenty

Californians must deal with periodic drought, but when water is available it’s not evenly distributed, and a mind-set of ‘plenty’ makes coping with less over the long term a difficult scenario, says Water Energy Innovations president Laurie Park.

By Laurie Park

ONE OF MY fondest memories growing up in Hawaii was Hurricane Nina, which wasn’t very significant in the history books, but it left an impression on me. Torrential rains and heavy winds knocked down banana trees and power lines, and took out water mains. We didn’t have running water for part of the time – my dad drove down the hill to fill buckets from a water truck.

Mom taught us how to take baths in buckets: she boiled water on the stove and mixed in cold water until the temperature was just right. We used plastic cups to wet our hair and then to rinse off the shampoo. We used washcloths to soap up and rinsed off a cup at a time. The rinse water was used to flush the toilet. We were shiny and clean, and it took less than 2 gallons (8 litres) per person.

A satellite image shows Hurricane Nina over the Hawaiian islands in 1957. (Satellite)

A satellite image shows Hurricane Nina over the Hawaiian islands in 1957. (Satellite)

The Barrier of Plenty

Living with less water even for a few days was a lesson that stayed with me as I moved to drought-prone California.

Although many Californians encounter several bouts of consecutive dry years within our lifetimes, the current drought has shown that we still have much to learn. Hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives were paid to remove grass; but this year again, far too much potable water was poured onto patches of unneeded (and sometimes, unsightly and scraggly) grass in strip malls, parking lots, median strips and numerous other areas where grass serves no particular purpose. We also still use much more water indoors than is necessary.

I call this “the barrier of plenty”: because most of us have so much, we use a lot. When water is widely available at very economical prices, we scarcely give it a second glance. It is only when we are experiencing shortages of potentially serious proportions that we pause to think about using less.

Throughout the current drought, most people had access to much more running water than they needed. Very few needed to resort to bathing in buckets. Only a small percentage of Californians, mostly in remote communities whose wells totally ran dry, needed to have water trucked in to meet their essential needs.

The Challenge of Place

California has another challenge besides the mind-set of plenty.

A great diversity of geological and hydrological conditions exists within California, such that some areas get very little precipitation while others get too much, and some areas have very little groundwater while others have a lot. Ultimately, it is storage that determines how vulnerable any particular area is to drought.

Areas with substantial water storage capacity, both surface and groundwater, measure drought resilience in carryover storage: The number of consecutive dry years that they can weather and still deliver critical water supplies to their residents and businesses. Areas with little storage are highly dependent on precipitation to recharge whatever storage they have – in some areas, virtually every year.

Thus it is the challenge of place that Californians have been faced over the past few years: Should all Californians be required to reduce their water consumption, even if their water supplier has sufficient supplies for its own service area? What if saving water in one community does nothing to help another very needy community because those systems are not interconnected and there is no viable means of transferring water savings from one site to another?

Looking Forward

The past few years have highlighted the fact that our existing water resources, infrastructure and demand are not sustainable. Change takes time – but in the meantime, we need to inculcate an appreciation of the true value of water in this and every future generation while continually increasing awareness about the many ways in which we can live very well with a lot less water. In order to save it for those not-so-rainy days, we need to increase local and regional carryover storage capacity. We also need to find effective means of addressing the challenges of place: assuring that all Californians have access to enough water to sustain healthy and safe living conditions.

Many have referred to the current drought as a “wake-up call.” We have had similar wake-up calls in the past, but inevitably seem to lose momentum when the rains come and reservoirs fill. California’s resolve to build drought resilience has never been stronger – it will be up to all of us to not allow a few drops of rain to distract from the ultimate goal.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.