California has been receiving sobering news lately, adding to already growing concerns about an imminent water crisis for the state in the coming years. Mayor Villaraigosa of Los Angeles announced this week that he is going to do something about it.

Will California be the next great desert?

Just last weekend I saw the doom and gloom powerpoint presentation by noted climate expert Dr. David Roland-Hurst of UC Berkeley whose study on California Climate Risk and Repsonse (PDF) contained numerous diagrams (like the one above) illustrating what is now a certain fact - California is losing its principle supply of fresh water, the Sierra Navada snowpack, and will soon be facing the worst drought in US history.

Dr. Stepehen Chu, the new head of the US Dept. of Energy surprised many by calling the report "optimistic." After a terrible 3 year drought, California's snow levels are down to almost 40% from normal, and its main water reservoir is at 28% capacity. Chu believes no one is correctly projecting the many impacts this will have on California, and the nation as a whole. As he said in his first interview with the LA Times:

I don't think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen. We're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California. I don't actually see how they can keep their cities going.
Desertification will not only affect Californians. The state produces more than half of the US supply of produce, and serious droughts are also expected throughout the west.

L.A. sounds the alarm

All of this bad news spurred L.A. Mayor Villaraigosa to sound the alarm and shift to 'Phase 3' of his water conservation ordinance passed last year. Phase 2 included a ban on outdoor watering between the hours of 9 am and 4 pm. The ordinance is currently enforced by a limited team of "drought busters" -- water police who issue citations to homeowners who violate the ban. But that number will grow to handle increased policing of water use.

Phase 3 will actually include, for the first time in the city's history, rationing of water. The ordinance has to be approved by City Council, and a vote is expected in the next few weeks. If passed, the city will limit the water a home can consume by 15-20%. 

The good news is the Californians seem to be willing and able to reduce their water consumption. Last year, California homes used about 8% less than the year before. The biggest gains are to be hand in landscaping. Typically, 50% or more of a home's water budget goes to irrigating lawns and gardens. By replacing lawns with drought-tolerant grasses or plants or xeriscaping (i.e. "dryscaping") using drip irrigation, this water consumption can be reduced by up to 90%. 

Other new technologies like the dual-flush gadget I blogged about recently, offer easy ways to cut back with almost no effort.

Water conservation has the added benefit of reducing overall energy consumption as well. In California, it is estimated that water accounts for 19% of total energy consumption -- related to the transportation and processing of water. So these new water conservation measures will help California reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and handle its other giant problem - an insufficient supply of energy for a rapidly growing population.

Learn more about your water usage

There are a couple of ways I suggest for learning more about your water use. You can try the brand new Water footprint calculator or go to the cool website Creative Citizen, which allows you to search for ideas (and exact gallons of water saved) for a variety of water strategies. You could also get a hi-tech utility dashboard to track your exact water consumption.

Photo by Walter Arce

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