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Saving water during a drought*

November 5, 2021

[Posted by Chuck Almdale]

*We live in a desert. Assume there’s always a never-ending drought, and live knowing that.

The Los Angeles Times recently had another of it’s periodic tips on water saving, which we’ll get to in a minute. Among other information points, they mentioned that last July Governor Newsom asked Californians to reduce residential water usage by 15%, which, in my opinion, should be achievable by all Californians. But many Californians have already instituted all the saving measures suggested below, and already achieved such reductions, and for them saving an additional 15% will be difficult.

Who is using the water

And—and it’s a big and—we also recognize that a great deal of California’s water usage is out of the hands of homeowners and apartment-dwellers. There’s also agriculture, industry and the general environment. Here’s a chart from PPIC (Public Policy Institute of California) who are particularly interested in our water.

[Note: maf = million acre feet; 1 acre-foot = 325,851 gallons.]

NOTES: The figure shows applied water use. The statewide average for 1998‒2015 was 77.2 maf. Environment (38.3 maf average) includes water for “wild and scenic” rivers, required Delta outflow, instream flows, and managed wetlands. Urban (7.9 maf) includes residential, commercial, and industrial uses; and large landscapes. Agriculture (31 maf) includes water for crop production. Net water use—i.e., the volume consumed by people or plants, embodied in manufactured goods, evaporated, or discharged to saline waters—is lower. The figure excludes water used to actively recharge groundwater basins (3% for urban and 1% for agriculture on average), conveyance losses (3% for urban and 8% for agriculture), and water used for energy production (less than 2% of urban use). (LINK)

The quick take-away from the chart is that while usage fluctuates from wet to dry years, our environment (aka nature) consumes roughly 50%, agriculture 40% and urban (including industry) about 10%. (PPIC). It’s also very interesting to note that total water usage does not include “conveyance losses…8% for agriculture.” This sounds like agricultural leakage is almost as much as all Urban usage. Something to think about, there.

Hello to the Los Angeles Times

On 10/10/21, the L.A. Times had an article by Steve Lopez: “Gulp! Are they using water in a fair way?” It describe just how much water one of the ~120 golf courses in the Coachella Valley (Palm Springs and environs) uses every night: 1.2 million gallons on average. I sent them a letter, which they published a few days later, albeit slightly modified:

Dear editors and Steve Lopez:
In Feb. 2009 we replaced the grass front lawn of our small San Fernando Valley home with drought-tolerant California native plants. No reimbursement ever received. Many plants are now large; some have died. We get compliments and our yard was part of a study of native-plant yards.

Our water usage shrank 62%, saving 1,229 HCF (919,356 gallons) of water, and $6,333 in DWP charges. I like that. I don’t like knowing that one of the 120 Coachella Valley golf courses blows through our entire 12 2/3rds years of water savings in 9 1/4 hours, every single night.

In the permanently drought-stricken 4/5ths of Australia called “outback,” golf course fairways are dirt and “greens” are compacted black sand. People play on them daily. Some—Greg Norman and Jason Day, to name two—go on to world fame. Coachella golfers and golf course owners, state water resource managers, water-drinkers, are you listening?

I do not mind at all “doing my bit.” Americans are called upon from time to time to “pitch in.” During World War II Americans by the millions grew Victory Gardens, collected used tires and newspapers and metal cans, gave up copper and butter and eggs and new cars, scrimped and saved and went without—for years. It is—or should be—the same thing now. This is a war against adverse changes in our global climate, mostly of our own making, and the shrinking supply of fresh water is the most imminent battle in that war.

But, as my letter-to-the-editor indicates, it’s very annoying to do the best you can, and discover that what our household has individually accomplished is less than a drop in the bucket compared to the overuse and wastage going on elsewhere, every day.

And—and this is one of those big “ands”—because the notes to the chart above says, “Urban (7.9 maf) includes residential, commercial, and industrial uses; and large landscapes,” I suspect that golf courses are included in Urban usage, and thus can constitute a big chunk of Urban’s already relatively paltry portion of 10% of total California water usage.

A California behavioral study on energy usage

Here’s a study1 of prosocial behavior, done right here in California in 2007. The Dept. of Water and Power ought to know about it and use it.2

Researchers made residents of a California neighborhood more aware of energy usage levels in their community. Households were first identified as using more or less than their neighborhood average. Randomly selected Group One households were notified with a post card highlighting how much energy they used and how much the neighborhood averaged. Group Two households got the same information, but with a smiley face if they consumed less energy than the average, and a sad face if they consumed more than the average.

Weeks later, the researchers again measured energy usage. Group one households had cut back and conserved energy if they had been consuming more energy than average, but significantly increased usage if they had been consuming less energy than average.

Group two households—those who got the smiley or sad face stickers—also cut back and conserved energy if they had been consuming more energy than average, but did not significantly increase their usage if it was already below average.

The simple addition of smiley face or sad face reminded people to either join the rest of the neighborhood in conserving energy or that they were already doing the right thing and to keep on doing it.

Dept. of Power and Water—are you listening? Stick those smiley or sad faces on the bills and watch the conservation climb.

The Los Angeles Time article

Having said all that, here are tips for the ordinary citizens of California, with comments from L.A. Times journalist Jessica Roy. [And some from me, where appropriate, in brackets.] Many of you have already done most or all of these things. If you haven’t, here’s a reminder.

How to save water during a drought
Los Angeles Times | Jessica Roy | 2 Nov 2021 | 8 minute read

Rip out your lawn, or at least water it less.
This saves 40-80 gallons per watering. [Our water usage immediately dropped 70% when we took out our front lawn. As native plants grew in, they needed water, and our 12.67 years overall savings is 62%. If you insist on watering your lawn, longer, slower, deeper & fewer soaks are better than numerous short soaks because they will make the roots grow deeper.]

Replace non-native plants.
They suck up more water than natives, and native plants make our friendly native birds and bugs happy.

Find and fix leaks.
Watch your water bill. If it moves higher than usual, you may have a leak. Fix it immediately. [The two times in twelve years we went into Tier 2 water usage was due to a silent-running toilet, and a dying pressure valve. The high usage noted on the bill clued us in.]

Replace old appliances, shower heads and toilets.
Toilets made before 1990 can use 6 or more gallons per flush; new toilets can use as little as 1.28 gallons. A new shower head can save 12 gallons. [Turn off the water while lathering and you’ll save 75% or more.]

Small things add up.
Don’t run water while washing dishes or while washing your face, brushing your teeth or shaving. Don’t wash your car so much; a little dust won’t kill you. No more hour-long or even quarter-hour-long showers. Capture in a bucket the water you run to warm up the shower, then water your plants with it. Do the same at your kitchen sink. Make sure your lawn sprinklers aren’t watering the driveway or street or squirting 15 feet into the air. Sweep your driveway and sidewalks with a big push broom, not with rivers from your hose. Replace that costly gym membership with housework and home maintenance.

Other things we consume use water.
Raising fruit, vegetables, meat. New cotton T-shirt: 650 gallons. Plastic: 22 gal./pound. Smartphone: 3,000 gallons. Single-use 1-liter plastic water bottle: over 1 liter of water. [1 gallon per almond. 12 gallons per glass of wine.]

Other things you can do.
Write annoyed letters to your local paper. Ask your homeowners association to pull up the grass and install native plants. [Contact your politicians to back water-saving laws that target not just homeowners, but entities that use a thousand—or a million—times more water.]

I’m sure I missed something. Read the L.A. Times article.

1. Schultz, P.W., Nolan, J.M., Cialdini, R.B., Goldstein, N.J., & Griskevicius, V. (2007). The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms. Psychological Science, 18, 429-434.
2. The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit, by John V. Petrocelli, 2021. St. Martin’s Press, New York. pgs 245-46.

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