Governor Jerry Brown has already declared a state of emergency this year: California is in the midst of the worst drought in its recorded history (about a hundred years). Last year surpassed even 1977 – previously our worst drought year. Here in Sonoma County, local reservoirs like Lake Sonoma and especially Lake Mendocino, are dangerously low. Even an improbable summer full of rain wouldn’t bring water levels back to normal.
This affects us all in expected and unexpected ways. Local populations of honeybees appear to be in decline in the last year, which researchers have attributed to the drought (plants don’t produce as much pollen for the bees). The grapevines of this region’s renowned wine industry experienced stress due to warm weather this winter, and the water needed for winter frost protection came from the nearby Russian River, which has been running extremely low. According to the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, salmon populations as well as steelhead are struggling in our local rivers. These fish need to have running water in order to spawn and reproduce.
Many California water agencies are implementing conservation programs and conducting extensive outreach – including incentives and rebates – to residents and businesses. Check with your local city or county water agency (here is a link to Sonoma County’s). Naturally, politics and bureaucracy are involved (California’s history is intimately intertwined with water policy, as detailed in Marc Reisner’s great Cadillac Desert), resulting in poor management of state water resources, and the need for mandatory conservation, for example. What can we do to help? Here are a number of easy conservation measures all of us can try:
Water and energy are also intertwined: in saving one you save the other. Our state’s water-related energy consumption uses 20% of the state’s electricity and 38% of our natural gas not used for electricity production. Over 6% of California energy used is for pumping and treating water. Also, water is used in most manufacturing, so if we focus on cutting down on purchasing material goods and changing our eating habits, we save thousands of gallons.
At home, we can turn water off when brushing our teeth, shaving, etc. Install water-saving devices in shower and toilet. Run the washer and dishwasher only with full loads (and if possible use a front loading clothes washer). Repair leaky faucets and pipes immediately. Rebates are often available for devices like water-efficient shower heads, toilets, dishwashers, and washing machines. Put a bucket under your faucet while waiting for shower water to heat or rinsing dishes or fruits and vegetables; then water your garden with this. Sweep instead of using water to rinse the deck or driveway or wash your car. Consider a rain barrel or gray water system (again, you can find resources and incentives for these through your county water agency or local nurseries or hardware stores).
Drip irrigation systems water plants at their roots, avoiding excess evaporation. If you must get new plants, try drought tolerant/native ones, considering the sun and shade you get each day (or install shade structures to avoid moisture loss). Avoid new plants that require lots of water, and avoid planting or transplanting in the heat of summer, when plants require the most water to establish. Create walkways and driveways out of porous materials like gravel, instead of concrete or asphalt, so precipitation penetrates into the ground. There are many incentives for getting rid of your lawn, and plenty of beautiful drought tolerant plants (like native grasses, shrubs like rosemary or ceanothus, sedge, and succulents) and ground cover. Planting food can use less water and also will feed your household (and perhaps more!): smaller tomatoes such as cherries and others, lemon cucumber, and certain types of zucchini and pole beans are varieties that thrive in lower-water conditions. Water in the morning or evening to minimize evaporation. Add compost when you do plant, and mulch the surface soil of all your plants. Make sure to weed thoroughly to remove competition for water. Prune as well, to rid your plants of excess growth needing more water. Think of your garden differently: it’s a work in progress and necessarily should change over time anyway – how better than to grow into something suited to your climate?
Last but far from least, protect the water we do have from toxins and pollutants. Oppose fracking, which uses tremendous amounts of water and creates geologic instability as well as water contamination. And do whatever you can to help fight climate change, so droughts like this don’t become more and more common.