Audrey Finci (left), Kathleen Moazed (center), and Cynthia Koehler

Viewpoints: A new water supply for urban California

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014 - 12:00 am

The water numbers are sobering at best. 2013 has been the driest year since California started keeping records during the Gold Rush. The Sierra snowpack is at 17 percent of normal, and there is little rain in sight. The governor has declared a drought emergency and is calling for a 20 percent reduction in water consumption.

And yet, there is reason for optimism about the prospects for moving into a more secure and resilient water future. New water supply for California’s 38 million residents is actually close at hand, if we take a harder look at the water that communities already use. Local, decentralized water solutions have major potential to tap the huge quantities of water that urban Californians apply to their outdoor greenery. Water-efficient software, stormwater recapture, drought resistant landscaping and graywater – the soapy water from laundries and showers that can be repurposed for landscaping – could provide significant benefits almost immediately.

Urban California, meaning all non-farm sectors – residential, commercial, industrial and institutional water use – consumes about 8 million to 9 million acre-feet of water each year. The state’s 12 million households account for about two-thirds of total urban consumption, and most of this water is devoted to outdoor use – not drinking or cooking or laundry or even the extraordinarily long showers taken by our teenage children. Estimates vary from 53 percent to 65 percent, but on average we are sprinkling the largest proportion of our drinking water on sidewalks, lawns and gardens.

As California considers how to tackle not only the current drought, but also our water future in light of climate change, reuse and conservation may be our most significant and least expensive sources of new water supply. According to a recent report by the Pacific Institute, urban water efficiency measures – both indoor and outside – represent the single largest potential source of water for urban California. These measures could generate an additional 1.25 million to more than 3 million acre-feet of water each year. The high end of this range is about eight times the capacity of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Other options considered in the Pacific Institute study include recycled municipal water (1.8 million to 2.15 million acre-feet), conjunctive management/groundwater storage (500,000 to 2 million acre-feet), and desalination and surface storage (both less than 500,000 acre-feet).

We don’t need to make all or nothing choices among these options. Our strongest water future will be built on a full and diverse portfolio of water management strategies. But our already developed supply is often overlooked as a meaningful solution in conversations about water security. Conventional wisdom holds that we cannot conserve our way out of the state’s water problems, and that demand will “harden” as people use less water.

But California does not appear to be anywhere close to this eventuality. Household water use in the Golden State is about 200 gallons of water per person per day, on average, and more in hotter inland areas. This represents a virtual reservoir of opportunity, particularly when compared with water use in developed countries with Mediterranean climates. Urban per capita daily consumption is about 100 gallons in Italy, 84 gallons in Spain and 76 gallons in Israel, according to a 2009 report by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Moreover, it is no longer the case that population growth translates directly into higher water demand. Los Angeles today consumes the same amount of water that it did 30 years ago despite adding 1.5 million residents, with little or no discernible impact to its thriving economy. Indeed, earlier this fall, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told a water conference that his city has “rethought its relationship with water,” and is aggressively pursuing sustainable approaches to capturing and reusing water with real success.

Community-based options also have tremendous economic development potential. The most significant challenge they face is financing. Historically, efficiency measures have been funded quite differently from capital projects, skewing cost benefit comparisons. That is starting to change as leaders are looking at how to finance graywater systems, efficiency technology and xeriscape – the new green infrastructure for water supply – using the same funding mechanisms that we employ to pay for tanks, pipes and pumping stations.

In light of the governor’s call for greater funding for water conservation, now is the time to take advantage of these opportunities. The question is how quickly we can all rethink our relationship with water and building California’s new resilient supply.


Cynthia Koehler, Kathleen Moazed and Audrey Finci are co-founders and principals of WaterNow (www.waternow.org), a new nonprofit dedicated to promoting sustainable community level water solutions in California and the West.



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