Water Shortages: Learning from 1977
What is interesting about the California drought currently impacting the area is not necessarily the severity of it. Instead, it is how the state seems to be handling it in stride, with relatively minor impact on communities. While some industry sectors are definitely being impacted—and we may not have seen the worst—compared to the last “major” drought in California (1976-1977), there have been considerable changes for the better.
One of the big differences is that, compared to the current drought, the 1977 drought involved two very dry years 1976 and 1977 with 1977 being the then-driest year on record.
The current drought began with a modestly dry year in 2012, followed by a very dry year in 2013. While the previous drought appears to have been much more severe, when you consider how much the population has grown in the state—from about 20+ million people in the late 1970s to more than 35 million today—the current situation should be more dire and impact more people; however, it is not.
In 1977, water rationing was in place. In Marin County, just north of San Francisco, along with mandatory rationing, steep pricing measures were taken, there was no watering of landscaping, putting bricks in toilets and other intensive conservation programs were implemented with the goal of reducing the amount of water to as little as 44 gallons of water per person per day. From these efforts, water consumption was cut by a staggering 63 percent.
So far, no such actions or mandatory restrictions have been implemented and, according to David Guy, former head of the Northern California Water Association, this is likely because of the following reasons:
- In Southern California, Metropolitan Water District and its member agencies have developed an “amazing portfolio of water resources,” allowing them to tap water supplies in more areas of the state.
- Similarly, San Francisco and Contra Costa Water District in Northern California have access to more water sources and water storage facilities.
- East Bay Municipal Water District (EBMUD) has access to storage in Lake Pardee and it is now using its dry year water for the first time from the Sacramento River.
- Santa Clara Valley Water District has an aggressive groundwater banking program that captures its water supplies from both the Central Valley and State Water Projects.
Commenting on these developments, all of which began as a result of the 1976-1977 drought, Guy says, “Urban water purveyors should all be commended for their leadership in developing water portfolios that serve them and their customers well during these dry periods. This did not happen by accident. These agencies have all made significant strategic investments in their portfolios and particularly, their storage reservoirs that they are all calling upon this year.”
However, having access to more water sources and more ways to store water for a “rainy day” (excuse the expression) tells us just one side of the story. Since 1977—and then spurred by new regulations passed by Congress in 1992—there have been what can only be termed dramatic developments in technologies that have helped consumers reduce water consumption significantly. This is why some cities, such as Los Angeles and Phoenix, are using about the same amount of water today as they were a decade ago, even though their populations have grown significantly.
- Toilets in use in the 1970s were consuming about five gallons of water per flush or more; today, the maximum is 1.6 gallons per flush, but many systems use even less.
- Urinals typically used three to as much as seven gallons of water per flush 35 years ago; that is now down to about one gallon and no-water systems now recommended in many facilities, use no water at all, saving as much as 35,000 gallons of water per year per urinal.
- While kitchen and restroom faucets used 2.5 gallons of water or more per minute (at 80 psi) in the 1970s, with the installation of aerators, that can now be reduced to as little as 0.5.
- Shower-heads installed before 1992 commonly used as much as five to seven gallons of water per minute; after 1992, this was reduced to no more than 2.5 gallons per minute, but installing an aerator now can cut this amount in half.
It appears that we have learned a lot since the 1970s. Not only are our “urban water purveyors,” as Guy calls them, better able to manage and store water, but with the help of new technologies consumers can do just as well using fixtures that require far less water and even no water at all. We’re going to learn things from this drought as well. But, if history serves us well, we can commend ourselves for becoming even more water resourceful and efficient in years to come. Further, it appears consumer attitudes towards water availability and its cost is starting to change.
Klaus Reichardt is a frequent writer on water conservation and efficiency issues. He is the CEO and founder of Waterless Co., Inc., the first manufacturer of no-water urinals in the United States. He can be reached via his company website at www.waterless.com.
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