California ended the 2014 water year on September 30 with the overwhelming majority of the state experiencing extreme or exceptional drought conditions. Extreme drought conditions are characterized by widespread water shortages or restrictions leading to increased fire danger and the potential for major agricultural losses. Exceptional drought conditions mean even greater fire danger, the potential for widespread and substantial agricultural losses, and significant shortages of water in reservoirs, streams, and wells, which create water emergencies. Since January, nearly thirty California communities have faced the prospect of running out of water altogether. As Californians anxiously await the start of the rainy season, forecasts of a dry winter have some wondering if this is the beginning of a mega-drought (an extreme dry spell that can last a decade or longer).
While all eyes have been on California this summer, it is not alone. The majority of the southwestern United States, Texas, and a significant portion of the Great Plains have also experienced drought this year. Even the southeastern states, which are historically wetter, have just recently emerged from a multi-year drought.
A recent National Science Foundation-funded study conducted by scientists at Stanford University found that the atmospheric conditions associated with the California drought are “very likely” linked to climate change. California may be feeling the impact of climate change right now, but it is just providing a preview of what other areas may experience in the future. Now is the time to begin the long, hard process of changing habits and expectations about water.
One of the first steps is to reframe the way we think about water. Traditionally, water has been viewed as a single-use commodity. That is a luxury we can no longer afford. Wastewater disposal should be seen as an opportunity, not a problem. Recycled water can be used for landscape irrigation, industrial processing for manufacturers, and cooling water for power plants and refineries – all of which free up potable water for drinking and hygiene. Recycled water can also be used for groundwater recharging, in which it is pumped or percolated to groundwater aquifers, later to be pumped out, treated, and used as drinking water. Just as it is now the norm to recycle our bottles, cans and paper, it should become the norm to recycle our water as well.
We also need to examine how we use water and make sure that we are maximizing efficiency. Conservation can’t just be a lifestyle choice; it needs to be built into our communities. For example, even in drought-stricken California, there are still approximately 200,000 homes and businesses without water meters. There are similar pockets of unmetered water users throughout the country. These customers pay a flat rate no matter how much water they use. The connection between meters and reduced water usage is clear and well-documented. This basic step is necessary for efficient and responsible use of water resources.