(Trends Wide) — California is facing a crisis. Not only are its reservoirs already at critically low levels due to unrelenting drought, but residents and businesses across the state are also using more water now than they have in seven years, despite Gov. Gavin Newsom’s efforts to encourage everything. otherwise.
Newsom has pleaded with residents and businesses to reduce their water usage by 15%. But in March, urban water use was up 19% compared to March 2020, the year the current drought began. It was the highest March water consumption since 2015, the State Water Resources Control Board reported earlier this week.
Part of the problem is that the urgency of the crisis is not reaching Californians. Water conservation messages vary across different authorities and jurisdictions, so people don’t have a clear idea of what applies to whom. And they certainly don’t have a tangible idea of how much a 15% reduction is from their own use.
Kelsey Hinton, director of communications for the Community Water Center, a group that advocates for affordable access to clean water, said urban communities, which typically get their water from the state’s reservoirs, don’t seem to understand the severity of the drought in the way where rural communities do, where water could literally stop coming out of the tap the moment their groundwater reserves are depleted.
“In our work every day, people feel how serious this is and know that we must work to find real solutions to address the ongoing drought,” Hinton told Trends Wide. “But then living in Sacramento, you don’t see the same urgency because we don’t rely on groundwater and resources are scarce in the same way these communities are.”
But advocates say government officials are also focusing on the wrong approach. They say voluntary residential water shutoffs are not the solution, and restrictions should be placed on businesses and industries that use the vast majority of the state’s water.
“Water abuse by businesses must be addressed or no further action will matter,” said Jessica Gable, a spokeswoman for Food & Water Watch.
“The perception in California right now is that it’s no longer a secret that the drought is related to climate change,” Gable told Trends Wide. “But no effort has been made to restrict the industries that use the most water, which coincidentally are the industries that also emit the most emissions that fuel the climate crisis.”
Most of the increase in March water use came from water jurisdictions in Southern California. Usage in the South Coast Hydrologic Region, which includes Los Angeles and San Diego County, is up 27% from March 2020, for example, according to data provided by the state water board. Only the North Coast region saved water in March, cutting about 4.3% of its use.
Edward Ortiz, a spokesman for the State Water Resources Control Board, said March was a major setback for the governor’s water goals.
“This is a concerning development in our response to the drought as a state,” Ortiz told Trends Wide. “Making water conservation a way of life is one way Californians can respond to these conditions. Saving water should be a practice no matter the weather.”
He noted that Californians “need to redouble our efforts to conserve water in and out of our homes and businesses.”
Last month, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California announced its toughest water restrictions for residents and businesses in the counties around Los Angeles, with a goal of reducing water use by at least 35%. Starting June 1, outdoor water use will be limited to one day a week.
But community advocates say residents are wondering if large water users are also facing the same pressure and painful conservation decisions. Namely agriculture that requires a lot of water (things like almonds, alfalfa, avocado and tomatoes) or fracking, where tens of millions of gallons of water can be used to fracture a single fossil fuel well.
Gable said that while every little bit matters, the repeated pleas for people to save water can “seem misplaced at best and possibly reckless,” given that industries that could dramatically reduce the excessive amount of water they use assigned to them are rarely responsible.
Amanda Starbuck, director of research for Food & Water Watch, said reducing residential water use is like telling people that recycling could save the planet. While it’s a significant move, she said it won’t make a dent in the overall crisis.
“It’s also a bit humiliating to blame residential use for these crises,” Starbuck told Trends Wide. “It’s just a small portion of the total consumption. It’s a much bigger problem, and we really need to start incorporating these big industries that are consuming water during this time of drought.”
A spokesperson for Newsom’s office told Trends Wide that local water agencies have set new goals since March that should lead to lower usage, including restricting outdoor watering, and the state board will have more decisions this month.
“We are hopeful that these actions will contribute significantly to the state’s overall water reduction goals, as outdoor irrigation is one of the largest single users of water,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
The spokesperson also pointed to the additional funding for water resiliency that the governor announced in his budget proposal this Friday. That funding is part of $47 billion scheduled to address the impacts of the climate crisis in the state.
“With the introduction of additional funding, we will be able to more effectively reach Californians about the need to conserve along with the greatest water-saving actions they can take, and we will support local water districts in responding to the emergency of the drought,” the spokesperson explained.
Other sources are drying up
While much of the water conversation focuses on urban use, Hinton said rural communities live with daily anxiety that the water will stop flowing.
“The bigger story, at least for us, is that when we’re in the middle of a drought like this, it’s not just about shorter showers and stopping outdoor water use for our families,” Hinton told Trends Wide. “Our families are worried that their water will just stop working.”
These are communities that do not depend on reservoirs, where much of the focus has been on reaching critically low levels, but instead use private groundwater wells.
The big concern is that during extremely dry conditions, the state’s groundwater levels sink while more is withdrawn for agriculture and other uses.
“The urgency is there with the families we work with, because they know what happened before,” he said. “We have people whose wells have dried up since the last drought and have not yet been able to afford to deepen them or connect to a long-term solution.”
Scorching heat waves, worsening drought and destructive wildfires have raged across the West in recent years. As these vivid images of the climate crisis unfold, Hinton believes the state must prioritize people’s water needs over industry.
“Climate change has made drought a reality for us forever, and now, this is something we have to deal with as a state,” Hinton said. “And the more we can accept that and be proactive, the less we’re constantly reacting to these situations of entire communities running dry or urban areas having to cut off water at this amount because we’ve already abused what was available to us.”
Trends Wide’s Cheri Mossburg, Sarah Moon and Stephanie Elam contributed to this report.