Water is necessary for life. We can’t survive without water, and we need it to produce food and even energy. But how we manage water is a big problem. Or, as Conservation International puts it, “We need a global transformation of the way the world manages fresh water.”
We live in a world where climate change is changing rainfall patterns and increasing the likelihood of drought. Water conservation is something we all need to make a way of life.
If you live in an area of the U.S. where it rains frequently, like Seattle, it can be hard to see the necessity for conserving water. However, using excess amounts of water can put a strain on sewage and septic systems, which can lead to groundwater contamination. Using less water also reduces energy use and can save you money. For example, if you live in a rural area and have a well, using less water means cutting down on the energy it takes to pump the water from the well.
“People should just recognize that clean water is a limited resource and where we can and should be conserving it and using it efficiently,” Ben H. Chou, policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s water program, told TriplePundit.
The harsh reality of climate change is that drought can hit at any time, even if you live in an area that receives plenty of rainfall. A number of U.S. regions are facing drought even today. One of those is the Southeast, particularly Alabama and Georgia. A portion of both states are under the worst category, exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
The Southeast is an area that typically experiences heavy rainfall, about 50 inches annually, but the region saw little rainfall during the fall months of 2016. Dry conditions caused record-breaking wildfires in October and November. Over a 150,000 acres have burned across Appalachia — showing drought-related wildfires aren’t isolated to the Western states.
What we can learn about water conservation from California
California is heading into its sixth straight year of drought. A vast section of the state is still in the worst category of drought. But the state’s response shows what is possible when people take responsibility for their water use and make changes at home and at work.
In April of last year, California instituted mandatory water restrictions in response to the drought. Residents and businesses responded in kind, attaining a statewide reduction of around 20 percent in both June and July, according to the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB).
The SWRCB cited the state’s ongoing water savings as “evidence that statewide focus on urban water conservation can change habits as long as water suppliers continue their ongoing education and dialogue with customers on the importance of conserving and using water as efficiently as possible.”
By September of last year, statewide water savings grew to 26.2 percent, and Gov. Jerry Brown lifted the water restrictions afer El Nino rainfall. Since then, those numbers have taken a small hit but still remain respectable: In September of this year, Californians’ monthly water conservation was 18.3 percent, up from 17.5 percent in August, according to the SWRCB.
Still, the water savings Californians are achieving despite not being under a state mandate proves what can be accomplished. And Californians saved 2.15 million acre-feet of water since June 2015. That’s enough to supply over 10 million people or over a quarter of the state’s 38 million population for a year.
“For the most part, you saw Californians step up and reduce water use and use it more efficiently where they can,” Chou said. “So, I think in California, because of how severe the drought has been, there have been a lot of efforts collectively to educate Californians on how we can be more efficient.”
California is the country’s most populous state. It is also a state that is water-strapped, even without a drought.
Urban areas and agriculture compete for water use. The agriculture sector in California is massive, as the state produces about half of the nation’s fruits and vegetables. The total California farm output was valued at $50.2 billion in 2013, or about one-tenth the of the total for the whole U.S. The agriculture sector accounts for 40 percent of California’s water use, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, while 50 percent is environmental and only 10 percent is urban.
Water for California agriculture comes mostly from surface water or groundwater. Surface water accounts for about 60 percent of the agricultural water supply in an average year, according to a report by the Pacific Institute. The drought has meant less water for farmers, but farmers continue to produce crops. Although harvested acreage in California decreased during the drought, the agricultural revenue is still high. The harvested acreage in 2014 was 6.9 million acres, which is lower than at any time in the last 15 years, and reductions in field crops accounted for most of the reduced acreage. However, bearing fruit and nut acreage continued to increased, particularly for almonds, pistachios and wine grapes.
Although some of those crops were planted prior to the drought, farmers have continued to plant new fruit and nut crops during the drought. And they are doing so with less available surface and groundwater.
All Americans, no matter where they live, need to understand that clean water is a limited and precious resource. It is one that we should never take for granted. And Californians prove we can conserve it if make an intentional effort. Let’s not wait for drought to strike to begin taking action.
Image credit: Flickr/Steve Johnson