Glimpses of California’s water future: a sprawl of sewage treatment plants, recharge basins and desalination facilities, stretching out across an industrial backlot near Rancho Cucamonga.

A collection of slender, solar-powered telemetry towers rising from an almond orchard in the San Joaquin Valley to bring high-tech efficiency to irrigation. And, at a university research station near Irvine, three Potemkin Village-like suburban houses in a row, offering a new vision of the traditional lawn.

Mindful that only nature can whip a drought, those who study and manage water in California are focused not on the current epic, but on better preparing the state for the next drought, and the drought after that, and the drought after that. The desalination plants, the lawn-less yards and the tech-savvy approach to irrigation are just a few examples of that new water-saving landscape. Gone will be the massive projects once erected to battle water shortages. In their place will be a host of incremental measures, each designed to do more with what nature provides.

The environmental toll and political challenges associated with “moving the rain”, as the Shasta Dam’s purpose was once described, will require solutions that appear to be more like buckshot than the silver bullets of the past. Peter Brostrom, a state Department of Water Resources official responsible for finding water efficiencies, talks about taking “a variety of small steps across the board”, such as thinning overgrown forests, shoring up leaky delivery systems and building more coherent and uniform data about water supply and usage.

Randy Fiorini, chair of the Delta Stewardship Council, says it’s time to move on from waiting for Shasta-scaled water storage projects that once were the Holy Grail of California agriculture, but have become increasingly politically problematic.

Instead, he advocates a push for smaller, less controversial reservoir projects backed by “local champions”.

Whatever individual measures are pursued, everyone understands the most opportune time to gain ground is now. When a drought ends, and they all eventually do, the rains wash away the general urgency and intensified focus on all things water.

“Another way to think about it,” says Martha Davis, who in the 1970s helped lead a movement that introduced Los Angeles to low-flow toilets, “is that a drought pushes us and shows where we are not prepared, and also shows us what is working in one place, and what may work in other places.”

An aqueduct running through Victorville, California. Residents of drought-ravaged California can expect to pay more for water next year as utilities pass on the cost of mandatory conservation measures to customers. Photo: Reuters

An aqueduct running through Victorville, California. Residents of drought-ravaged California can expect to pay more for water next year as utilities pass on the cost of mandatory conservation measures to customers. Photo: Reuters

Making do with less

Californians today consume roughly a quarter less water per capita than they did two decades ago, while irrigation innovations have allowed growers to achieve greater crop yields without additional water – progress that was prodded along by three previous droughts.

Among the more optimistic water thinkers, there’s hope that the severity of the current epic might fundamentally alter how Californians use and think about water. It is a transformation, they say, that will become more a matter of necessity than nobility as population growth and climate change influence the supply-and-demand equation.

At the Inland Empire Utilities Agency, new thinking about its water portfolio began about 15 years ago. It laid the infrastructure for large-scale recycling projects, including the world’s largest indoor composting facility, situated in a former warehouse.

It retooled flood control systems to capture rain runoff for underground storage, rather than rush it out to the Pacific. It deployed de-salters to clean underground water polluted by runoff from dairies and steel plants. It put in programmes to encourage native landscapes.

It has been expensive: an estimated US$500mil. But it also has been effective. Overall, locally developed water supplies have risen by 50% and the agency’s reliance on imported water has fallen by 40%.

“Hopefully we are building a sustainable system to get us through the next 100 years,” says Joe Grindstaff, general manager of the agency that supplies wholesale water for 830,000 residents in seven municipalities.

Of course, meaningful progress must involve the sector where the bulk of California’s developed water is put to work: farms. Forces of change are already influencing practices in the state’s growing regions, particularly in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys. One is economic. The trend has been to plant more trees and vines and far fewer forage crops such as alfalfa. Fruits and nuts are more lucrative, but they are also multi-year investments that require reliable sources of water.

Lawns are being left brown in California to save water. Photo: AFP

Lawns are being left brown in California to save water. Photo: AFP

New rules

At the same time, the go-to source for water in droughts – underground reserves – is becoming harder to get to. As water tables drop, the price of pumping goes up. And in any case, the state’s recently enacted Sustainable Groundwater Management Act means a new sheriff is coming to town. Full implementation of the act is a good two decades away; local agencies must first develop plans to replenish and manage underground supplies to make them sustainable for the long haul.

As the plans evolve into action, it is widely believed that significant acreage will be taken out of production in some farming regions. Meanwhile, market forces eventually will work to place a higher premium on agricultural water.

“Economists have for years argued that the market should determine the value of water,” says Dan Dooley, a water lawyer who helped draft the groundwater legislation. “Instead the price for most water is determined almost exclusively by the cost of the infrastructure to deliver it to the customer, not by the value of water itself.”

California growers, he says, “increasingly see water as an asset. This change in how water is viewed will also alter how water is managed.”

For starters, it will make efficiencies even more attractive, especially to younger generations who grew up in an era of heightened environmental awareness and increased access to technological advances. Jeff Shields, general manager of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, cites one example: a young man who visited the district’s Manteca office and was struck by the inefficiency of flood irrigation and high-volume sprinklers.

“He came to me and said, ‘Really? This is how we are still irrigating? A guy in a truck opens up a gate and lets the water go and comes back in five hours and closes the gate. That’s the best we can do?’”

From that encounter came a pressurised water system, powered by solar and high-efficiency motors, that feeds water on demand to farmers’ drip irrigation systems. Data relayed from towers arrayed within the orchards allow growers to determine from ground sensors when and how long to irrigate, and to order water delivery to their drip systems by computer or smartphone.

“They can be on a beach in Hawaii and take care of their irrigation,” Shields says. And use considerably less water in the process.

A worker laying down artificial turf in the yard of a home in California. Photo: Reuters

A worker laying down artificial turf in the yard of a home in California. Photo: Reuters

Managing demand

What flood irrigation is to agriculture, the front yard is fast becoming to the residential sector. Landscaping accounts for half of urban water use in California, running as high as 80% in some localities. With mandatory conservation edicts, brown lawns and plastic turf have become emblems of this drought. What’s not clear is whether the response will outlast the emergency and, more to the point, whether it represents an enduring transformation in the way residential Californians regard water.

“Old habits are hard to break,” says Jerry Brown, general manager of the Contra Costa Water District. “People have their ways, and I’m not sure society is ready to say a beautiful house doesn’t require a nice green lawn out front.” Still, water consumption in the Contra Costa County district was down 40% in June from the same month in 2013.

Shifts do happen. A Los Angeles sky not choked with smog was once thought unimaginable. The state’s response to the energy crisis of 15 years ago also offers an instructive parallel. California entered the crisis facing the prospect of rolling blackouts and criticism of its failure to build more power plants. It emerged, after two years of double-digit conservation, with a fundamental shift in thinking and consumer behaviour.

What the state needed was not additional generation capacity. What it needed was to manage demand, to conserve, during the 400 hours a year or so when supplies were potentially tight. It was a conversation-altering breakthrough.

“People always tend to focus on the supply side,” says Wally McGuire, primary architect of the state’s Flex Your Power conservation campaign. “But the demand side of the equation is equally powerful.”

Flex Your Power lives on today as Flex Alert, which calls on Californians to move into conservation mode when supplies tighten. In the few times Flex Alert has been activated, the response has matched or bettered that seen in the energy crisis.

Movement toward lasting change is easier when the destination can be visualised. At the University of California agricultural research centre in Irvine, an eight-year-old demonstration project shows how alternative landscaping doesn’t have to be all cacti and lava rocks.

Three beige classrooms have been outfitted and landscaped to resemble a row of suburban homes, complete with white picket fences. They are not-so-poetically identified as residences A, B and C. A offers conventional landscaping: fescue lawn, birch trees and boxwood. B’s plants and grasses are better suited to a Mediterranean climate. C’s are natives: sedge grasses, manzanita and sycamores. All three seem fetching enough. The difference is that B requires about half as much water as A, and C even less.

Requests from municipal landscapers and private gardeners to tour the project have picked up as the drought persists. – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service