Last year, faced with one of the worst droughts in California history, Gov. Jerry Brown issued a mandate to cities across the state to cut water use by 25%. And guess what – the cuts were successful. Up against a daunting challenge, Californians proved that, when asked, they could come together to meet the task at hand.
Last month, however, in response to heavy rains filling reservoirs in the northern half of the state last winter, the governor relaxed his conservation mandate. But the drought is not over by any stretch of the imagination — particularly in the Southland. Only 5 inches of rain fell in the Los Angeles area during the 2015-16 rainy season, significantly below the 14-inch average for the region and the 30 inches of rain that was anticipated due to El Niño conditions. Hydrologists say we will need at least three years in a row of above-average rainfall to get us back to pre-drought conditions. That scenario seems unlikely, as forecasters are projecting a dry winter this year that would deepen the drought.
Saving water in a dry climate is hard, and as this drought has progressed we’ve begun to see signs of what I call “drought fatigue.” Although Santa Monica reached its water reduction goal very quickly, our water utility began to see water use start to creep back up in January, and last month it rose by 6%. It is clear that temporary requirements to use less water won’t solve our problems — as a society we need to begin thinking differently about this vital resource. It’s time to finally acknowledge that droughts in the American West aren’t short-term nuisances — they are the new normal. There is no way to sustainably go back to our old way of life. In Santa Monica, where we get much of our water from local aquifers, we understand this, which is why we are keeping our drought restrictions in place and are busy planning for a drier future.
Thankfully, a potential path to water sustainability lies ahead if we choose to take it. New guidelines for the outdoor and indoor use of alternate, non-potable water sources issued by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health in February make a holistic approach to water management possible. The most promising plan of attack, dubbed “One Water” by experts, looks to make use of rainwater, urban runoff, wastewater and even brackish groundwater to create a sustainable and resilient water supply. Instead of the massive, centralized reservoirs-to-pipes-to-drains infrastructure system that we’ve relied on for centuries, One Water distributes water management technology across the urban landscape. This includes off-the-shelf systems that allow buildings to capture rainwater for use in flush toilets, and small treatment plants that tap into sewer lines under our streets to filter the water that we flush away for reuse.
In our effort to abide by the One Water philosophy, Santa Monica has banned new sprinkler systems. That may sound draconian, but why permit a technology that is 55% efficient at distributing water when there are others that cost about the same, such as drip irrigation, that are 95% efficient?
We are also working to make our buildings hyper-efficient. To start, Santa Monica is looking to replicate the water savings achieved in Seattle’s Bullitt Center — America’s greenest commercial building — by incorporating new-generation composting toilets into the design of a city services building slated for construction next year. These toilets use three tablespoons of water combined with a biodegradable foaming agent to convey waste to a composter, where it is converted via aerobic digestion and evaporation into commercially viable, pathogen-free compost. These fixtures alone will cut the water consumption for the life of the facility by 60%.
You might be thinking “yuck, no way.” But this technology is clean, efficient and the wave of the future. No smells, no mess, massive savings. By showing this is not only feasible but, in fact, a better solution to an age-old problem, our hope is that it will become the norm rather than the exception.
In order for this technology and the larger One Water approach to work, however, we need to acknowledge the reality we are faced with and embrace the long-term challenge it presents. California is past the point of using a little bit less and thinking that will save the environment. The planet is undergoing a major transformation. We are already feeling the impacts of those changes. We know what we have to do and we already have the tools we need to start. Now is the time to act.