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Californians Have Successfully Cut Water Usage by 22 Percent During Drought

Californians Have Successfully Cut Water Usage by 22 Percent During Drought

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Per-capita water usage has also been cut in half in the last six months

Californians have finally begun heeding the call to conserve water, providing some important respite during a difficult drought.

The ongoing drought in California is slowly finding some areas of relief, due in part to a rainy December and residents’ successful efforts to reduce water use during a difficult time, reports The Associated Press.

In December 2014, Californians heard to Governor Jerry Brown’s plea to cut water usage by 20 percent, and managed to use 22 percent less water than in December 2013. In the past, the most that residents were able to cut down water usage was in August, when usage dropped 11.6 percent.

This past December, the state’s overall precipitation was measured at six inches, compared to a dismal 2013 total of .5 inches of rainfall. The difference meant that residents needed to allocate less water for tasks like watering the lawn.

"It reinforces what we thought all along, that the extent of outdoor water use is a huge driver of water conservation and water use," said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board.

Furthermore, the new data shows that in the last six months, per-capita water usage has been cut in half, with an average usage of 67 gallons a day per person in December, compared to 140 gallons per person in June.

California gardeners struggle for work during drought

LOS ANGELES — On any given day, the buzzing sounds of lawn mowers and leaf blowers resonate through leafy residential neighborhoods from ritzy enclaves in Beverly Hills to working-class areas in Van Nuys.

But this quintessential Californian sound is slowly being silenced.

The state’s historic drought, which has thrown two-thirds of the state into extreme or exceptional drought conditions, is cutting into a huge sector of California’s underground economy.

Gardeners, most of them small crews of Mexican immigrants who make their rounds in pickup trucks laden with gardening equipment, are losing their customers.

As more water districts struggle to abide by Gov. Jerry Brown’s mandatory 25 percent cut in water use by increasing incentives for homeowners to rip out their thirsty lawns and flowers and replace them with gravel and drought-resistant plants, gardeners are finding themselves with less and less work.

“Oh, yeah. I lost jobs,” said Jaime Gonzalez, the owner of La Niña Landscape in North Hollywood. “Some people say now, ‘Just come once a month.’ Now it’s less hours.”

His company used to have 11 men serving 420 customers throughout the San Fernando Valley, but he had to lay off two employees in the past six months. He said he lost 20 customers in that time and the ones remaining are asking for less frequent service.

“I think it’s a 20 percent or 25 percent cut in business in the last six months,” said Gonzalez, who started his company 22 years ago. “All my friends, they tell me the same thing. Some people stopped gardening.”

The impact of the drought on this gray economy has been overshadowed by job losses in the state’s giant agricultural industries, which have left hundreds of acres fallow because of the lack of water.

“Policymakers and the people in charge of water departments are not consulting with the gardeners,” said Alvaro Huerta, a professor of urban and regional planning and of ethnic and women’s studies at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. “They’re not seeing what the negative impact is on them. They’re pretty much invisible. It’s an invisible work force that everyone depends on.”

Gardeners are not an organized bunch, largely because many of them are undocumented immigrants. In California, gardening has long been the ideal entry job for newcomers to the United States. Japanese immigrants did it as far back as the late 1800s because they weren’t allowed to own farmland, and many eventually established nurseries.

“It was a way for them to make a living and to avoid discrimination they were facing in the farmland economy,” said Huerta, who has written on the topic. “It’s something that has always attracted newcomers, particularly immigrants, because it wasn’t regulated, you didn’t have to have a license.”

As second and third generations of Asians became more educated and left the gardening business, Mexicans began pouring in after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 allowed for reunification of families with relatives who were American citizens.

“A lot of them were coming from the countryside, like my mother and father,” Huerta said. “It’s a natural transition to go from the countryside and work in the fields or work the land in the city.”

He estimates that there are 10,000 gardeners working in crews in Los Angeles County alone. “It’s pretty huge,” he said. “Look at the amount of homes, the amount of lawns. This is a very important sector.”

But it has not been quantified because it’s a shadow economy.

“For Mexican men particularly, it’s a very important part of the economy,” said Vinit Mukhija, an associate professor of urban planning at the University of California Luskin School of Public Affairs.

Signs of the magnitude of this underground gardening economy were evident in the mid-1990s when the Los Angeles City Council barred using gas-powered leaf blowers in residential areas because of concerns over noise and air pollution and imposed stiff fines for violators ($1,000 and up to six months in jail).

Latino gardeners organized and held candlelight vigils, protest marches and a weeklong hunger strike. Huerta said they were successful in framing the debate as between the “haves against the have-nots” and won a significant victory: The ban is on the books, but the fines are minimal and rarely enforced.

But today it’s not the law but a natural disaster — the worst drought in recorded state history — that is threatening these green urban workers.

The Association of California Water Agencies reports a surge in turf rebate programs in communities across the state. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California recently doubled its incentive to replace thirsty turf from $1 to $2 per square foot. As a result, requests for the rebates in one month alone amounted to 2.5 million square feet of turf removal, the equivalent of removing 1,665 typical Southern California front yards. Additional funding for the program may be approved next week.

In Laguna Beach, eligible customers can get $3 for every square foot of turf they remove. In the Foothill Municipal District, water customers can receive up to $800 in rebates for removing thirsty lawns and replacing them with native plants, mulch or synthetic turf.

“They put gravel, or they put plants that don’t need too much water, and they don’t need gardeners anymore,” said Gonzalez, who has had to cut the hours of the workers he hasn’t laid off.

He is now trying to get into the no-grass gardening business. He just worked on a project to replace a lawn with low-water landscaping.

“There’s a lot of interest from folks in redoing their landscape, and the big driver in the last year has been incentive programs to remove turf,” said Sandra Giarde, the executive director of the California Landscape Contractors Association. The group does not represent the small residential garden services that are not licensed or insured.

“In communities where rebates are offered, there’s definitely been an upswing in calls, but the belief is that the rebate money would be able to cover removal and installation of a new landscape,” she said. “Some are disappointed. It’s designed to cover turf removal, not the landscape of your dreams.”

Nevertheless, Huerta said it’s the immigrant gardeners who are getting the short end of the stick.

“You have rebates for homeowners, but there’s no rebates for the gardeners,” he said.

The ‘ick’ factor

Environmentalists say better alternatives are more conservation and recycled water, which is being used in car washes and golf courses and for irrigation and industrial use but has yet to be a palatable alternative for drinking water. There is a huge “ick” factor when anyone mentions toilet-to-tap water.

“The primary obstacle is public perception,” Aminzadeh said. “There are safety concerns, and building public confidence has been a barrier. But water recycling is an excellent option and has a lot of promise in our state.”

In Texas two communities already get their tap water from recycling plants.

“The industry is ready, and the technology is really good,” Waggoner said. “The younger generation feels more comfortable with direct potable [recycled water direct to tap].”

Doug Eisberg, a director of the International Desalination Association, which will host its world congress in San Diego at the end of August, has no problem with recycling and points out that recycling also requires desalination.

“A lot of folks don’t understand that desalination in general is technology that’s applied to a lot of processes,” he said. “So much of the drinking water supply is desalinated and recycled. If you go to Disneyland, you’re drinking recycled water, and you don’t even know it.”

True. There were 26 desalination plants in California in 2010, according to the Department of Water Resources. Only three desalinate ocean water: one in Avalon on Catalina Island, a small one on Monterey Bay and another on the U.S. Naval Facility on San Nicolas Island.

The 23 others take the salt out of brackish water that is then put back into the groundwater and goes through water treatment plants.

But the amount of potable water that comes from seawater desalination is relatively minuscule. The three plants in the state produce only about 80,000 acre feet a year, 0.08 percent of the total municipal output of 9.5 million acre feet, Mills said.

The drought may change that.

Farmers planting less acreage

In 2013, DeWit farmed about 1,050 acres. This year, he'll farm between 350 and 380 acres—that's down as much as 66.7 percent in just two years. "We know there's going to be water cutbacks," DeWit said. "I know there's going to be less acreage."

Economists and researchers so far haven't hit the panic button, and aren't forecasting a widespread spike in consumer food prices. That's in part because of crop diversity. If there's a significant drop in California-grown rice for example, rice farmers in the South might shift some production to fill the gap.

But everyone knows mountain snowpack levels are low, and many farmers are already hunkering down for another year of water cutbacks. Vast tracts of farmland have been fallowed, which basically means idling cropland to accumulate moisture. Some communities have been short on drinking water.

Winter storms in December and February did help fill major state reservoirs. But most Northern California reservoirs remain below historical levels for this time of year, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

The drought's reach has gripped DeWit and other farmers, and is triggering a cascading effect in the agricultural community. Less water and acreage means "I'm not buying as much fuel, as much fertilizer," DeWit said.

"I'm not renting another tractor. I had to lay off the driver," he said. Rice mills at the end of the supply chain might process less product. "The ripple effect is a bigger problem for the state."

At 48, DeWit knows a lot about the land and he's eager to expand his farming skills to the next level. But without water, his hands are essentially tied. "It's frustrating," he said. "I'm almost in survival mode."

And, oh yeah, it's barely spring. It will only get hotter and drier.

Californians face 'new reality' of water scarcity

Anne C. Mulkern and Debra Kahn, E&E reporters

Published: Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Living with long-term drought could become the "new reality" for California, experts said after Gov. Jerry Brown (D) on Friday officially declared the state's record-shattering water shortage.

Water managers, farmers and fishermen are girding themselves for water scarcities in the months ahead. Some fear not only that the drought's effects will be more pronounced than previous dry spells, but that the populous state might be forced to adjust to less precipitation on an ongoing basis.

The drought should be seen as a catalyst for making needed changes to how California handles its water, some experts argued.

"One of our messages is, this kind of drought and the way it's happening is really our new reality," said Lester Snow, who was director of California's Department of Water Resources in former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's (R) administration and now is executive director of the California Water Foundation, which advocates for sustainable water management. "It's more of the way water is going to occur in California."

The drought's effects could be widespread, those who deal with water said. The state's population has shot to 38 million people today, compared with 22 million during the last record-breaking drought in 1977. Meanwhile, the state's farms increased their revenue to $45 billion from $9.6 billion over the same time period. The earlier figure is in that year's dollars.

"The consequences of this drought will be magnified on the human and economic scale compared to our worst drought in modern times" in 1977, said Jason Peltier, deputy general manager of the Westlands Water District, which supplies irrigation water to about 600,000 acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley.

California's water issues are a function of its meteorological conditions, hydrologic patterns and population concentrations. But the effects of the drought could stretch far beyond the state's borders.

Brown's emergency declaration opens the state to federal aid and orders the hiring of more firefighters to combat dry conditions, even as the drought has spread into Oregon and Washington (ClimateWire, Jan. 10). The Golden State's specialty crops, meanwhile, account for more than half the nation's fruits, vegetables and nuts in addition to nearly $7 billion of exports worldwide, according to California Department of Food and Agriculture data.

In the Central Valley, hundreds of thousands of acres of land used to grow cotton, tomatoes, vegetables and other crops might be left fallow as farmers run out of affordable water. Some will use what supplies they have to protect investments in crops growing on trees and vines.

Overall, there might be 600,000 to 700,000 acres in the state's San Joaquin Valley that aren't planted this year if the situation doesn't improve with more rainfall, according to Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation, which represents about 74,000 farmers and ranchers.

That region is a popular place for growing lettuce, tomatoes, onions, garlic, wheat and cotton, he said.

The drought declaration comes as farmers are deciding what crops to plant that will be harvested in summer and fall. Most farmers will wait as long as they can, Kranz said, while watching precipitation forecasts.

"Those are going to potentially be affected by reduced water allocations," Kranz said.

Officials from one key agricultural district in the Central Valley said they expected 200,000 acres -- a third of their acreage -- to lie dormant. Farmers would sacrifice lower-value annual crops like cotton and tomatoes in order to preserve almonds, grapes and other profitable plants that grow on vines and trees, Peltier said.

"The first crops to go, they'll all be row crops of one sort or another."

A sort of Catch-22 situation has evolved as water has become scarcer, he said. Restrictions on deliveries of water from the Central Valley, which costs about $150 per acre-foot, force farmers to buy water on the open market at up to $600 per acre-foot, he said. To make the economics work, they have to plant more valuable crops.

"Knowing market water is always going to be more expensive than project water, our farmers have coped with that economic reality by planting crops with higher returns," he said. "They have to be able to buy more expensive water because the project is broken."

The drought declaration could make U.S. Department of Agriculture help available to farmers. USDA already has declared 27 California counties a drought disaster area, Kranz said. That means farmers in those counties, as well as in bordering counties, are eligible to apply for low-interest emergency loans.

People face fines for washing cars

Most of the state's 38 million residents are still being spared the worst effects of the drought. Brown's emergency drought proclamation last week urged people to voluntarily curb their water use by 20 percent. He warned that mandatory restrictions could follow.

"We're facing perhaps the worst drought that California has ever seen since records began being kept about 100 years ago," he said. "As the weeks go by, we'll recalibrate, and certainly we're holding out the possibility of mandatory conservation" (E&ENews PM, Jan. 17).

The drought will play out differently in different parts of the state, said Newsha Ajami, director of urban water policy for Water in the West at Stanford University. Local agencies might set new rules on water conservation, like those limiting watering of lawns and car washing.

Sacramento officials last week ordered customers to cut their water use 20 percent, ahead of Brown's call for voluntary reductions. Folsom Lake Reservoir, on the American River, is currently at 17 percent capacity, a third of what it contains under average conditions for this time of year. If it drops much further, Sacramento might be unable to divert water upstream of the Folsom Dam.

The city is stepping up enforcement of its existing conservation rules, which include restrictions on watering lawns by time of day and day of the week. People can be fined up to $1,000 for repeat violations, such as washing their cars on the wrong day. Officials hope to shave 84 gallons off an average family's usage of 417 gallons per day.

Major Southern California metropolises, in contrast, have been trumpeting their savings through conservation and storage projects.

"Los Angeles has prepared for this drought," the city's municipal utility, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, said in a statement. "Today, Angelenos use less water per capita than residents of any major U.S. city with a population over 1 million."

The city offers rebates for water-efficient appliances, as well as a "Cash for Grass" rebate -- raised last April from $1.50 to $2 per square foot -- for people who replace their grass lawns with native plants, mulch or other dry landscaping.

San Diego responded to Brown's call for a 20 percent cut by reassuring its residents that no restrictions would be needed, noting that the governor's declaration was "primarily to assist Northern and Central California."

"While the call for the successful conservation efforts that have become a way of life in our city still stands, the water supply situation in San Diego is currently stable," the city said in a news release.

Southern California's resilience is the result of experience gained in past droughts, one observer pointed out. In 1999, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a cooperative of agencies that supplies 19 million people, finished building a reservoir that nearly doubled the region's surface storage capacity. It is currently at 72 percent capacity.

"Southern California made some significant investments in diversifying their water supplies, and that's what we need to see more cities and agricultural districts do," said Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council's water program. "We're on track to be drier than the '76-'77 drought this year, yet Southern California has ample water reserves. With any luck, they're going to be able to weather this drought. That's a pretty remarkable testament to those prior investments."

The region also receives water from both the Sacramento-San Joaquin and Colorado river systems, which insulates it somewhat from drought.

"The likelihood you get a drought on both of them is lower than the likelihood you get a drought on one of them," Obegi said.

Fixes for an uncertain future

Brown had to declare the latest drought because "this is sort of a slow-moving disaster coming," said Ajami of Stanford. Last year also was a very dry year, she said. And the drought could go on for several years.

"For us, it's a harbinger of what our future is going to be like, and we need to start responding to it," said Snow, with the California Water Foundation.

As the climate changes, California is losing snowpack, with more precipitation coming as rain. There needs to be better planning to store water in wetter years so it's available for future droughts, he said.

Snow believes it's impractical to build more large dams. Instead, he said, there needs to be a portfolio of solutions, including recycling of wastewater. There also could be groundwater recharge, in which water during wet years through various methods is moved into groundwater. Cities could also change how they deal with stormwater, by capturing, storing and treating it instead of letting it run off. And there could be improved efficiencies in agriculture, he said.

Kranz also advocated California's boosting its water storage capabilities as part of an "all of the above approach" like the one Snow described. He noted that in November 2012, there were heavy rains, but to comply with environmental regulations, "a lot of water ended up going out to ocean."

Federal rules sometimes require pumping curtailments to protect delta smelt and salmon. Storage would have allowed more to stay in the state, Kranz said. Storage also is needed to prevent flooding, he said, as more precipitation falls as rain and not snow.

Storage would add flexibility, he said, adding, "You can only squeeze so much out of every drop of water before you need more drops."


GovOps was tasked by the Governor’s office to lead the state’s efforts on sustainability. To that end, GovOps has worked with the Department of General Services and departments throughout state government to make sure California is leading by example when it comes to sustainability. Specific achievements include:

Sustainable Operations

Through the leadership of GovOps, the state has cut greenhouse gas emissions from state operations by 23 percent since 2010, achieving our 2020 goal four years early. The state has also cut energy use 22 percent since 2003, while expanding building area by 68 percent. Water usage was cut by 38 percent since 2010, with long-lasting savings implemented during the state’s drought. Twenty percent of the state’s electricity use is green power, either generated onsite or purchased from utilities. In 2017, GovOps worked closely with every department that manages properties to create Sustainability Roadmaps, planning documents that detail how each department will meet or exceed the goals of the Executive Order.

Vehicle Fleet

The state now has over 2,600 Zero Emission Vehicles and hybrids in the fleet. The state has 809 238 ZEVs and 2105 hybrids in the state fleet. Twenty-nine percent of new light duty vehicle purchases were zero emission vehicles. Over the past year, 53 percent of the state’s diesel fuel use was replaced with Renewable Diesel, a clean burning, renewable, low carbon alternative to diesel. The state used 4.4 million gallons of renewable diesel, cutting GHG and toxic air emissions from state fleet operations. GovOps launched the Green Fleet website making statistics like these accessible to the public at

Green Buildings Website

GovOps worked with the Department of General Services and the Department of Technology to launch a website showing that state-run facilities – everything from office buildings, to parks, hospitals and prisons – have markedly reduced energy and water use, as well as greenhouse gas emissions compared to baseline years. These figures put the state years ahead of the aggressive reduction targets set forth by the Governor’s 2012 executive order on state buildings. The website is part of and it is routinely updated.

CA GreenGov Challenge Code-A-thon

In 2015, GovOps hosted the first-ever CA GreenGov Challenge Code-A-thon, an innovation contest designed to provide an opportunity for Californians to share ways to improve state government. Using open data, participants were challenged to create visualizations, applications and other tools to better show the work the state is doing to combat climate change. The state took the solutions from the code-a-thon to help improve and other services. The contest both exposed the state to the civic coding community and demonstrated the wide range of innovation that is possible through the use of open data.

Green Lease Leadership

GovOps worked closely with DGS to alter standard office space lease language to include environmentally friendly measures. As a result of this effort DGS was awarded the Green Lease Leader designation by the US Department of Energy.

Electric Landscape Equipment Pilot

GovOps coordinated a partnership between the Air Resources Board and Department of General Services to pilot the use of zero emission landscape maintenance equipment at Capitol Park. The pilot provided valuable data to ARB that will be used for formulating future regulations. And the success of the equipment has prompted DGS to begin transitioning the majority of the equipment used to maintain Capitol Park to quiet, clean electric power.


Since statehood, California has developed water supply infrastructure and supporting laws to manage water scarcity during droughts. Yet the intensity and duration of the ongoing drought is stress-testing the state’s management systems. In many respects, this drought is California’s dry run for a drier, warmer future.

Californians at all levels have shown a commitment to reducing the economic, social, and environmental harm from the drought with many successes. Yet if the drought continues for another two to three years, the challenges will grow. Addressing the most pressing threats will require stopgap measures—for instance, delivering drinking water supplies to rural residents with dry wells, setting up conservation hatcheries to prevent fish extinctions, and making spot decisions about tough trade-offs. But the state also needs to leverage the lessons of the past four years to build longer-term drought resilience. That way, we will be more prepared for future droughts and have less need for stopgap, emergency solutions.


  1. See technical appendix Figure A1 and related discussion.
  2. J. Mount and D. Cayan. “A Dry Run for a Dry Future” (PPIC blog, May 27, 2015). .
  3. Some long-range models indicate that a strong El Niño may improve rainfall in California next winter, but the reliability of these forecasts is low and the relationship between El Niño and precipitation in Northern California is weak. See D. Cayan and J. Mount, “Don’t Count on El Nino to End the Drought,” (PPIC blog, July 9, 2015).
  4. We spoke with close to 50 individuals, representing 11 state and federal agencies, urban water agencies in five regions, agricultural water supply, food processing, and lending activities, and nonprofits working on rural water supply and environmental management.
  5. CVP settlement and exchange contractors, a group of agricultural districts that usually get 100 percent of their contractual amounts, received 75 percent in 2014, and may receive just 55 percent in 2015. CVP urban customers south of the Delta, including Santa Clara Valley Water District, were cut from the usual 75 percent to 25 percent. Some CVP agricultural contractors have received 0 percent of their contracts since 2014 (down from a 2008–13 average of 64% for those located north of the Delta and 39% for those located south of the Delta). SWP Feather River Settlement Agreement holders, agricultural districts that usually get 100 percent of their contracts, got only 50 percent in 2015. Regular SWP urban and agricultural contractors, who received an average of 50 percent from 2008–13, got just 5 percent in 2014 and 20 percent in 2015.
  6. For instance, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which conveys water to LA from Mono Lake and Inyo County, is projected to deliver just 32,000 acre-feet this year: the lowest since its construction (mostly from pumped groundwater rather than snowmelt runoff). Deliveries since 2008 have averaged 150,000 acre-feet/year.
  7. See for instance D. Kasler and R. Sabalow, “Water Rights Ruling a Setback for California Drought,” Sacramento Bee , July 10, 2015.
  8. See for instance F. Nirappil, “California Drought: Regulators Say First Water Diversion Prosecution Aided by Detailed Records,” Contra Costa Times, July 23, 2015. For a discussion of information needs, see J. Mount et al., Policy Priorities for Managing Drought (PPIC, 2015).
  9. California’s groundwater basins hold at least three times as much usable water as state surface reservoirs, and a large share of surface reservoir storage is for seasonal uses, not carryover storage for dry years. See J. Lund et al., California’s Water: Storing Water (PPIC, 2015).
  10. For groundwater use from 1998 to 2010, see C. Chappelle et al., Reforming California’s Groundwater Management (PPIC, 2015). Recent estimates of more than 50 percent are based on work by R. Howitt et al., described in technical appendix Table A5.
  11. For a general overview, see California Department of Water Resources, Summary of Recent, Historical, and Estimated Potential for Future Land Subsidence in California , 2014. During the drought of the late 2000s, the US Geological Survey found land sinking, or subsidence, rates ranging from 1 to 21 inches over a three-year period. These rates are likely to be accelerating with the pumping now occurring. (M. Sneed et al., Land Subsidence along the Delta–Mendota Canal in the Northern Part of the San Joaquin Valley, California, 2003–2010 : US Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2013-5142.) For a discussion of impacts to Sack Dam, where continued subsidence will cost local farmers $10 million to move water, see “California farmers dig deeper for water, sipping their neighbors dry,” New York Times , June 5, 2015. Subsidence-related damage to a bridge over a canal in Fresno County will cost $2.5 million to repair. See “Groundwater pumping causing Central Valley bridges to sink,” KSFN, July 21, 2015.
  12. Basins identified as critically overdrafted need to meet this timeline. Other priority basins have an additional two years to adopt and start implementing their plans. The law gives local agencies the authority to implement the plans, including the ability to measure use and charge fees for pumping. The State Water Board can intervene if it deems local efforts inadequate.
  13. The urban population share is from the 2010 US Census. For a discussion of the economic statistics in this section, including the urban economy’s share of economic activity and recent GDP and employment trends, see the technical appendix discussion of nonfarm economic impacts.
  14. For instance, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has increased storage more than 13-fold since the early 1990s (Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Regional Progress Report. Implementing the Diversified Resource Portfolio. February 2014, p. 3). See our map of per capita water use trends. For a discussion of water trading trends, see technical appendix Figure A5.
  15. E. Hanak et al., California’s Water: Water for Cities (PPIC, 2015).
  16. The largest program is run by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Following the success of a $100 million rebate program, Met’s board approved an additional $350 million in rebates—enough to replace roughly 4,000 acres of turf. The program was fully subscribed within the first month. M. Stevens and M. Moran, “Southland Water District Ends Popular Lawn-Removal Rebate Program,” Los Angeles Times , July 10, 2015.
  17. We spoke with officials from urban water agencies about conditions in their regions in the Sacramento area, North Coast, San Francisco Bay Area, Fresno area, and Southern California.
  18. For many Central Valley cities, this includes substantial groundwater reserves. San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy reservoir, which serves many Bay Area communities, began this summer at 95 percent capacity. Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s reserves were substantially diminished last year, but they began the summer with nearly 1.2 million acre-feet in dry year storage, including surface reservoirs on the Colorado River system and groundwater basins (Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Report: Water Surplus and Drought Management: Attachment 1 2015 WSDM Storage Detail. April 14, 2015). Met member agencies also have significant underground reserves.
  19. The Santa Clara Valley Water District has shelved its plan to ship supplies north from storage in Kern County for the time being. (P. Rogers, “California Drought: Plans to Make State Water Project Flow Backward Shelved for This Year,” Mercury News , May 4, 2015). But in June 2015, the City of Tracy and some agricultural districts began pumping water north from the San Luis Reservoir through the Delta Mendota Canal (G. Warren, “Emergency Drought Project Reverses Flow in Delta-Mendota Canal,” KXTV Sacramento, June 30, 2015. )
  20. See the discussion of electricity in the technical appendix. California’s dependence on hydropower has significantly declined over time, from more than 30 percent of electricity use in the 1960s to an average of just 12 percent since 2000. The supply of other renewables (solar, wind) has tripled in recent years. Thermal power plants have been reducing water use and transitioning to recycled water since the early 2000s, and recent efforts have focused on reducing vulnerability for plants dependent on unreliable surface water sources.
  21. H. McCann and C. Chappelle, “Drought Bills: Small Changes, High Impact” (PPIC blog, June 30, 2015).
  22. See the discussion of urban water utilities in the technical appendix. The fiscal challenge for utilities arises because the majority (typically 70-80%) of their costs are fixed, while a similar proportion of their bill is variable, tied to the volume of water sold. The estimate of net revenue losses is from S. Moss et al., Executive Order B-29-15 State of Emergency Due to Severe Drought Conditions Economic Impact Analysis (M. Cubed, 2015) it excludes the losses from voluntary conservation already achieved before the mandate went into effect.
  23. The case involves tiered water rates in the City of San Juan Capistrano. See the discussion of urban water utilities in the technical appendix.
  24. E. Hanak, “The High Cost of Drought for Low Income Californians” (PPIC blog, June 18, 2015).
  25. This is especially true for businesses that have already made significant investments in reusing processing water, for instance. For a review of potential impacts of the drought on water-sensitive activities, see the discussion of nonfarm economic impacts in the technical appendix.
  26. The conservation tiers for each community were set based on per capita residential use, but the target it is being applied to total urban water use.
  27. See the discussion of water markets in the technical appendix, including Figure A5 on market trends.
  28. See J. Mount et al., Water Use in California (PPIC, 2014) and E. Hanak et al., California’s Water: Water for Farms (PPIC, 2015).
  29. For shifts in crop types, see Figure 3.7 in E. Hanak et al., Managing California’s Water (PPIC, 2011). For irrigation efficiency trends, see G. Tindula et al., “Survey of Irrigation Methods in California in 2010,” Journal of Irrigation Drainage Engineering , 2013, Vol. 139(3): 233-238.
  30. See E. Hanak and E. Stryjewski, California’s Water Market, By the Numbers: Update 2012 (PPIC, 2012).
  31. See J. Lund et al., “Taking Agricultural Conservation Seriously,” (, March 15, 2011).
  32. For cities and suburbs, conservation usually results in system-wide savings. Because so many Californians live in coastal areas, saving water indoors reduces outflows of treated wastewater to the ocean. And across the state, saving water outdoors by replacing turf with lower-water landscapes saves water, without reducing economic activity.
  33. Data on farm impacts are from analyses done by the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences for the California Department of Food and Agriculture. See technical appendix Table A5 and related discussion.
  34. See the discussion of water marketing in the technical appendix, including Figure A5 on market trends.
  35. J. Medellín-Azuara et al., “California Drought Killing Farm Jobs Even as They Grow” (, June 8, 2015).
  36. For long-term loans, banks are requiring farms to have multiple water sources—not just groundwater. This should limit the expansion of new orchards onto non-irrigated ranchland.
  37. Little information is available on the costs of subsidence in agricultural areas. Examples of local infrastructure damage described above (see note 12) suggest these costs may not always be very high—e.g., $2.5 million for a bridge repair, $10 million for conveyance changes from a local reservoir—in part because these areas are not as built up as cities.
  38. Such ordinances should be temporary, in anticipation of the adoption of sustainable pumping rules under SGMA. Because the rights to use groundwater in California are not based on seniority, but rather on ownership of land overlying the basin, it does not necessarily make sense for local agencies implementing SGMA to give priority to those with existing wells. Instead, they may wish to apportion pumping rights based on acreage, irrespective of the volumes current being pumped. Either way, a cap and trade system, which facilitates the trading of pumping rights within the basin, can help lessen the overall costs of implementation.
  39. For fishing and water-based recreation, see the discussion of nonfarm economic impacts in the technical appendix.
  40. For a discussion of drinking water quality issues in rural communities, see E. Hanak et al., Paying for Water in California (PPIC, 2014) and T. Harter et al., Addressing Nitrate in California’s Drinking Water with a Focus on Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley Groundwater . Report for the State Water Resources Control Board Report to the Legislature. (Center for Watershed Sciences, University of California, Davis, 2012).
  41. See discussion of drought-related public health issues in the technical appendix.
  42. For the state, this includes the State Water Board, the Department of Water Resources, the Department of Housing and Community Development, the Office of Emergency Services, and the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research. County officials are also involved, as well as local non-profits and in some cases nearby water districts.
  43. There are legal constraints to providing state funding to directly invest in private property improvements.
  44. Recent reforms include the creation of a special office within the State Water Board to support funding for disadvantaged communities and legislation that authorizes the board to require consolidation of small systems. Proposition 1, the new water bond, also contains more than $500 million for small rural water and wastewater systems. State and federal funds are typically restricted to covering capital costs, whereas some systems will also need support for operations. See E. Hanak et al., California’s Water: Paying for Water (PPIC, 2015). The new law that makes well logs public (Senate Bill 83, June 2015) should also help, because it makes it possible to project likely areas where wells will go dry with falling groundwater levels. This information will be useful for well owners and for focusing emergency state support.
  45. See chapter 5 of E. Hanak et al., Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation (PPIC, 2011).
  46. One exception is wetlands, where groundwater can replace lost surface flows.
  47. Other species are also vulnerable, including many terrestrial animals and plants. For most species, including some of the populations discussed in the text, the state lacks sufficient monitoring information to either gauge drought impacts or guide management.
  48. See Central Valley Joint Venture, accessed July 9, 2015.
  49. Managed wetlands account for a relatively small share of water use in California: typically 1.5 million acre-feet, or less than 2 percent of the total (J. Mount et al., Water Use in California , PPIC, 2014).
  50. N. Seavy et al., “Farms That Help Wildlife,” (PPIC blog, April 21, 2015) and J. Mount et al., California’s Water: Water for the Environment (PPIC, 2015).
  51. Rice acreage fell from an average of 567,000 acres in 2010–13 to just 434,000 acres in 2014 (-24%), and acreage in 2015 is projected at 385,000 (-32%) (US Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, California Acreage Reports, accessed July 28, 2015). Tight water conditions are also reducing the acreage that gets flooded post-harvest.
  52. The Nature Conservancy California, “Precision Conservation,” accessed July 9, 2015.
  53. The program is called the Critical Waterbird Habitat Fund Pool. Whereas the BirdReturns program uses an auction to determine payments, the NRCS program makes fixed payments.
  54. Personal communication, Jay Ziegler, The Nature Conservancy, July 8, 2015.
  55. Unpublished modeling work, Ducks Unlimited. This modeling was specific to ducks and geese, but the shortfall in habitat could impact shorebirds as well.
  56. P.B. Moyle et al., “Rapid decline of California’s native inland fishes: a status assessment.” Biological Conservation , 2014, Vol. 144(10): 2414–2423 P.B. Moyle et al., “Climate change vulnerability of native and alien freshwater fishes of California: a systematic assessment approach,” PLoS One 2013 and P.B. Moyle et al., Fish Species of Special Concern in California . Sacramento: California Department of Fish and Wildlife, 2015.
  57. This includes periodic curtailment of diversions on Antelope Creek and Deer Creek since 2014 to support spring-run Chinook salmon, and recent orders to stop groundwater use on landscapes on several creeks in the Russian River watershed to support coho salmon and steelhead.
  58. J. Mount, “Better Reservoir Management Would Take the Heat Off Salmon” (PPIC blog, June 23, 2015).
  59. See technical appendix TableA9 and related discussion for a list of the species, the methodology used for this assessment, and a discussion of potential management actions.
  60. C. Chappelle and L. Pottinger, “California’s Streams Going to Pot from Marijuana Boom” (PPIC blog, July 23, 2015).
  61. The development of native fish-oriented flow regimes below many dams would also be beneficial. See T. Grantham et al., “Systematic screening of dams for environmental flow assessment and implementation,” Bioscience , 2014, Vol. 64: 1006–1018.
  62. Some species are already kept in captivity with the goal of preventing extinction (such as delta smelt, Central Coast coho salmon, McCloud River redband trout, and Central Valley winter-run Chinook salmon). The use of conservation hatcheries will be more difficult for fish that do not already have captive populations or populations that live outside of their native range. See technical appendix Table A9 and related discussion.
  63. For some fishery sector statistics, see technical appendix Figure A8 and related discussion.
  64. P.J. McIntyre et al., “Twentieth-century Shifts in Forest Structure in California: Denser Forests, Smaller Trees, and Increased Dominance of Oaks,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , 2015, Vol. 112(5): 1458–1463.
  65. The federal government owns 55 percent of forests and woodlands in California (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection: Forest and Rangelands 2010 Assessment). On permitting challenges on federal lands, see M. North et al., “Constraints on Mechanized Treatment Significantly Limit Mechanical Fuels Reduction Extent in the Sierra Nevada,” Journal of Forestry , 2014, Vol. 113(1): 40–48.
  66. See E. Hanak et al., Paying for Water in California (PPIC, 2014).
  67. The Center for Irrigation Technology at Fresno State University estimates that only about a third of wells are now metered such metering can be useful for efficient on-farm water use as well as groundwater basin management. See the interview with David Zoldoske in L. Pottinger, “The Challenges of Getting More Crop per Drop,” (PPIC blog, July 28, 2015).
  68. See the discussion on water markets in the technical appendix.
  69. Some promising recent changes in this direction include new reporting and measurement requirements for surface water diversions. See H. McCann and C. Chappelle, “Drought Bills: Small Changes, High Impact” (PPIC blog, June 30, 2015).
  70. One promising approach to environmental drought planning comes from Australia. See J. Mount et al., Policy Priorities for Managing Drought (PPIC, 2015).


We wish to thank the many individuals who provided information and insights on drought management through interviews conducted in late June and July 2015. We also thank the following individuals for very helpful reviews of a draft version of this report: Richard Howitt, Eric McGhee, David Mitchell, Patrick Murphy, Tim Quinn, Lester Snow, and Kathy Viatella. Lori Pottinger, Mary Severance, and Lynette Ubois provided expert editorial guidance and support. Any remaining errors are entirely the responsibility of the authors.

In California, Stingy Water Users Are Fined in Drought, While the Rich Soak

APPLE VALLEY, Calif. — Outside her two-story tract home in this working-class town, Debbie Alberts, a part-time food service worker, has torn out most of the lawn. She has given up daily showers and cut her family’s water use nearly in half, to just 178 gallons per person each day.

A little more than 100 miles west, a resident of the fashionable Los Angeles hills has been labeled “the Wet Prince of Bel Air” after drinking up more than 30,000 gallons of water each day — the equivalent of 400 toilet flushes each hour with two showers running constantly, with enough water left over to keep the lawn perfectly green.

Only one of them has been fined for excessive water use: Ms. Alberts.

Four years into the worst drought in California’s recorded history, the contrast between the strict enforcement on Californians struggling to conserve and the unchecked profligacy in places like Bel Air has unleashed anger and indignation — among both the recipients of the fines, who feel helpless to avoid them, and other Californians who see the biggest water hogs getting off scot-free.

This wide disparity in enforcement is testimony to California’s vast and chaotic system for moving water from reservoirs and underground systems to homes. There are 411 separate water districts — some public, some private — and each of these local utilities has been charged with devising its own rules for saving water during the drought.

All of the districts are grappling with a mandatory order from the State of California to reduce water consumption by up to 36 percent. The contrasting approaches taken by Apple Valley and Los Angeles illustrate how differently communities are enforcing the order — some with lenience, others with punishments.

In Apple Valley, the private utility company that supplies water to most of this town in the high desert east of Los Angeles has been ordered to cut back 28 percent. The utility, Apple Valley Ranchos, responded by applying “drought surcharges” to households that exceed a standard monthly water allotment. Nearly a third of the 20,000 customers have been assessed fines, which can run to hundreds of dollars.

Ms. Alberts, whose husband is disabled and not working, supports them and their two children on an income of about $22,000 a year. She received a surcharge of $79.66 on her last two-month water bill, raising the total above $330.

“It’s impossible to get under the line,” said Ms. Alberts, 58, whose property is about half an acre and was once surrounded by greenery. “We wash clothes once a week. We flush every third time. Sometimes we go to the laundromat because we’re afraid.”

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the city’s superrich have been able to keep multiple pools filled. Neighborhoods like Bel Air are verdant, as if the drought were happening somewhere else.

The top 10 residential water users in Los Angeles collectively used more than 80 million gallons of water in the year that ended April 1. The “Wet Prince” topped the list at 11.8 million gallons during that time — enough for about 90 typical California families — at an estimated cost of $90,000, as first reported by the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting.

But none of the city’s top water hogs have been fined. Instead, they have been insulated from financial penalties: Because less-affluent residents of Los Angeles have conserved, the city is easily meeting its 16 percent mandated reduction and has had no need to force its wealthiest residents to pare back. (Districts where average use was higher were ordered to cut more.)


Though no names or addresses of Los Angeles water hogs have been released, it is easy to find homes where they might live: In Brentwood, one home listed for sale offers 12 bathrooms and a water slide that goes from inside the house to one of two pools. Another home under construction in Bel Air has been issued permits for five pools.

Maureen Levinson, a Bel Air resident, winced as she pointed out homes being built in her neighborhood with water features she likened to “moats.” “Someone has to say, ‘You can’t have five pools — you can have one pool,’” she said.

Local newspapers have pressed the city to identify its top water users, as one San Francisco Bay Area district has done. One result: Famous residents have been shamed into using less water.

Billy Beane, a minority owner and former general manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team, came third on the East Bay Municipal Utility District’s initial list of top water hogs in October, averaging 5,996 gallons a day, or nearly 25 times the district average. The top spot went to George Kirkland, a retired Chevron executive, at 12,578 gallons a day.

Both men blamed leaky pipes, and cut back enough to stay off the subsequent list of top water users.

Marty Adams, a senior assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, said enforcing regulations in wealthy areas was more difficult than in poorer ones. “For a lot of people, accountants or landscapers pay the water bill, and they don’t even see it,” Mr. Adams added.

Los Angeles officials hope to start imposing fines so steep that even the wealthy who populate Bel Air will notice. Elsewhere, though, fines have already piled up on middle-class Californians.

The Central Valley city of Clovis, faced with an order to cut back 36 percent, has meted out more than 23,000 fines since the mandatory water reductions began in June. In Santa Cruz, where water supplies have run dangerously low, the city has assessed more than $1.6 million in penalties for using too much water.

But perhaps nowhere have the fines been felt as sharply — or raised as much ire — as in Apple Valley, where the median household income is below $50,000 a year, a stark contrast to Bel Air.

“They have all this disposable income, and they’re not conserving at all,” said Barb Stanton, the mayor pro tem of Apple Valley. “We’re cutting back, and yet we’re being penalized. We have seniors on fixed incomes appealing to us — they don’t know how they’re going to pay their water bills.”

Ms. Stanton was among those paying a drought surcharge, despite replacing her lawn with rocks. “How much more can I do?” she asked. “I let my trees die.”

Tony Penna, the general manager of Apple Valley Ranchos, said customers should be able to live comfortably within their allotments if they used water efficiently. The typical customer, he said, pays less than $70 a month for water.

“The idea it can’t be done, we’re not buying that,” Mr. Penna said. “When you see someone who’s got a bill of $200 or $400, many times it’s because their dedication to conservation isn’t as good.”

Backyard pools losing appeal in some parts of Bay Area

Raul Buenrostro and Carlos Guerrero, from left, with ZLC Corp dig a drainage hole into a backyard swimming pool before its filled in with dirt in Union City, Calif., Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. The homeowner Larry Weers is having the pool he had put in 40 years ago removed by the pool removal company. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)

ZLC Corp Owner Zali Lorincz, far right, homeowner Larry Weers, second from right, and foreman Pepe Buenrostro discuss the removal of a backyard swimming pool in Union City, Calif., Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. Weers is having the pool he had put in 40 years ago removed. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)

Homeowner Larry Weers and ZLC Corp Owner Zali Lorincz, form left, discuss the removal of a backyard swimming pool in Union City, Calif., Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. Weers is having the pool he had put in 40 years ago removed. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)

Along with the two-car garage and barbecue, the backyard swimming pool defines the American dream home, but lately pools have been losing some of their luster in parts of the Bay Area during the worst drought in decades.

Permits for new pools have dropped sharply in San Jose so far this year while permits for pool removals are increasing. In Concord, new pool construction has dropped by half since 2010, and the number of new pools this year is in the single digits and about equal to the number of pool demolitions. Walnut Creek has seen more permit applications for pool demolitions than applications for new pools.

“A lot of people are cautious about their water usage. Everybody is kind of hesitating, saying wait and see what happens with the rain,” said Jose Mejia of Coral Pool and Spa of San Jose.

To be sure, pools are as popular as ever in some cities — San Ramon has issued 187 new pool permits and only five pool demolition permits so far this year — and Mejia said requests for pool remodels and repairs are still coming in.

“But it’s not as good as it was before,” Mejia said. “There is a lull. It has been slowing down quite a bit.”

California is in the third year of a historic drought, and urban residents have cut back water usage by 7.5 percent. Some cities have imposed fines and hired water cops to monitor usage. And taking out a pool will cut the average homeowner’s water usage by roughly 1,200 gallons a month, according to the East Bay Municipal Utility District. If it is replaced with drought-tolerant landscaping, the savings will drop considerably.

As some residents have second thoughts about adding a pool, others are deciding to demolish aging backyard pools.

After buying a “huge fixer-upper” in Walnut Creek last year, Marisa Rose and her husband, Andy, decided to take out a massive 1960s kidney-shaped pool in the backyard.

“It was $12,000 to remove it and $30,000 to $50,000 to get it fixed,” she said. “It was a no-brainer. When we bought last December there wasn’t as much talk about the drought, but now I think it was smart long-term.”

John Norwood, president and chief lobbyist of the California Pools and Spa Association, says the drought has caused “a psychological effect” that is making homeowners hesitate to install a swimming pool. “Some people, even when you sit down and show them facts, say, ‘I’m not going to do it this year,'” Norwood said.

He cited a study by the Santa Margarita Water District in Orange County that compared the water usage of a 500-square-foot pool to 1,000 square feet of traditional landscaping such as a lawn, assuming that the pool and its 500-square-foot deck were replacing that much landscaping. The district found that an uncovered pool uses less water than the traditional landscaping — 96,575 gallons for an uncovered pool compared with 116,813 gallons for the landscaping over a five-year period. The pool’s water usage dropped even more when it was covered.

“The trick is getting people to cover their pools,” said district spokesman Jonathan Volzke. “They like looking out their window at the sparkly water.”

Some water districts encourage people to replace their pools by giving rebates. The Santa Clara Valley Water District gives a $2-a-square-foot rebate and EBMUD gives 50 cents a square foot, which are the same as rebates for removing a lawn.

But there are lots of reasons why some homeowners want to get rid of pools — some say they’re too expensive to heat and maintain, others just don’t use them anymore. For some immigrants, the pools are bad feng shui if they’re behind the house, which is where most suburban pools are located.

“The drought is the last nail in the coffin for the pool,” said Zali Lorincz of ZL Construction, the Walnut Creek-based pool demolition contractor that removed the Roses’ pool. Lorincz said he’s on track to do more than 100 demolitions this year, compared with 85 last year.

“They’re either too old, or cost too much money, or they never use it, or insurance costs are too high, or it takes up too much of their back yard and their energy bills are through the roof,” Lorincz said.

A typical pool demolition costs around $10,000 to $12,000, depending on what is done. A complete removal can cost more, but a common way is to drill holes in the pool bottom, cave in the sides below the surface and fill the hole up with dirt.

Silicon Valley engineer Kartik Raju and his wife recently bought a home in Cupertino with a backyard pool, which they had demolished and filled in last month. “They fill the dirt and compact it. It’s solid ground, but you can’t rebuild on it, which is fine with me. We’re not planning to do any construction there,” he said.

“The pool covered the whole backyard,” he said. With higher energy costs and two young children, “I decided to just fill it in. My kid goes to a swimming pool for a class. She likes that pool much better,” Raju said. “Now I’m doing simple landscaping that doesn’t use that much water.”

Not only are pools aging, so are their owners.

Larry Weers, 84, of Union City, is having his pool removed because it’s a hassle to maintain and he and his wife don’t use it anymore. He installed it 41 years ago.

“It was only used once this year,” Weers said. “We decided to take it out and put artificial grass in its place.”

Australia’s Lesson for a Thirsty California

MELBOURNE, Australia — On his first visit to Melbourne in 2009, Stanley Grant, a drought expert and professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Irvine, had a question for his taxi driver.

“How’s the drought?” he asked.

“It’s about 28 percent,” came the reply.

Grant was puzzled. But shortly afterward, they drove past an electronic road sign announcing that the city’s reservoirs were indeed at just 28 percent of capacity.

The taxi driver knew the state of the reservoirs exactly. “In California you might get people saying, ‘I don’t know, it’s not my department, I let the government take care of that,’ ” said David Feldman, a colleague of Grant’s and a co-author with him of a paper on Melbourne’s innovations in water management.

Grant’s conversation with the driver took place toward the end of what is known here as the “millennium drought” in southeastern Australia it lasted from around 1997 to 2010 and was the worst drought in the country’s recorded history. In Melbourne, reservoir levels dropped by almost three-quarters to a historic low of 25.9 percent.

Australians had never experienced anything like it. “Trees were dying in the parks,” said Sandie Pullen, who then was the manager of water communications at the state Department of Sustainability and Environment. “There were dry creek beds with animal skeletons on the outskirts of Melbourne.” At one point, the city of four million people was 500 days away from running out of water.

Yet the city averted catastrophe, in large part because residents responded to a campaign to use less water. Feldman argues that the experience offers lessons for water-stressed urban centers around the world.

Reducing water demand is often seen as a ‘‘soft’’ response to drought — less successful than big engineering projects. But Melbourne’s experience shows that helping residents (who use over 60 percent of the city’s water) and businesses to use less can be a “highly effective and relatively low cost” part of a city’s response. During the drought, domestic consumption dropped from 247 liters (65 gallons) per person per day in 2000-1 to 147 liters (39 gallons) in 2010-11 — enough to help save the city from running dry. Without water conservation, the reservoirs would have been empty by 2009, according to Melbourne Water.

How does a government persuade millions of people to nearly halve their water use? When the drought was declared, the state government of Victoria ordered Melbourne’s water companies to work together with it to quickly begin to formulate a joint response. The three water utilities and the water wholesaler are state-owned, and their cooperation was crucial to developing a response of this scale, Feldman said.

One utility, Yarra Valley Water, was put in charge of leading the behavioral-change work. It coordinated “what would otherwise have been a political nightmare in terms of getting all the water utilities to agree on anything,” said Chris Foley, then the manager of communications and marketing at Yarra Valley Water.


Foley’s first task running the joint program, which was called “Our Water, Our Future,” was dealing with what he calls “I reckons” coming at him from several directions.

“Everybody thinks they are an expert on behavior change,” Foley said. “My challenge was, how do I respond to the chief of staff in the minister’s office who’s got a great ‘I reckon’: ‘Aw, I reckon we should go to the ad agency and get them to do something sexy around a three-word slogan that rhymes.’ That was literally what was happening. It’s easy to spend a lot of money and get a sexy campaign, but we actually needed this to work.”

So Foley went on a tour to learn from experts across Britain, Canada and the United States, and then hired two Australian psychologists who specialized in behavioral change, to help identify which behaviors to target, and how.

The psychologists, Rob Curnow and Karen Spehr, from a small consultancy called Community Change, began by suggesting that all members of the steering committee — made up of water industry and government employees — examine their own water use, to help them understand that wholesale change would take more than a few pithy ads.

Next, the psychologists held community forums and conducted in-depth interviews and ethnographic research with residents about their water use. This helped the committee to identify barriers that needed to be overcome if people were going to save water, and to avoid wasting resources by trying to encourage changes that were unpopular or unviable, Pullen said.

One example is showers. “We found that women in particular said, ‘I’ll do anything except for having a shorter shower, especially if I have children and it’s the only time in my day that I have to myself,’ ” Pullen said. While the campaign eventually did tackle shower times, the research led the committee to prioritize easier goals first, like encouraging householders to switch to water-saving showerheads. There were about 1.3 million homes in Melbourne at the time more than 460,000 showerheads were replaced at no cost over four years.

But not everybody wanted one. “One of the barriers was that some people thought the water-efficient showerheads looked ugly, or wouldn’t match with the gold or the chrome or whatever fittings they’ve already got,” said Foley. So, he said, the team found an alternative — small brass flow control valves that could be fitted into existing showerheads those drew more than 100,000 requests.

It wasn’t just showers that the group were interested in, though. They came up with a list of about a dozen behaviors to encourage, and a wide range of highly visible strategies to make this happen. These included:

· Placing stands outside supermarkets to distribute free water-saving equipment, like trigger nozzles that would reduce the flow of hose pipes.

· Advertising on television and radio. Starting in 2008, these focused on promoting a target of 155 liters (41 gallons) per person each day, and strengthening social norms around using less water.

· A program for garden centers. Staffs at 80 centers were trained to help customers take steps like planting drought-tolerant native plants and using mulch on their garden to keep soil moist.

· Water bills that told customers how much they were using, and compared it with their neighbors.

· Rebates on water-efficient washing machines, 365,000 of which were installed, and rainwater tanks (usage increased from 16.7 percent of households to 29.6 percent).

Other measures included voluntary and compulsory water-saving programs for businesses, that were publicized to their customers. The government invested heavily in infrastructure. Utilities reduced water leakage by 40 percent by reducing spikes in water pressure and stepping up detection efforts.

The underlying message was “we’re all working together to save water,” Spehr says. This fostered a “sense of fairness and collaboration in saving water,” according to a report on what California could learn from Australia’s millennium drought.

The fact that many of these water-saving initiatives were done with, and not to, the people of Melbourne was crucial, Curnow and Spehr said. For example, a project for schools was developed in consultation with teachers.

The government also introduced a series of increasingly tough mandatory restrictions on outdoor water use. By 2007, these included severe limits on car washing and watering gardens and lawns. Actions like hosing down a driveway became not only illegal, but taboo, with neighbors reporting one another when they were seen wasting water.

This was not without consequences. Green spaces like sports fields and gardens were seriously affected, as were the people who use them. A study on the social impact of the restrictions on sports grounds showed that marginalized groups were particularly hard-hit.

In the end, reducing demand saved 107 billion liters (28 billion gallons) of water per year in Melbourne during the drought — equivalent to roughly 70 percent of the capacity of the city’s controversial $4.5 billion desalination plant, at a fraction of the cost, according to Feldman and his colleagues.

But the behavioral change program was closely aligned with the center-left Labor Party, and when Labor lost the state election in 2010, the incoming government scrapped the initiative.

“Our major frustration is that every time there’s a change in government policy it can undermine those foundations people have spent so long cultivating,” said Spehr. “People were really intrinsically motivated to take all that work on,” so when the program was cut, “a good section of the community were quite frustrated and disenfranchised.”

With global warming projected to bring less rain and greater climate variability to Melbourne, the millennium drought was “a bit of a glimpse into the future,” said Tony Kelly, who was managing director of Yarra Valley Water during the drought.

Water usage has crept up in recent years it now sits at 166 liters (44 gallons) per person per day. But that is still much lower than before the drought, because the large-scale water saving efforts brought lasting changes to homes and to social norms, Feldman says. In comparison, households in Los Angeles use an average of 318 liters (84 gallons) per person per day.

“People in Melbourne learned to live well with less water,” says Feldman. “It’s a big difference to California, where each time a drought has officially ended, we go back to our old ways.”

Amid epic drought, California farmers turn to water witches

LINDSAY, Calif. — Vern Tassey doesn’t advertise. He’s never even had a business card. But here in California’s Central Valley, word has gotten around that he’s a man with “the gift,” and Tassey, a plainspoken, 76-year-old grandfather, has never been busier.

Farmers call him day and night — some from as far away as the outskirts of San Francisco and even across the state line in Nevada. They ask, sometimes even beg, him to come to their land. “Name your price,” one told him. But Tassey has so far declined. What he does has never been about money, he says, and he prefers to work closer to home.

And that’s where he was on a recent Wednesday morning, quietly marching along the edge of a bushy orange grove here in the heart of California’s citrus belt, where he’s lived nearly his entire life. Dressed in faded Wranglers, dusty work boots and an old cap, Tassey held in his hands a slender metal rod, which he clutched close to his chest and positioned outward like a sword as he slowly walked along the trees. Suddenly, the rod began to bounce up and down, as if it were possessed, and he quickly paused and scratched a spot in the dirt with his foot before continuing on.

A few feet away stood the Wollenmans — Guy, his brother Jody and their cousin Tommy — third-generation citrus farmers whose family maintains some of the oldest orange groves in the region. Like so many Central Valley farmers, their legacy is in danger — put at risk by California’s worst drought in decades. The lack of rain and snow runoff from the nearby Sierra Nevada has caused many of their wells to go dry. To save their hundreds of acres of trees, they’ll need to find new, deeper sources of water — and that’s where Tassey comes in.

Tassey is what is known as a “water witch,” or a dowser — someone who uses little more than intuition and a rod or a stick to locate underground sources of water. It’s an ancient art that dates back at least to the 1500s — though some dowsers have argued the origins are even earlier, pointing to what they say is Biblical evidence of Moses using a rod to summon water. In California, farmers have been “witching the land” for decades — though the practitioners of this obscure ritual have never been as high profile or as in demand as during the last year.

With nearly 50 percent of the state in “exceptional drought” — the highest intensity on the scale — and no immediate relief in sight, Californians are increasingly turning to spiritual methods and even magic in their desperation to bring an end to the dry spell. At greatest risk is the state’s central farming valley, a region that provides fully half the nation’s fruit and vegetables. Already, hundreds of thousands of acres have been fallowed, and farmers say if they can’t find water to sustain their remaining crops, the drought could destroy their livelihoods, cause mass unemployment and damage the land in ways that could take decades to recover.

With nearly 50 percent of the state in “exceptional drought,” Californians are increasingly turning to spiritual methods and even magic in their desperation to bring an end to the dry spell.

Across the Central Valley, churches are admonishing their parishioners to pray for rain. Native American tribal leaders have been called in to say blessings on the land in hopes that water will come. But perhaps nothing is more unorthodox or popular than the water witches — even though the practice has been scorned by scientists and government officials who say there’s no evidence that water divining, as it is also known, actually works. They’ve dismissed the dowsers’ occasional success as the equivalent of a fortunate roll of the dice — nothing but pure, simple luck. But as the drought is expected to only get worse in coming months, it’s a gamble that many California farmers seem increasingly willing to take.

With many farms limited or even cut off from government-allocated irrigation water this year, growers like the Wollenmans have been forced to rely on their groundwater wells — most of which were built more than 50 years ago and are less than 200 feet deep. In a normal year of regular rainfall, that would usually suffice, but with so many straws in the cup, wells across the Central Valley are quickly going dry. Farmers are being forced to drill deeper to tap into the aquifer below — an expensive proposition that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more. It’s a desperate attempt to survive what many describe as a slow-moving natural disaster on par with the Dust Bowl.

State officials recommend that farmers who are planning to dig should hire a hydrogeologist to survey their land to find a spot for a productive well. But the first call many farmers make is to a water witch — who charges a fraction of the price and, some insist, is often just as accurate.

On this Wednesday, Tassey was charging the Wollenmans just $100 — his usual fee — to look for water in one of their orange groves. They’d been working with him for years — and before that, they’d used another witch to help them find water, just as their parents had when they first came here in the 1940s as one of the first citrus growers in Lindsay.

“We’ve always used someone,” Guy Wollenman said as he watched Tassey work. “Most farmers do. They don’t drill a hole without someone like Vern to help them find the best spots.”

“It’s an energy of some sort. … Like how some people can run a Ouija board. You either have it or you don’t.”
— Marc Mondavi

The severity of the latest drought has raised the ante even higher. With landowners across the valley desperate to tap into water, it costs thousands of dollars just to get on a waitlist for drilling that is often several months long. Desperate farmers have little margin for error. If they drill a hole and find nothing, it’s money that’s gone, and they are back on the waitlist again. They are betting on witches to help them find the magic mark.

A few feet away, Tassey continued to pace back and forth along the line of orange trees, and as he worked, a strange hush settled over the scene. Soon, the only sound was Tassey’s footsteps crunching dead leaves on the sandy ground as a nearby dog began to bark. The farmers quietly followed at a distance, careful not to disrupt Tassey’s concentration.

“It will start bouncing,” Jody Wollenman explained in a low voice, pointing to the metal rod in Tassey’s hands. “When he hits the aquifer, it will start moving. It tells you the width of the aquifer by the strength of the bounce.”

An Oklahoma native who moved to the Central Valley with his family in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl when he was just 7, Tassey discovered he had the “gift” during California’s last devastating drought in the late 1970s. A colleague at a drilling company often witched the land before they dug wells, and intrigued, Tassey asked if he could give it a try. The rest, he said, is history.

It’s never bothered Tassey that people call him a witch — though lately it’s gotten him into a little trouble with folks at church. A few weeks earlier, a local television station out of Fresno came down to interview him after hearing of his skill. He’d never been on television before. “The reporter asked me if I dabbled in witchcraft. Do I worship the devil?” he laughed.

As Tassey paced down the line of trees, the farmers followed quietly. After a moment, Tommy Wollenman, who is also a general manager at LoBue Citrus, a grower and distributor in town, tried to lighten the mood. “Ommmm,” he jokingly began to chant. A few feet away, the metal rod in Tassey’s hands suddenly began to move feverishly up and down. Wollenman paused. “That’s amazing,” he said.

As the farmers walked closer, Tassey scratched a mark in the ground and grabbed another tool — this one a metal rod crafted into a Y shape, almost like a wishbone. He backed up along the path and walked forward again, retracing his steps. He was, he explained, using this tool to “fine-tune” his discovery. With this, he’d be able to more accurately guess the route of the aquifer below and suggest where drillers should dig to capture the best volume. In his hands, his guiding rod seemed to bounce again, and Tassey stopped, marking another spot.

Moving in, Tommy Wollenman reached down and quickly planted a tiny metal stake with an orange flag in the spot. “Oh!” he cried, a teasing smile on his face. “I think there’s water coming up already!”

No one knows how many water witches there are. They don’t exactly advertise in the phone book or the newspaper. There is an organization — the American Society of Dowsers, which has hundreds of members scattered across local chapters throughout the country. But many water witches like Tassey seem to work on their own. The U.S. Geological Survey, which issued a brochure discrediting the practice of dowsers, estimates there may be thousands roaming the nation’s agricultural lands in search of water — though the agency admits even it isn’t sure.

Water witches have been a fixture in California agriculture for about as long as people here can remember. Everyone knows of someone who’s used one or a person who had “the gift” — or at least thought they did. Even John Steinbeck immortalized the role of the dowser in his seminal novel “East of Eden,” set in California’s Salinas Valley.

In the book, Adam Trask hires Samuel Hamilton to find water on land he hopes to transform into his own personal Eden. When Trask asks Hamilton how his divining stick works, the fictional witch confesses that he’s not really sure and suggests it’s perhaps his own instinct, not an instrument, driving the magic. “Maybe I know where the water is, feel it in my skin,” Hamilton explains.

Ask a witch in real life how the magic works or why they were blessed with “the gift,” and most confess they don’t know. In Napa Valley, Marc Mondavi, a vintner whose family is part of the state’s wine aristocracy, discovered his ability decades ago when a high school girlfriend’s father who was a dowser took him out into the vineyard to see if he had any skills. Mondavi was only 17. “He used these willow forks, and he handed them to me and said, ‘Go,’” he recalled. “And sure enough, they bent down.”

At the time, Mondavi didn’t know if he really believed he had the skill. But years later, while in college, he summoned his ability again when his family planned to drill a new well on their property. They had called on the expertise of the most popular dowser in wine country, a vineyard manager named Frank Wood, who at the time was witching almost all the land around Napa. When Mondavi mentioned to him that he believed he had the gift, Wood became his mentor and taught him everything he knew.

Scientists roll their eyes at the phenomenon. Graham Fogg, a hydrologist at the University of California, Davis, called it “folklore.”

“It’s an energy of some sort. . Like how some people can run a Ouija board. You either have it or you don’t. You can’t learn how to get it, but if you do have it, you have to learn how to use it,” he said. “It took me years to get my confidence. . At first, you are a bit leery of telling someone they are going to have to go dig a $50,000 hole. What if nothing is there? But over time, I learned to trust.”

Now at 61, Mondavi is the go-to water witch for Napa — servicing some of the top wine producers in the country. Among his clients is Bronco Wine Company, the nation’s fourth-largest winemaker, which makes Charles Shaw’s “Two Buck Chuck” and dozens of other brands. He knows what geologists say about witches like him, and he relishes the idea of proving them wrong. “They think we’re ridiculous, that it’s all luck,” he said. “I get it. There’s no science that explains any of it.”

Pausing, Mondavi can’t help but smile. “I’m good,” he says, a sly grin on his face. “I’m not afraid to blow my own horn. I’m good at this.”

Scientists roll their eyes at the phenomenon. Graham Fogg, a hydrologist at the University of California, Davis, called it “folklore” and said there is no scientific proof that dowsers have any special skill at finding water. The reason dowsers often appear successful, he argued, is because “groundwater is ubiquitous.” Anybody with a basic knowledge of an aquifer is likely to be able to tap into something.

“Groundwater occurs virtually everywhere at some depth beneath the surface of the earth, so regardless of where you drill, you will virtually always hit the water table at some depth,” Fogg said.

The vibrating or movement of the diving rods or sticks, scientists argue, is nothing more than show.

“We’ve always used someone. Most farmers do. They don’t drill a hole without someone like Vern to help them find the best spots.” Lorem
— Guy Wollenman

In spite of the skepticism, some high-profile figures seem unwilling to miss a chance at finding water. Last year, at the suggestion of a cousin, California Gov. Jerry Brown had a pair of water witches go over land he owns in Williams, Calif., about an hour north of Sacramento, where he plans to build a home and settle when he retires. A spokesman for the governor confirmed Brown had used dowsers, but he declined to say if they found water.

Down in the Central Valley, Tassey says he would like to retire. Three times, he’s tried, but the farmers won’t let him. He’s too good at witching the wells, apparently. Farmers talk him up to each other, and even drillers have started to recommend him. He estimates he’s witched at least 100 wells so far this year — the busiest year he can recall in the four decades since he learned he had the gift.

Tassey can’t explain what makes him special, why he apparently has this ability that others do not. He had hoped that one of his four kids might have the gift, but none did. Only him. Some have speculated it has something to do with the magnetic core of the earth. He doesn’t know. He just has something, a gift that God has given him to use, and he’ll likely use it until the day he dies.

“The farmers here have been good to me all these years, to all of us here,” Tassey says. “Now it’s my turn.”


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