Time Is Running Out To Conserve Water

San Francisco Chronicle
By Nealan Afsari, Bay Area attorney and former broadcast news writer

Santa Rosa Water Use Graph

Among the environmental catchphrases we hear these days, like “climate change” and “global warming,” the less uttered phrase “water conservation” needs to be injected back into the discourse on environmental conservation. Just this month, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue led a public prayer on the steps of the state Capitol, in the hopes of summoning a storm to bring the drought-stricken state and other parts of the South much-needed water. And that was not the first call to prayer – Alabama Governor Bob Riley declared a week in July “Days of Prayer for Rain.”

I would probably pray too if, like some residents of the tri-state area of Georgia, Alabama, and Florida, I was told that I may not have water to drink, bathe in, or wash my hands with, after year end. That is the projection for the city of Atlanta, where I once lived. My friend’s father told me that, like many locals, they are taking shorter showers, shutting off the faucet more quickly, and are not watering their yard. While not all residents have made such changes, he said of his family’s new approach, “We definitely can no longer take an endless supply of cheap and safe drinking water for granted.”

The water supply is on the minds of California’s government officials and environmental planners as well, who recently convened for the annual California Water Policy Conference. Our water supply, and what we as individuals can do to preserve it, also needs to be on the minds of Californians. While we may not have the power to make decisions regarding water allocation, or to push technology forward, we have one great power – we can stop using so much water.

I will admit that I am slightly sensitive about wasteful water use, cringing at the water lost when someone brushes their teeth leisurely while the faucet runs, or running the faucet while cleaning the kitchen – not just the dishes – after a meal.

Knowing that much of California’s conservation efforts are aimed at the agricultural sector which, at about 78 percent of California’s total water use, is the state’s greatest drain on the water supply, I wondered: Do individual Californians need to conserve water? How do we use or waste water? And what can we change about our habits to save water?

I decided to ask the experts those questions, and the answers show that individuals should not discount the potential effects of their conservation efforts.

The latest numbers put residential indoor and outdoor water use at 3.75 million acre-feet, according to the Pacific Institute in Oakland, a leader in the analysis of our state’s water system. That is between 43 percent and 54 percent of the state’s total urban water use, which means that households can directly affect about half of the state’s water supply directed toward urban use.

California’s Department of Water Resources says 25 percent of water used in landscaping is wasted, and the Department points to toilets, clothes washers, and showers as the top three sources of indoor water use. By using spray nozzle hoses outdoors, and indoors repairing leaks, installing low flow showerheads and low flow flush toilets, and purchasing high efficiency washing machines, the department believes we can markedly lower residential water use. And the effect of such cut is two-fold – water is saved, and so is the energy used to convey, treat, and deliver the water.

Win-win, right? A major obstacle though is getting Californians to change their habits. After all, why conserve? The Pacific Institute has the simple answer: “the way we use water today is not sustainable – environmentally or politically.”

Right now, water flows to Californians easily and plentifully. But if we individually and collectively show a greater respect for the value of water, use less of it when it is not necessary, and begin to employ available water-efficient technologies, our conservation now may prevent us from having to pray later.