Editorial: Snapping out of drought fatigue

·3 min read

The evidence suggests that Californians are experiencing drought fatigue. If that’s the case, they’re about to get shaken out of it.

Some of the most vigorous shaking will take place in eastern Ventura County, a region of the state that is almost exclusively dependent on imports from the State Water Project, which this year will deliver just 5% of its annual allocations.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has ordered that outdoor watering be restricted to one day per week for areas that mostly rely on state water. Last week, the Simi Valley City Council codified that order, adopting a resolution to implement the policy citywide.

It is evident that, statewide, the message to gear up conservation hasn’t yet gotten through.

State officials announced last week that water consumption in March jumped nearly 19% from a year earlier, even as the state has experienced an extraordinarily dry start to the year. Those two things are related: Because it didn’t rain, people started watering their yards earlier than normal.

That unusual circumstance might explain a one-month surge. But something else is going on. Californians have simply not yet responded to the latest drought emergency. Even at a time when Gov. Newsom has called for a voluntary 15% reduction, water consumption has been up about 4% over the last 10 months.

Blame it on fatigue. The 2011-2015 drought encompassed the driest extended period on record in California. It was marked by mandatory cutbacks and a sense of urgency that was broadly shared by consumers across the state. In 2015, after Gov. Jerry Brown ordered the first mandatory restriction in state history, Californians reduced urban water use by nearly 25%.

Many of the efficiencies implemented then ⁠— low-flow toilets, for instance, or replacing turf with drought-tolerant landscaping ⁠— produced long-lasting savings. Although water use inched back upward after that drought ended, it remains about 16% below 2013 levels.

The respite from that historic drought was short-lived, and we’re now deep into another. Finding further reductions this time will be more challenging, but water for landscaping is the obvious place to start, as irrigation accounts for roughly half of urban water use.

The effects of climate change on California’s water supply have been more rapid and more pronounced than many anticipated. While it has long been known that snow levels would rise as a result of higher temperatures, indications are that the effects on spring runoff ⁠— the water that is counted on to fill the State Water Project’s reservoirs ⁠— may be more dramatic than imagined.

Despite the effects of drought and climate change on the dependability of the State Water Project, it should be noted that last week the city of Ventura acted to protect its allocation of state water ⁠— an allocation it has long paid for, but never collected. The city entered into a long-term lease under which a Riverside County water agency will pay to access the allocation ⁠— at least until a long-planned pipeline is completed that will finally connect the city to imported water.

Thirty years ago, in an advisory vote, Ventura voters said they would prefer building a desalination plant rather than connecting to imported water. But because of the high cost that option was never seriously pursued.

Perhaps a severe case of drought fatigue will cause some to recalculate the value of creating new sources of water.

But perhaps not. On Thursday, after hearing hours of testimony about the critical need for new water sources, the California Coastal Commission rejected plans for an Orange County desalination plant that had been 25 years in the making.

This article originally appeared on Ventura County Star: Editorial: Snapping out of drought fatigue

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