California Drought Over, Water Efficient Garden a Key to Conservation

On April 7th, after one of the wettest winter seasons the state has ever seen, Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order, formally announcing the California drought over except in 4 counties: Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Tuolumne.  This was a historic drought.  On this day when the drought was announced over, Californians can feel proud that they put in the effort, and met the challenge successfully.

A reservoir in Northern California, at the time of the announcement:

Reservoir Full of Water

California Drought, and the Drought Emergency

Before this announcement, California had endured a 5-year drought, “worst in the recorded history”.

Prior to 2017, 2011 was the last year when the state’s snowpack water content went above average (165%). After it, from 2012 to 2016, water contents were way below average except 2016.  At its lowest point, in 2015, it was only 5% the normal level.

CA Snowpack

The same reservoir, less than a year ago:

CA Reservoir Dry

At the beginning of 2014, Governor Brown made the first drought emergency declaration, calling on  Californians to reduce their water usage by 20 percent.  However, water savings from this voluntary conservation effort fell far short of the target.  The savings achieved was only 9%.

In April 2015, facing a drought that was not seen before in the state’s history, Governor Brown made the second emergency declaration.  This time, he made it mandatory, which was the first time, that urban water usage be reduced by 25%.

This time, it worked.

Landscape Water Use Reduction Key to Achieving Goal

In the executive order, right after the 25% goal, Gov. Brown asked the state and local governments to “lead a statewide initiative…to collectively replace 50 million square feet of lawns and ornamental turf with drought tolerant landscapes.”

The State Water Board’s Resolution made it clear that outdoor water usage reduction is the top priority in achieving the 25% goal:

From “STATE WATER RESOURCES CONTROL BOARD RESOLUTION NO. 2015-0032”:

“The current emergency regulation has supported Californians’ water conservation efforts, with over 125 billion gallons saved from August 2014 through March 2015; however, statewide water use is only nine percent less than the same months in 2013. Achieving a 25 percent reduction in use will require even greater conservation efforts across the state. In particular, many communities must dramatically reduce their outdoor water use;

“In many areas, 50 percent or more of daily water use is for lawns and outdoor landscaping. Outdoor water use is generally discretionary, and many irrigated landscapes will survive while receiving a decreased amount of water;”

“Water conservation is the easiest, most efficient and most cost-effective way to quickly reduce water demand and extend supplies into the next year, providing flexibility for all California communities. ”

After the mandate, Californians stepped up the effort.  Many of them stopped watering their lawns and just let them turn brown.  “Brown is the New Green” signs popped up everywhere.  The mandate was effective immediately:  water saving jumped from 13.7% in April to 29% in May, the first month the mandate was implemented.

Brown is the New Green

Not Just “Brown Lawn”, But Water Efficient Garden

While a brown lawn did save water, it was far from ideal.  For one thing, it was a big eye sore for the community.  Aesthetics aside, a water efficient landscape provide these huge benefits that a brown lawn does not:

  • Provide food for bees, birds and other pollinators, which is critical for the Agriculture industry:  bees rely on pollen and nectar  to live, without enough flowers to feed on they can starve to death.  In recent years the bees’ population has been on such a serious decline, to the point some bees declared as endangered species.  Water efficient gardens, with its abundance of native plants, provide a great habitat for the bees and other pollinators, helping to stem the decline;
  • Improve soil quality and water holding capacity: water efficient gardens use native plants heavily, which are adapted to California’s dry conditions.  They have roots that tend to go very deep, which can aerate the soil, create tunnels and spaces that greatly increase the soil’s water holding capability.  This can help plants better deal with drought, and reduce the volume and force of flood in wet season.  The dead roots can add organic matters deep in the soil, adding nutrients and enhance its quality;
  • Add color and richness to the view of a house.  There are all kinds of drought tolerant plants that sport different height, structure, texture and colors; when designed well they make a lively and beautiful view, with changing colors of the season.  A water efficient garden is like a miniature nature that one can enjoy all the time from the comfort of the house.

As the executive order directed, after mandate, a statewide campaign to “replace lawns with drought tolerant landscapes” went underway.  Water agencies and companies across the state offer all kinds of rebate programs to encourage the conversion.  In most places, the program became a hit with people lining up for the application, and funds depleted in a short time.

This is a turf that successfully went through conversion and received rebate.

From Lawn to Water Efficient Garden

22.5%: Water Saving Achieved

2 years after the executive order, with another historic winter season, this time for deluge, the Governor announced that most of the state is out of drought.

During the 2 years, the lawn to drought tolerant landscape program has successfully achieved its target and helped the state conserve water to deal with one of the worst droughts in history.

  • The water saving target in Gov. Brown’s mandate is 25%; In February, urban Californians’ monthly water conservation is 25.1%.   The cumulative statewide savings from June 2015 through February 2017 is 22.5 percent, 90% of the target.
  • The turf conversion target in the executive order is 50 million square feet of turf, or roughly 1.8 million square miles; Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) alone converted 5 square miles , 2.8 times the state’s target; Santa Clara Water District converted 8.1 million square feet from 1/1/2014 to 6/30/2016.
  • Since June 2015 to Feb 2017, 2.6 million acre-feet of water has been saved, enough to supply exceeding a third of the state’s population for a year.

CA Water Saving

“Conservation Must Remain a Way of Life”

When Governor Brown declared the drought over in most of the state, he also made it clear that “Conservation must remain a way of life”.

Even though the drought is no longer in place, the groundwater and the ecosystem will take a long time to recover.  They need a constant supply of abundant water over the next decade or longer for their recovery.  With climate change and increased population, water the resource will become more scarce relative to its demand.  We must continue to conserve water.   Replacing a lawn with a water efficient garden, as experiences from this drought proved, can be a highly effectively step in achieving it.

Water conservation: how did Californians do after mandate (Part III)

How did Californians do for water conservation since the last report of Oct. and Nov. 2016 ?  In addition to the normal question of “does mandate make a difference”, another big question that comes very specifically with this winter season is : do heavy rains make a difference?

From the numbers of the 3 months from 11/2016 to 1/2017,  Californians did a great job conserving water, despite of no mandate and the time period being one of the wettest ever recorded in California’s history.  Here are the numbers: In November, December and January, Californians reduced water usage by 18.3%, 20.6% and 20.5% vs. 2013.   They are very consistent at about 20% level, slightly increasing from that achieved in Sept and Oct at about 19%.

ca water conservation

Remarkable Achievement

The water conservation achievement in the 3 months of 2016 winter season is very remarkable.

First, it is the first time that Californians conserved more than they did in the same months of 2015.  After the statewide water reduction mandate ended in May 2016, water-savings had been less than those achieved in same months in 2015, until Dec 2016, when the water-saving turned in 13.2% higher. January was even better at 19.2%.

water conservation

Even more amazing is this was achieved in an unusually wet winter.   To start off, winter normally is a slow time for water conservation, witnessed by last year’s lower levels in all cold months.  To top it off, last winter was one of the wettest ever recorded.  From the Northern Sierra 8-Station Precipitation Index, in Nov, Dec and Jan, the rainfall volumes this year almost double those of the average, and more than double those of 2015 at the same points of time.  In the face of such heavy precipitation, water-savings not only did not decline, but increase slightly by 8% is truly significant.

ca precipitation

While many factors might contribute to this great level of water-saving, one possible reason might be that some of the habits or products people acquired during the drought period stayed, for example, taking shorter showers, using high efficiency washing machines, etc.  As a lot of lawns were converted into water efficient gardens, with rain sensors and smart controllers installed, landscape irrigation might have saved a sizable amount of water too.

CA Drought Situation

As of March 14, 2017, according to the US Drought Monitor, 77% of the state is out of drought, with only 23% in slight or moderate droughts.   This is a huge decline from last year when most of the state was in extreme or exceptional drought.

ca drought

Keep Conserving Water

Even though we have had a hugely wet year, we can not lose sight about water and assume we will always have a lot of it.  During the 5 years of drought, groundwater was heavily pumped, which was so depleted that it will take many years and a huge amount of water for it to recover. With climate change and a hotter environment, consumption for water will go up while the snow storage we have been relying on will shrink down, creating a severe demand and supply situation.  It is projected that the Sierra snowpack can drop by half by the end of the century if greenhouse emissions continue at current speed, which can be disastrous for the state’s water supply.

It is clear water conservation should be our way of life, whether we are in a drought or not. Limit outdoor watering, as about half of water consumed by Californians is used outdoors.  Replace the lawn with a water efficient garden – Calculate how much water you can save here.

A water efficient garden will not only save water, but be beautiful as well. They can be full of California native charm, or fulfill some gardening dreams you have had for a long time.  Whichever design you choose, the water efficient garden can help us conserve water, and deal with water shortage now and in the future.

water efficient garden