California needs to adapt to drought scenario

California is currently experiencing its worst drought of the century due to a mass of high pressure that is blocking the Pacific winter storms from coming ashore. This upper-level ridge of high pressure has anchored off the north coast since December 2012, which is unprecedented. The high pressure system is feeding on itself creating a perfect environment for perpetuating the dry conditions. This system has prevented even the meager levels of rainfall that California has been accustomed to receive. Although we welcome the heavy rainfall from the recent “Pineapple Express”, we have not yet received enough rain and snow to sustainably carry on with business as usual. Without rainfall, California now has to depend completely on surface water and aquifers to meet the water demand.
The graph below shows the precipitation levels in California over the past century. This graph was obtained from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center (Reference: NOAA National Climatic Data Center, State of the Climate: Drought for January 2014, published online February 2014, retrieved on February 24, 2014 from As the graph portrays California has recorded the lowest rainfall in 2013.Precipitation Graph2
Where does California get its water from?
California has ten major drainage basins defined for the purpose of water management. From north to south the basins are: North Coast, Sacramento River, North Lahontan, San Francisco Bay, San Joaquin River, Central Coast, Tulare Lake, South Lahontan, South Coast, and Colorado River regions. Around 75% of California’s water supply comes from north of Sacramento, while 80% of the water demand occurs in the southern two-thirds of the state. About 80-85% of all developed water in California is used for agricultural purposes. This water irrigates almost 29 million acres (120,000 km2), which grows 350 different crops. Urban users consume 10% of the water, or around 8,700,000 acre feet. Industry receives the remaining water supply.
Water-Energy Nexus
There is also the Water-Energy nexus that is commonly discussed by sustainability experts. Most of California water comes from the northern part of the state and most of the demand is in the south. It takes a great deal of energy to pump that water over the Tehachapi Mountains. According to the California Energy Commission, transportation and treatment of water, treatment and disposal of wastewater and the energy used to heat and consume water accounts for near 20% of total electricity and 30% of non-power plant related natural gas consumed in California. If new water resources, such as recycled water, are needed to meet demand, more energy will be consumed as a result. Having adequate water supplies to meet current and future demand is of immediate concern for the people of California.
Government Policies
As President Obama had noted, California is a leader in sustainability with leading guidelines for energy efficiency, carbon management, green building and water conservation.  In the Bay Area, the Santa Clara Valley Water District has developed a variety of programs to implement water conservation practices. It provides landscape rebates, washer rebates and toilet rebates among others for both homes and businesses. The Santa Clara Valley Water District has recognized five priorities:
  1. Ensure a safe, reliable water supply.
  2. Reduce toxins, hazards and contaminants in our waterways.
  3. Protect water supply from earthquakes and natural disasters.
  4. Restore wildlife habitat and provide open space.
  5. Provide flood protection to homes, businesses, schools and highways.
For each priority the Santa Clara Valley Water District identifies projects to address them.
Similarly the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission enacted a Commercial Water Conservation Ordinance in 2009. It requires commercial building owners to have a Certificate of Compliance on file with the Department of Building Inspection by complying with the following water conservation measures:
  • Low Flow Showerheads
  • Low-Flow Faucet and Faucet Aerator
  • Efficient Toilets and Urinals
  • Leak repair
Similar water conservation measures can also be installed in residential buildings. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission also has programs and projects that deal with recycled water, gray water, and it also promotes rainwater harvesting and desalination.
Business Practices
Even with more government agencies implementing similar programs, it is essential that businesses implement measures suited to their own industry. Only then will there be a large-scale effect that would help reduce the load on California’s water infrastructure. Many businesses follow LEED guidelines for their buildings. All levels of LEED certifications set a minimum level of water efficiency measures. It specifies the gallons per flush and gallons per minute for the all the water fixtures in the building. In addition, LEED also addresses storm water runoff and landscape irrigation. LEED also requires a water management plan to be prepared for every site.
Data Centers
With Silicon Valley being the hub of the world’s top IT companies, data center cooling becomes an important aspect of business. Google does not use chillers but uses water as a natural refrigerant. Google uses 100% recycled water for two of its data centers and used harvested rainwater for the third. Cisco was awarded the Silicon Valley Water Conservation Award in 2010. The Cisco campus in San Jose conserves 22 million gallons of water per year by retro commissioning variable frequency drive and HVAC systems. The campus also features preventive irrigation system, which is inspected and repaired regularly so as to efficiently use recycled water. They converted a water feature to a garden featuring low-water plants.
All Sustainability frameworks involve a water conservation component. Almost all companies have integrated a sustainability framework into their businesses and have well defined sustainability goals. To some extent water management plans are in place in each business. If the tips provided by experts and government agencies could be implemented by businesses, the businesses would more easily meet their sustainability goals.
Resources at SSV
Sustainable Silicon Valley has set up a separate section on Water on its Ecocloud where there are articles that vary from simple steps to minimize water footprint to resources for water conservation. Water and energy are closely related resources and conservation of one effectively translates into the conservation of the other. These programs and policies are aimed at providing residents and businesses the necessary information and tools to increase their role in conserving water, which is essential as California gears up to face one of its worst droughts of the century.
Further reading
Calculate your home's water use here.

By Mukunth Natarajan
Edited by Violet Wulf-Saena
February 23, 2014
Average Rating: