California is in a water crisis, but usage is on the rise. Officials focus on the wrong things, say advocates

Newsom pleaded with residents and businesses to cut their water use by 15%. But in March, urban water consumption increased by 19% compared to March 2020, the year the current drought began. It was the highest March water usage since 2015, the State Water Resources Control Board reported earlier this week.
Part of the problem is that the urgency of the crisis is not reaching Californians. Messages about water conservation vary between authorities and jurisdictions, so people don’t have a clear idea of ​​what applies to whom. And they certainly do not have a tangible idea of ​​the magnitude of a 15% reduction compared to their own consumption.
Kelsey Hinton, director of communications for the Community Water Center, a group that advocates for affordable access to clean water, said urban communities — which typically get water from state reservoirs — don’t seem to understand the severity of drought the way rural communities do, where water could literally stop flowing from the tap as soon as their groundwater supplies run out.

“In our day-to-day work, people feel how serious this is and know that we need to work on real solutions to the ongoing drought,” Hinton told CNN. “But living in Sacramento, you don’t see the same urgency here because we don’t depend on groundwater and scarce resources in the same way that these communities do.”

But advocates say government officials are also focusing on the wrong approach. They say voluntary residential water shutoffs are not the answer and that restrictions should be placed on businesses and industries that use the vast majority of the state’s water.

“Corporate water abuse must be addressed or no further action will matter,” said Jessica Gable, spokeswoman for Food & Water Watch.

“The perception in California right now is that it’s no longer a secret that the drought is linked to climate change,” Gable told CNN. “But no effort has been made to limit the industries that use the most water, which are coincidentally the industries that also emit the most emissions that are fueling the climate crisis.”

Misplaced burden

Most of March’s peak water consumption came from Southern California water jurisdictions. Usage in the South Coast water region, which includes Los Angeles and San Diego County, was up 27% from March 2020, for example, according to data provided by the state water board. . Only the North Coast region saved water in March, reducing its use by around 4.3%.

Edward Ortiz, spokesman for the State Water Resources Control Board, said March was a huge setback to the governor’s water goals.

“This is a concerning development in our response to the drought as a state,” Ortiz told CNN. “Making water conservation a way of life is one way Californians are responding to these conditions. Saving water should be a practice regardless of the weather.”

He said Californians “need to work harder to conserve water in and out of our homes and businesses.”

Last month, Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District announced its toughest water restrictions for residents and businesses in counties around Los Angeles, aiming to reduce water usage by at least 35 %. Starting June 1, outdoor water use will be limited to one day per week.

But community advocates say residents wonder if high water users also face the same pressure and painful decisions to conserve – namely, agriculture that requires a lot of water things like almonds, alfalfa, avocado, and tomatoes) or hydraulic fracturing, where tens of millions of gallons of water can be used to fracture a single fossil fuel well.

Gable said that while every little bit counts, repeated calls for individuals to save water can “seem disconnected and perhaps negligent at best,” given that industries that could drastically reduce the excessive amount of water that allocated to them are rarely held accountable.

Amanda Starbuck, research director at Food & Water Watch, said reducing residential water use is like telling people that recycling could save the planet. Although it was a significant action, she said it would not reduce the crisis as a whole.

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“It’s also kind of demeaning to blame residential use for these seizures,” Starbuck told CNN. “It’s just a small part of overall consumption. It’s a much bigger issue, and we really need to start bringing in these big industries that are consuming water in this drought.”

A spokesperson for Newsom’s office told CNN that local water agencies have set new targets since March that should lead to lower usage — including restricting outdoor watering — and that other decisions are to come before the Council of State this month.

“We hope these actions will contribute significantly to the state’s overall water reduction goals because outdoor irrigation is one of the largest users of water,” the spokesperson said in a statement. .

The spokesperson also highlighted additional funding for water resilience that the governor announced in his budget proposal on Friday. The funding is part of $47 billion planned to address the impacts of the climate crisis in the state.

“With the injection of additional funds, we will be able to more effectively educate Californians about the need to maintain the most important water-saving measures they can undertake, and help local districts in waters to respond to the drought emergency,” the spokesperson said.

Other sources are running out

While much of the water conversation focuses on urban use, Hinton said rural communities live with the daily anxiety that water will stop flowing.

“The bigger story, at least for us, is that when we’re in the middle of a drought like this, it’s not just about shorter showers and stopping the use of water outside for our families,” Hinton told CNN. “Our families fear that their water will stop flowing.”

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These are communities that do not rely on reservoirs – where much of the focus has been on reaching extremely low levels – but instead use private groundwater wells.

The big concern is that during extremely dry conditions, groundwater levels in the state drop while more is extracted for agriculture and other uses.

“The urgency is there with the families we work with, because they know what happened before,” she said. “We have people whose wells have dried up since the last drought and still don’t have the means to deepen them or connect to a long-term solution.”

Searing heat waves, worsening drought and destructive wildfires have plagued the West in recent years. As these stark images of the climate crisis unfold, Hinton believes the state must prioritize the water needs of individuals over industry.

“Climate change has made drought a reality for us forever, and now it’s something we have to deal with as a state,” Hinton said. “And the more we can accept that and be proactive, the less we’re going to be constantly reacting to those situations where whole communities are drying up or urban areas having to shut off the water that badly because we’ve already overused what was available to us. .”

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