Cut and Dry: Stop Wasting Water

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A LBWD billboard outside Tracy's in East Long Beach. Photo by: Jason Ruiz

The signs are everywhere: whether it be the bone-dry San Gabriel Riverbed that empties to the south of Alamitos Bay or the more literal signs posted by CalTrans, the State is in the midst of a historic drought, one that is projected to get a lot worse before getting any better.

Since the Long Beach Water Department’s release of an imminent water shortage alert in February—where they instituted new restrictions limiting lawn watering to three days a week, barring restaurants from serving water unless requested by a customer, and setting time restrictions on the use of potable water—a lot has unfolded in the region’s ongoing drought crisis.

Much of the State is in the grips of either a D3 (Extreme Drought) or D4 (Exceptional Drought, the worst on the five-point rating system from Drought Monitor) rating. LBWD General Manager Kevin Wattier said that statistically speaking, a critically dry year has over a 50% chance of being succeeded by either a dry or critically dry year, something that could be catastrophic for a state that is on pace to use up half of its stored water this calendar year.

“If that happens, it's going to be the worst water crisis in California history,” Wattier said of the prospects of the drought extending into next year.

According to the Climate Change Assessment Report, a Congress-mandated climate survey published every 4 years, the dry spell that has ravaged the State’s water stores for the better part of four years could just be the tip of a melting iceberg. Over 300 experts and 60 person Federal Advisory Committee collaborated to produce the findings that were laid out in plain English: climate change is real, the environmental impacts are largely man-made, and recent weather patterns are most likely the new normal.

The first paragraph was forthright in its statement statement that humans were listed as the primary cause for global warming during the past 50 years. The annual U.S. temperature has risen 0.6 degrees since the 19th century with the majority taking place since 1970.

"Extreme heat is becoming more common, while extreme cold is becoming less common," the report read, stating that U.S. average temperatures are expected to jump another 2 to 4 degrees F over the next few decades, which means more heat, more drought, and more wildfires for California and the rest of the Southwest.

California is currently on pace to have its hottest year on record, exacerbating what is expected to be the worst wildfire season in state history. The drought, now in its third year, is expected to create a $1.7B hit to the agriculture industry with 15,000 expected to lose their jobs. Additionally, the two co-founders of the Center for Watershed Sciences at U.C. Davis prognosticate a 71% chance of next year’s rainfall being below normal or drier and only a 29% chance of having above-average precipitation.

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Wattier said that he understands the confusion over the seriousness of the drought because the “message hasn’t been as clear as it could’ve been.” The department has supplemented mailers to customers with billboards in an effort to inform the public of the water crisis. According to Wattier, rainfall and lawn conversions certainly can help in the long run, but education and action in the community are the biggest weapons the city and state have against this historic water shortage.

“The only solution to this crisis that could literally be 8 or 9 months away is changed human behavior,” Wattier said. “We think that everything that we and other water utilities in California should be focusing on at this point is public education to change human behavior; to educate the public on how serious of a crisis this could be.”

Wattier explained that the fate of Southern California’s water supply hinges on precipitation, or lack there of, in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where the region imports most of its water from. Despite a forecast for a moderate El Nino expected to start this summer and last through fall, the weather system will have little impact on the northern part of the state. But despite the obvious signs of a water shortage, some are downplaying the severity of the drought.

A poll released earlier this month by the Los Angeles Times showed that while nearly 90% of the over 1,500 registered voters who were surveyed agreed that water shortage was a “Crisis/major problem”, 82% felt it had a minor or no impact on their daily lives. The poll also showed a large number of people over-reporting how much they’ve cut back on water usage, a number that directly conflicts with water usage numbers in the city reflecting a 13% increase of imported water from last May to this May and June’s import numbers tracking up 15% from the previous year.

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“Right now I think people are taking it with a grain of salt, saying, ‘Okay, I guess we’ll see what happens,’ hoping that there’ll be a big rain season but you certainly can’t count on it,” said 61-year-old Long Beach resident Bob Boyd.

Boyd, who owns properties in Belmont Shore and other areas of East Long Beach, said he hasn’t noticed many of his neighbors cutting back since the water department’s notice in February. He’s reduced the watering of his own lawn to two days a week with touch ups of dry spots in between but admits that he still sees neighbors’ sprinklers running while walking his dog. The City offers residents a rebate of $3/square foot (the largest rebate in the state) and up to a $3,000 rebate to have their lawn converted to drought-tolerant landscaping.

Even though he allowed for his tenants to remove the lawn at his Belmont Shore residence, parting ways with his lawn is something that Boyd views as a last resort.

“I’ve had grass my whole life and I enjoy it,” Boyd said. “If we get to a point where there’s such shortage and we can’t use water at all, then I might be forced to do it. I think younger people might have a more liberal way but old farts like us, we like the grass.”

Roxanne Dean, who owns and operates Star Landscape Design which focuses on creative and innovative drought-tolerant gardens, said that is a sentiment she encounters frequently with clients. She noted that most of her clients are pressed for time and the lack of gardening time combined with the ethical burden of using water to keep a lawn green help steer clients to businesses like hers.

“Almost all of them want drought-tolerant or low-water [landscaping],” Dean said. “For the most part it's because, in Long Beach, it’s mandatory you can only water three times a week. But people are conscientious about using that amount of water for a lawn.”

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A sustainable landscape installed by Dean's Star Landscape Design. Photo: Star Landscape Facebook

Long Beach has been a leader in the state in lawn-to-garden conversions, but at only 2% of households embracing drought-tolerant landscapes, the city still has a long way to go.

According to a graphic on the water department’s website, the City gets about 12 inches of rain per year with a lawn requiring 80 inches of water per year to stay green while a sustainable landscape uses about 20 inches. In the short term, lawn removal will pay small dividends but making the changeover does produce long term savings both for the customer on their monthly water bills and for the City in terms of water resources. But for some, the lawn remains as a reminder as portal to the American Dream of generations passed. 

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“Some people are just set on it,” Dean said of residents wanting to hold on to traditional landscaping. “Either they don’t believe that we’re in a drought, they don’t see the severity of it or maybe they just don’t care—I don’t know.”

The LBWD offers a variety of rebates including ones for high efficiency washing machines ($150 each), rain barrels ($75 per barrel), and high efficiency toilets ($50 each). They also offer an avenue to anonymously report water wasters which Wattier said has about quadrupled since February from the number of reports they historically receive. While he believes that some people are trying and their hearts are in the right place, consumer water conservation needs to be a more concerted and aggressive effort.

The fact remains that the state is in uncharted territory when it comes to the water crisis with unprecedented measures being taken and the possibility, dependent on rainfall, of more on the horizon. The San Gabriel Valley set a dubious record last week when its “key well” plummeted to the lowest mark in human history. The State Water Resources Control Board is also in the process of revoking the riparian rights of some users-rights established pre-1914 for some persons to use and divert as water on their land that they choose—the first time such a revocation has been proposed in California history.

Even the most optimistic climatologist would be hard pressed to forecast enough rainfall to pull the state out of its worsening water shortage. It’s going to take education and action to help conserve what little water resources remain to help postpone what is shaping up to be a monumental water shortage in California.

“People think it’s going to be okay,” Boyd said. “We need to get people changing their minds now. We need to put the fear of God into people.”

Editor's note: Roxanne Dean is an occasional contributor to the Post; her previous articles on sustainable gardening are available here.

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