In News

by Shari Pomerantz


WEN’s Drought Buster Panelists

This past year has been somewhat wetter – but that doesn’t mean the drought is over!  While the drought may not be on Californians’ minds as much as last summer, dry weather patterns continue, as do conversations about equitable water policy, efficient agricultural land use, and choices we can make at home.  In late July, I attended three water events: ClimateOne’s Is California Entering a Megadrought?, the San Francisco Bay Water Equity Summit, and WEN’s DroughtBusters panel.  Here’s what I learned…

Is California Entering a Megadrought? – July 13, 2016

I began my series of drought events at the Commonwealth Club – where Noah Diffenbaugh (Associate Professor, School of Earth Sciences, Stanford University), Peter Gleick (President and Co-Founder, Pacific Institute), and Karen Ross (Secretary, California Department of Food and Agriculture) spoke on a ClimateOne Panel, “Is California Entering a Megadrought.

Of course, the answer was YES.

We didn’t have a wet year, actually.  To be specific, we sort of had an average year.  And it’s been so long since we’ve had an average year, that everyone kind of got excited.  But rainfall statewide was a tiny bit below average – wet in the north, dry in the south.  The snowpack was a little below average, and it melted really fast.  Some of the big reservoirs filled, but not all of them, and our groundwater is still massively over pumped.

– Peter Glick, Co-founder, Pacific Institute


  • Climate Change: Most years (8 out of 10) are now “warmer than average,” and as the world continues to warm, California’s water troubles will continue.
  • Growth and Development: In planning how to use our water, we need to consider the increasing demands of growing regions as well as the limited water supply.
  • Conservation: Last June, on the 4th year of the drought, California set mandatory conservation targets (from 8%-36%) and penalties for each of its water districts.  The largest targets were in areas with high per-capita water use and low historic conservation efforts, and the program was successful in encouraging water conservation.  However, since this year has been wetter, California has dropped its mandatory targets. Should Southern Californian homes go back to watering large lawns as they used to?
  • Agriculture: Since dry is the new normal, we need to adjust the crops we grow. Eighty percent of California’s water is used for agriculture, and the variety of high-value crops that grow here are important to the state’s economy.  Karen Ross discusses crop choices in terms of economic value per unit of water.  She notes that California is already growing less cotton, which is very water-intensive (220,000 acres, down from over 1,000,000 acres), and is a great place for growing grapes, which do well in dry climates.  In discussing the amount of alfalfa that California grows, she notes that California has a lot of cows, and that milk is a high-value agricultural product. Personally, I would have liked to hear more about the value of raising cattle, as cattle/alfalfa is the state’s largest agricultural water consumer!

San Francisco Bay Water Equity Summit – July 26, 2016

The drought has been helpful in encouraging us to think more about our water systems.  At the San Francisco Bay Water Equity Summit, sponsored by the Pacific Institute and the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, participants from municipalities, utilities,
community groups, and foundations gathered to discuss water equity and infrastructure concerns.


  • Infrastructure: Beyond talking about conserving water during drought years, we need to think about infrastructure improvements to keep up with rapid growth in the Bay Area.  In East Palo Alto, development has been put on hold because no extra water is available for growth and existing infrastructure likely can’t handle an increase in water supply.  In Alviso, historic groundwater use has caused the area to sink 13 feet below sea level, putting it at risk for flooding.  And in the city of Marin, residents complain that poor quality water smells on hot summer days.
  • Affordability: For low-income groups, water/sewage costs can reach 8% of income.  Programs that subsidize water costs, evaluate homes for
    water-wasters, distribute free low-flow showerheads, and create “pay-as-you-save” incentives to offset upfront costs for replacing home appliances are helpful.
  • Proposition 218: Charging higher per-gallon rates for higher water-users to fund conservation programs seems like an easy answer, but is prohibited under California’s Proposition 218 – the Right to Vote on Taxes Act.  When Prop 218 was mentioned, the room literally started booing!  According to a 2015 court decision, to comply with Prop 218, tiered water rates must be proportional to the cost of providing incrementally more expensive water. Municipalities must find creative funding sources to help customers conserve.  (For example, Santa Rosa is using cell phone antenna lease revenue and Santa Rosa Cares donations.)
  • Multi-Tenant Buildings: Since apartment-dwellers often don’t receive water bills, and aren’t charged per gallon used, it’s harder to incentivize conservation and identify leaks.  Adding sub-meters and smart-meters would help, as would requiring landlords to pass savings on to tenants.
  • Outreach:  Outreach to low-income communities can be especially challenging.  Summit participants suggested increasing face-to-face
    communication, especially in places where community members already gather, making information available in multiple languages, and coordinating water and energy savings programs to reduce the amount of time it takes to learn about and participate in programs.  Water agencies should speak with communities before creating programs, to help shape programs that meet the needs of all parties.

Drought Busters – July 28, 2016

I finished my month of water event at Drought Busters, a panel discussion organized by the Women’s Environmental Network and Impact Hub SF.  Some of the concerns raised here were similar to those brought up at earlier events, and most were focused on solutions for individuals, small businesses, and local governments looking to reduce their water footprints. Elsa Eder (San Francisco Public Utilities Commission), Femke Freiberg (Berkeley Climate Actions Coalition’s Water Working Group), Anya Kamenskaya (DIG Coop), and Dominique Gomez (WaterSmart Software) shared their ideas with the group.


  • Changing Role of Utilities: In regions like ours, we are beginning to expect our utilities to provide more than just clean water. The
    SFPUC is engaging its customers by providing rebate programs, evaluating homes to recommend efficiency-saving upgrades and repairs,  and tabling at events such as Sunday Streets.  Residents with smart-meters can even receive notifications about potential leaks!  Check out their website for more information.
  • Long-term: Should we really be flushing our toilets with potable water?  Collecting rainwater and reusing greywater for toilets, laundry,
    and even some types of gardening is a great way to conserve.  “Eco-Blocks” can pool together to collect rainwater and solar energy.
  • Agriculture: Conserving water in the Bay Area is a great start, but we need to extend our efforts throughout California if we’re going to solve our water problems!  Agriculture is our biggest water-user, and there are many opportunities for efficiency improvements in this sector.
  • Personal Choices: Consider your water footprint and ways to reduce it.  Upgrade appliances, repair leaks, and eat less meat.  Looking to get involved or learn more? Consider joining the Berkeley Climate Action Coalition, Oakland Climate Action Coalition, or a similar group in your area.  Drought Buster’s panelist Elsa Eder at the SFPUC says her door is “always open!”
  • Outreach: To engage people in discussions about water, it’s important to start with ideas that are simple and tangible.  Talk about water in gallons-per-day, compare water use to the amount consumed by others, teach kids how little water it takes to garden, and share conservation tips with kids to pass on to their parents.
  • Barriers: As in the other two talks, panelists discussed barriers to conservation associated with Prop 218, unmetered rental apartments, the lifting of state water restrictions, and the challenges of community outreach, especially to low-income groups.

Last November, water was the top issue on Californians’ minds – surveys showed we were thinking about water even more than the economy!  Today, especially after the Governor’s repeal of mandates to conserve, a much smaller group of us are still having these conversations.  In these three events, we discussed how to plan for a drier future climate by conserving water through infrastructure improvements, policy changes, and community outreach – and the importance of doing so in an equitable manner!