All Californian’s know that water is an issue for our state. The question is what to do about it, how fast, and who’s responsible for taking action. As with all complex questions (as conservation issues always are) the answers are also complex, encompassing both-and scenarios instead of either-ors. It’s easy to get caught up in of-the-moment debates about whether draught is, in fact, “the new normal”, what part global climate change has played in the current water crisis, and whether it’s urban municipalities or Central Valley farmers who should be forced to conserve.

Acknowledging the real impacts of these questions, the picture of water in California becomes both clearer and more urgent when we take a large-scale, long term view. NASA’s GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) mission, quite literally, gives us this view, exposing a surprising level of depletion in groundwater in the Western U.S. Dennis Dimick of National Geographic reported on the alarming (if previously invisible) rate of groundwater depletion a year ago. He puts the problem this way:

“We are not as adept when threats—or threatened resources—are invisible. Some of us have trouble realizing why invisible carbon emissions are changing the chemistry of the atmosphere and warming the planet. Because the surface of the sea is all we see, it’s difficult to understand that we already have taken most of the large fish from the ocean, diminishing a major source of food. Neither of these crises are visible—they are largely out of sight, out of mind—so it’s difficult to get excited and respond. Disappearing groundwater is another out-of-sight crisis.”

While the long term issue of a drying West can be hard to see above ground, California’s are well aware of Drought’s current manifestations. This summer’s wildfires have burned 134,000 acres and counting, according to CNN and Governor Jerry Brown mandated 25% reductions for urban water agencies across the state. Despite the fact that urban water consumption accounts for only about 10% of statewide usage, the mandate seems to be working. A recent press release from The California Water Board states that municipalities had cut water use by 27% this summer in spite of having experienced the hottest June on record.

As evidenced by these statistics, Californian’s want to save water. In spite of the large scale of this crisis, the “invisibility” of depleting aquifers, and broad questions about how water should be allocated to Central Valley agriculture vs. the vast ecosystem resource that the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta represents, water conservation can be visibly achieved one household at a time. Even the most avid Climate Change activists can’t see the emissions coming from their car tailpipe, let alone those garnered through electricity and other energy use. We can, however, turn off the running faucet, take shorter showers and even collect extra water from said showers to flush the toilet. Mundane as these activities may seem, they are concrete actions we all can take. And as lawns across the state fade from irrigated green to gold, we can actually see a new relationship with water developing in our region.

Whether it’s the drought of the past few years, the long term effects of a changing climate that makes for warmer winters with more rain and less snow-pack, or the depletion of aquifers, these factors, combined with California’s ever growing population, mean that water scarcity is part of our future. Let New Jersey keep its lawns. Cutting-edge California has always been ready to adapt to new ways of life. Up with graywater usage! Up with Xeriscapes! Who cares about whether this is the “new normal”. Raising awareness about the precious resource of water is a reality. Water is California’s liquid gold, a precious resources that should be handled as such.

For further reading and viewing, check out these great resources.

Save Our Water The California Lifestyle

#DrylandsCA a blog from the LA Times


Water in the West – Understanding California’s Groundwater, a study by Stanford University

California Water Blog – UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences