8 Cost-Cutting Lessons from California’s Drought Crisis

No matter where you live, the California drought affects you, and it also provides some practical tips on saving water — and money.


Are you ready to drink recycled water from your faucet? You may find that idea hard to swallow, but it is being floated anew as water-saving lessons from California’s drought catch on around the country.

Even the tornado-ravaged Midlands and rain-soaked Southeast will feel the effects of a four-year dry spell spreading across the West and spurring discussions about how best to preserve dwindling supplies of drinkable water.

Solutions that communities and individuals use may save us water and money, even if we don’t live in an area experiencing drought.

How dry is it?

California on May 5 approved its first mandatory, emergency drought regulations to meet Gov. Jerry Brown’s order to curb urban water use by 25 percent.

The cuts are necessary, officials say, because the state is running out of fresh water to drink, to raise crops and livestock, and to sustain the environment. And California is not alone.

Snowpack in mountains across the West, where the majority of seasonal water supply originates, is pretty much melted, reports the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, which created an interactive map comparing current conditions with historic records.

U.S. Drought MonitorThe U.S. Drought Monitor is produced in partnership between the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Across most of the West, snowpack isn’t just low – it’s gone,” NRCS Hydrologist David Garen said. “With some exceptions, this year’s snowmelt streamflow has already occurred.” That means little runoff into major rivers like the Colorado, which alone supplies water to 33 million people across Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Mexico. Mountains are bare across the Cascades and Sierra Nevada, where usually packed ski resorts couldn’t even open this year.

Exceptionally parched is California, whose 80,500 farm and ranches grow more than a third of the nation’s vegetables and nearly two-thirds of its fruits and nuts. More agricultural land may lie fallow this year as farmers say they are cutting back plantings of cotton, corn, oats, barley, wheat, rice and sunflowers.

The drought helped push beef and veal prices up 12.1 percent last year; fruits and vegetables, up to 25 percent, the USDA said in a CNN report. Further increases are expected this year.

Water once was said to flow uphill toward money in California, but now money across the country flows toward water projects.

So what water-saving measures can you expect to see?

1. ‘Toilet-to-tap’ purification

Orange County, California, recently expanded its “toilet-to-tap” water purification system, the world’s largest. The $623 million Groundwater Replenishment System takes wastewater and runs it through a three-step advanced treatment process consisting of microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet light with hydrogen peroxide.

The water is ready to drink, but its yuck factor helps keep it from going directly to taps, where much of it eventually ends up anyway. About 35 million gallons of treated water a day is pumped into injection wells to keep salty seawater at bay, operators say. Another 35 million gallons is pumped into underground basins providing approximately 60 percent of the potable water supply for 2.4 million residents of north and central Orange County, home of Disneyland.

Other cities, including municipalities in thirsty Texas, pipe treated wastewater into drinking supplies.

While many states still prohibit drinking treated sewage, more are expected to give it a try.

2. Use your grey water

Grey water is gently used water from your bathroom sinks, showers, tubs and washing machines, explains Greywater Action. The group recommends simple ways to pipe water to your yard.

Although it may contain traces of dirt, food, grease, hair and household cleaning products, the dirty looking liquid is safe in your yard but a pollutant in rivers, lakes or estuaries.

The initial cost of installing a grey water reuse system in a new home ranges from $500 to $2,500, depending on local code requirements, says the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

3. Fill ‘er up – with wastewater

Waste treatment plants commonly pipe treated water to large customers such as golf courses and municipal parks. But about 500 do-it-yourselfers toted empty milk jugs, tubs, buckets and water tanks to a Pleasanton, California, treatment plant, where in 2014 they picked up 2.3 million gallons of free recycled sewer water to irrigate their yards and vegetable gardens, fill decorative fountains, wash off horses and control dust at stables, local media reported. Sewer district staffers came up with the fill station idea so residents in dry areas wouldn’t run askance of conservation rules.

You can check with your local municipal wastewater agency to see if it allows individuals to obtain treated sewage.

4. Rip out the lawn

The average American household uses 320 gallons of water per day, nearly a third for outdoors, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates. As much as 50 percent of water used for irrigation is wasted through evaporation, wind or runoff, it says.

Many water providers are urging customers to replace water-sucking lawns with water-friendly gardens using sustainable materials and techniques. The West Basin Municipal Water District in Carson, California, for example, offers a free class May 21 on what’s involved, including turf removal, native plants and edibles, water-efficient irrigation devices, rainwater capture, permeable materials and water retention to reduce runoff and pollution. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s “Save the Drop” water conservation program included a $3.75-per-square-foot rebate for lawn replacement.

Sustainable landscaping can save you money on utility expenses and reduce the amount of maintenance required for your yard. The EPA offers listings of native or regionally appropriate plants.

5. Water-smart remodels

Composting toilets and grey water recycling systems are gaining renewed attention, according to a Money Talks News partner site ImprovementCenter.com. Toilets that integrate a sink into the design conserve water by saving and reusing the grey water from the sink to fill the toilet bowl for a flush. Composting and dry toilets use natural processes to turn human feces into “a valuable soil amendment,” Greywater Action says.

6. Scrubbing salts

In California, the Carlsbad Desalination Project, a $1 billion plant near San Diego, is under construction and scheduled to deliver 50 million gallons a day of treated seawater from the Pacific Ocean beginning in November, Reuters reports.

In Texas, nearly 100 desalination plants produce 138 million gallons of water from the “inexhaustible” Gulf of Mexico, says the trade group Texas Desalination Association. The Texas Legislature is considering a bill to streamline the process for opening new plants.

“This bill is not intended to hinder efforts to conserve or develop other surface water supplies,” says bill sponsor Rep. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville. “It is intended to explore and expedite the development of all this state’s water resources.”

Tampa Bay, Florida, hosts a $158 million desalination plant, the nation’s largest, which produces 25 million gallons of drinking water per day, which reduces growing demand on the area aquifers by providing 10 percent of the region’s drinking water supply.

The pace of constructing desalination plants has picked up, with more than 324 U.S. plants built since 1971, says the International Desalination Association. So if you’re near a coastline, one may be your neighbor soon if not already.

bottled water photo

7. Reconsider bottled water

Your bottled water — a questionable expense considering you can pour your own — is under fire in California.

  • Crystal Geyser Water Co. plans to open a bottling plant at the foot of Mount Shasta to tap up to 365,000 gallons a day from groundwater in Northern California’s Siskiyou County, a use allowed despite drought restrictions and infuriating to local residents.
  • Starbucks, citing “serious drought conditions and necessary water conservation efforts in California,” said it would move sourcing and manufacturing of its Ethos Water to a Pennsylvania supplier.
  • Nestle, which operates five California bottling facilities using 705 million gallons of water per year, defends its California operations. “This is roughly equal to the annual average watering needs of two California golf courses,” Tim Brown, chairman, president and CEO of Nestlé Waters North America, wrote in a San Bernardino Sun op-ed. “Bottled water is not a contributing factor to the drought.”

In fact, claims the International Bottled Water Association, bottled water accounts for less than 0.01 percent of all U.S. water use annually and only 0.02 percent of all the water used in California every year. In 2014, total annual U.S. bottled water consumption was 10.9 billion gallons, the association claims. “Los Angeles goes through that amount of tap water in a little over three weeks,” it says.

Still, you might consider getting your own reusable water bottle and refilling it from your own tap to save money.

8. Rein in the rain

Rain barrels and other collection systems can catch rain and store it between storms so you can use it for irrigation. “A lot of times we can get six to eight inches of rain in one weekend and then don’t have another rain event for weeks,” Kim Counts Morganello, a Clemson Extension water resources agent, told the Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina. She recommends practices such as drip irrigation, mulching, composting, rain gardens and building native vegetative buffers along shorelines.

The California drought should get people in South Carolina — and everywhere — thinking about how to avoid a possible future crisis, Morganello said.

Do you have additional water- and money-saving tips? Share them in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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