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Green Building News

Drought Forces Tough Choices in the West

A severe water shortage prompts more stringent regulations, and encourages a range of conservation strategies

The drought is worsening. California and other western states are coping with a severe drought that has local and state officials pushing a variety of conservation measures. This dry lakebed was photographed near San Luis Obispo, California.
Image Credit: Tim McCabe / U.S. Department of Agriculture

In California and other parts of the West, a prolonged drought is severely taxing water supplies and prompting state and local governments to push for strict conservation. Water conservation has been a longstanding part of the green-building credo, but until fairly recently was more of an option than a necessity.

In February, University of California professor B. Lynn Ingram told The New York Times that the state was on track for having the worst drought in 500 years. Total rainfall in Los Angeles between July 1, 2012 and June 30, 2014 was less than 12 inches, the driest such period on record. (Compare that to parts of the East: Portland, Maine, got 6.4 inches of rain in a single day in August, more than fell on Los Angeles in the most recent July-to-June period.)

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in January and urged a drop in water consumption of 20%. The State Water Resources Board set a $500 fine for wasting water.

Old measures still work, but new ideas are being tried

Water shortages are affecting the region in many ways. In some areas, drinking water supplies are dangerously low. Farmers are hiring well-drillers to tap new groundwater supplies, prompting alarmed state lawmakers to impose new controls. Air quality is declining in the Los Angeles basin. Water levels in Lake Mead are plummeting, threatening drinking water supplies for Las Vegas and turning marinas into parched prairies.

All the conventional water-saving strategies still apply: low-flow shower heads and faucets, hot-water circulation that eliminates the wait for hot water, low-flow or composting toilets, and more efficient appliances. Western communities also are responding by instituting a number of other conservation measures, everything from better water meters to incentives for people who tear out their lawns. Here’s a look at what’s being done.

Limiting how much water is used for landscaping

In the Coachella Valley, California, region east of Los Angeles, The Desert Sun reports, new housing developments must include drought-tolerant landscaping and irrigation systems that reduce water consumption.

Landscaping is a major consumer of water. The Sun reports that overall water use averages 700 gallons per person per day, two thirds of which is used outdoors. Eliminating a single square foot of grass in favor of desert landscaping saves between 50 and 60 gallons of water.

KB Home, a Los Angeles-based developer, last year built a house in Lancaster that uses recycled drain water from sinks and showers to water plants outside. The system can save 150,000 gallons of water per year over a more typical home, the newspaper said.

As early as 2009, the Coachella Valley Water Efficient Landscape ordinance imposed a number of rules aimed at limiting water use, including guidelines for desert plants, water-saving irrigation systems, and even turf on new golf courses. Officials said the ordinance was 29% more efficient than state rules passed in 2006.

A number of cities, including Palm Springs, offer financial assistance to homeowners and homeowner associations to replace grass with drought-tolerant landscaping. In Palm Springs, a total of 52,500 square feet of grass has been removed since 2011, saving roughly 2.9 million gallons of water, The Sun said. Los Angeles has paid homeowners more than $1 million since 2009 to get rid of their lawns, and in Austin, Texas, police are on the lookout for anyone running lawn sprinklers before sunset. The fine is $475.

In Las Vegas, where turf replacement programs have been in place for a number of years, the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s Water Smart Landscape Rebate gives customers $1.50 for every square foot of grass that’s replaced with desert landscaping, up to 5,000 square feet per property per year.

New pricing strategies can lower water use

In the San Francisco Bay Area, an organization known as SPUR (originally the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association) earlier this year listed a number of steps that cut water use, including subsidized home audits, rebates for efficient appliances and plumbing fixtures, landscaping that uses less water, and lawn-removal incentives.

Among the programs that SPUR’s report highlighted was tiered water pricing. “The price of water can create a strong incentive to conserve, and pricing water consumption through tiers can be one of the most effective ways to reduce demand,” the report said.

In a tiered system, customers pay one rate for an initial amount of water. If they exceed that limit, they pay a higher rate and, depending on the particulars of the system, may run into further rate hikes the more water they use. Tiered rate structures leave decisions of how much water to use in the hands of consumers, but also give them a financial incentive to use less.

SPUR said that a similar approach, called water budgeting, assigns a water limit to a household based on such factors as the number of people living in the house or the size of the yard and type of vegetation. If the household goes over its budget, it pays higher rates. Water budgets, however, are complicated, which has limited the number of communities putting them in place.

Another policy strategy, SPUR says, is to “decouple” utility sales from overall profits. Under conventional pricing structures, when customers use less water, the utility earns less money, a disincentive to encourage conservation (this is exactly the same situation many electric utilities have found themselves in as more homeowners install photovoltaic (PV) panels on their roofs).

With decoupling, however, a private utility is reimbursed for lost revenue if it does not reach sales goals, SPUR says, but must all return excess revenues to its clients if it goes over its goals. This approach, which was first adopted by private California water utilities in 2008, still allows a utility to earn a “modest” profit for investors.

Better water meters and improved software also help

SPUR’s report details two other approaches that have been used with success in parts of the state. One of them is a device that allows customers to get accurate real-time information on how much water they’re using without expensive plumbing upgrades or meter replacement. The gizmo, called The Barnacle, attaches to an existing water meter. It captures data in 10-second intervals and transmits the data via a cellular network.

SPUR said that the device is useful in old buildings where installing new meters would cost too much money. According to the developer, the device has cut water consumption by as much as 26% in pilot studies.

A device called Unmeasured-Flow Reducer is designed to measure water flows too small for ordinary meters to detect.

Getting better information into the hands of water users is the idea behind software called WaterSmart. Customers get access to reports on consumption as well as recommendations for saving water via a web portal. WaterSmart has been adopted by the East Bay Municipal Utility district and the city of Palo Alto.

Water trucks for the wealthy

“The very rich,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “are different from you and me,” and that apparently holds true even in a severe drought.

As Ann Louise Bardach reports at Politico, California’s wealthiest neighborhoods are managing to stay lush even while most of the state goes dry.

In Montecito, an upscale community near Santa Barbara, well-heeled residents like Oprah Winfrey pay to have water brought in on 5,000-gallon tankers. “These days, tankers can be seen barreling down Montecito’s narrow country roads day and night, ferrying up to 5,000 gallons of H20 to some of the world’s richest and thirstiest folks,” Bardach writes.

This follows the start of water rationing in February — no new homes, no new swimming pools, and no refilling of existing pools with town water. The town has cut its water consumption by a whopping 48%, but some residents are paying hefty fines for using too much water, and others are bringing in the trucks.

There’s one other unconventional solution to lawns that turn brown from a lack of water: hire a painter. As The National Journal reports, business is brisk for lawn painters who apply a coat of paint to make lawns look lush again. The treatment is said to be effective for as long as six months.


  1. user-3549882 | | #1

    Water Saving, Supply and Demand

    I'm from California. It'll always be a part of me.

    Thanks for the updates on saving water. It's also been in the TV news. Drought is no fun. It hasn't been that long ago that Georgia had a drought. It's different out West, however. The only reason the southern part of California EVER gets enough water is because of an elaborate aqueduct system that brings water in from hundreds of miles away. When sever drought hits, the agriculture of the State suffers and this hurts us all. For the locals, it's no fun to accumulate multiple uses of a toilet before it can be flushed. Having insufficient water takes us back over a hundred years in development and reminds us how dear good water is and how much it is often taken for granted.

    Most of the reporting on these problems deals with the demand side. Curtailing usage in every venue is a quick way to buy time until relief arrives. But, what if relief doesn't arrive? There are options on the supply side but they take time to implement. I don't see as much visibility for sourcing more water except to hear of more and deeper wells into an aquifer that has its limits. I'm aware that L.A. County has for many years been recycling treated waste water to the aquifer through selected ground filtering basins. The big resource is the ocean via desalinization. That takes $, construction time, and political will. I believe there is an installation north of San Diego. California isn't the only dog in the hunt for water. All Colorado river basin States would dearly like to claim more volume from that singular source.

    Thanks for providing some visibility on these matters. (I'm a little curious and worried about where those water trucks are tanking up. How far from Santa Barbara do you think you'd have to go to buy water from a region that has so much they wouldn't miss it? It's beginning to remind me of some old Hoot Gibson movies.)

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Drought in the west
    There are many facets to this problem. One is the hubris of the dam builders of the 1930s, who made long-term predictions based on a few decades of unusually high rainfall.

    Another facet to this problem is climate change.

    If the climate change scientists are right, the solution to this problem will eventually be migration.

  3. wjrobinson | | #3

    700 gallons per day
    700/day for 91 days

    60,000 plus gallons per quarter, here we charge
    $64 for the first 11,000 gallons and then more...

    I use less than 11,000 per quarter.... if I used 60,000 gallons my bill would be hundreds of dollars per quarter, thousands per year.

    2/3rds of 700 for irrigation

    Irrigating a desert is definitely the problem

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