Klaus Reichardt says California is leading the way for the United States in terms of water conservation.

California Turns Water into a Learning Opportunity

It was recently reported that California is using 31 percent less water today than it did in 2013. When you think about it, this milestone is actually part of a number of amazing developments in reducing the state's water consumption.

One of the benefits of getting older is that most people eventually realize that many of the challenges we face in life are actually learning experiences, if not out-and-out opportunities, in disguise. And this realization holds true not only for individuals, but also for groups of people, communities, and even states and countries. In fact, California is today facing a critical challenge in which crisis has led to action. The entire nation has the opportunity to learn by example and benefit from the methods California has used to address the problem set before them.

The issue at hand is water, or the lack thereof. California is now in the fourth year of one of the most serious droughts in recorded history. Other areas of the United States have already or are expected to experience water shortages in the not-so-distant future. But what is most remarkable, at least until this year, is how well the state has gone about its business during this drought with only marginal water restrictions in place. And this is true even though the state has nearly twice as many people, about 38 million citizens, compared to the last time it had a serious water shortage.

To understand what's happening and why California is likely to become our country's "water instructor," we have to go back about 40 years. In the late 1970s, California had a very significant drought that lasted a bit more than a year. This drought essentially upended everyone's lifestyle, including residents, businesses, farms, entire cities, and industries. Households of four people that normally used about 400 gallons of water per day were restricted to about 160 gallons. Special piping was installed under San Francisco Bay so that exceptionally water-short counties just north of San Francisco could provide their citizens with even this drastically reduced amount of water.

At that time, the state was ill-prepared to deal with all the industries that depended on water as part of business. In some cases, California's officials tried to look the other way and let businesses use as much water as they needed, trusting that in time they would cut back, while in other situations dramatic steps were implemented, sometimes shutting down a business and impacting entire industries.

By 1979, the drought was over and most of the state's citizens returned to their old water-using habits, giving little thought to how much water they used or for what purposes. But many manufacturers of water-using devices, as well as astute public officials, knew the state would have more droughts in the future, some more serious than those before. So manufacturers and state officials became water-conscious, some for the very first time. The result: water-using fixtures were developed to use water more efficiently.

It is important to know that water efficiency is not water conservation: Water efficiency refers to the long-term reduction of water consumption, not just when there is an emergency shortage.

Jump Ahead 40 Years
To see what has evolved in the past 40 years, much of it based on California's water experiences, we have to look no further than building restrooms. In the 1970s, there really was little, if any, consideration of how much water a toilet or urinal used. In fact, toilets and even urinals often used more than three gallons of water per flush. As a result of the 1970s drought in California and then again in the late 1980s and early 1990s, state and federal restrictions were instituted, requiring toilets to use no more than 1.6 gallons per flush and urinals about one and a half gallons for new construction.

Today, those regulations are essentially history—as a result of research and development in private industry and not the result of government intervention. High-efficiency toilets that use about 1.25 gallons of water per flush are now available from several manufacturers. Urinals require even less water per flush; while some manufacturers have introduced systems that use about a half gallon, no-water or waterless urinals appear to have been given the green light in more new construction jobs and building retrofits, specifically in California. This is likely due to four factors:

1. Starting in 2016, new urinals sold in the state can use only a pint or less of water per flush, down from a full or half gallon.
2. While these "pint" systems use less water, the costs to plumb and install them have remained the same, which is far more than the installation of a waterless urinal.
3. For reasons yet to be explained, urinal flush handles and flushing devices tend to be the victims of restroom vandalism more often than other fixtures.
4. Early odor issues with some no-water urinal systems, usually due to installation issues or poor maintenance, are now better understood and have been addressed.

The 'Water Instructor'
It was recently reported that California is using 31 percent less water today than it did in 2013. When you think about it, this milestone is actually part of a number of amazing developments in reducing the state's water consumption. Remember, in the 1970s, the state had 20 million people, while today it has closer to 40 million people and has withstood a drought as serious as the one in the 1970s with twice as many people.

While it has always been one of the agricultural and economic powerhouses in the country, today California is one of the largest agricultural and economic powerhouses in the world. Quite simply, the state needs water in order to maintain its economic leadership. While many of the products, such as high-efficiency restroom fixtures, are available everywhere, many communities are unsure of how to make the entire water efficiency process work; this is precisely where California can help guide the way.

California's Crippling Droughts
The most serious droughts in California on record occurred at the following times:

  • 1928-1935 (the Dust Bowl years)
  • 1976-1978
  • 1987-1993
  • 2011-2015
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