California State University, Long Beach
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Drought Awareness Finally Hits Home

Published: October 1, 2015

Geography’s Suzanne Dallman found herself comparing droughts during her 2014 sabbatical.

An expert in water resource management and a past commissioner for the Long Beach Board of Water Commissioners traveled to Queensland, Australia, to study how water use down under was shrinking just in time for her home state of California to declare its own drought.

“It reminded me how important it is to plan ahead,” said Dallman, who joined the university in 2007. What she found in Australia was a land where seven-minute showers were trimmed to four minutes, where low-flow toilets, new washing machines and rainwater tanks were suddenly fashionable and where residents found they could cut back use 60 percent in a matter of months.

“In Australia, they waited until they had been in a drought for four to five years before they started making massive changes,” she said. “Here we started earlier but people simply did not take it seriously.”

The big differences in conservation efforts between the countries was public awareness.

“In Queensland, the government implemented a widespread PR campaign to raise public awareness about the crisis, they distributed shower timers, gave rebates for water-efficient appliances, and talked about reservoir levels in the media on a daily basis,” she explained. “At that point, reservoirs that served cities like Brisbane were down to 17 percent capacity. Australians began to understand this was a serious crisis, and it was up to them to step up and do their part. And when people got on board, they cut water use tremendously.”

California is big, diverse and independent state that has not coordinated its drought response efforts well enough, according to Dallman.

“The state has issued mandatory cutbacks, but left it to the local jurisdictions to determine how to comply,” she said. “Some cities offer payments for replacing grass with drought-tolerant plants, up to three or four dollars per square foot of grass removed, and most cities have restrictions on when and how much people can water their landscaping but enforcement is a challenge. Long Beach has had these policies in place since 2010, but they are still not well coordinated statewide.

“Water is still not valued properly,” she added. “People figure that if they’re willing to pay for it, they should be able to use as much water as they want. Others argue that agriculture uses most of the water in the state, so why should city dwellers be forced to cut back?”

Dallman finds her experience as a member of the Long Beach Board of Water Commissioners from 2008-13 has been useful to her research.

“A lot of people argue that water is still too cheap in California and urge raising water rates. But under California law, you cannot charge more for water than the cost of the service,” she said. “Why not just raise the costs of water for the biggest users? One of the water agencies did that, was challenged in court, and lost. Until we change state law, we can’t do a lot about pricing.”

It has also been argued that apartment dwellers do not save water because building meters measure everyone’s water use, thus residents don’t know how much they use. San Diego and Long Beach, she said, have ordinances that require all new apartment buildings to have separate meters for individual units. But several efforts to do that at the state level have met a lot of resistance.

One resource not yet tapped to its potential is storm water. Dallman is developing a cost benefit analysis with faculty at other CSU campuses on the value of rainwater collection.

Suzanne Dallman

“We could do a lot more as a state to promote rainwater capture,” she said. “In our research, we are investigating the cost-effectiveness of rain barrels of various sizes, which could replace a portion of the municipal water used to irrigate homeowners’ property. How much water and energy could be saved? Even with our variable climate, we think it could be a significant amount. In our Ballona Creek case study, savings are equivalent to the amount of imported water needed to supply 10-20 thousand Angelenos each year. Los Angeles County has been capturing storm water runoff to recharge the ground water basin for decades. But there is a limit. To build facilities large enough to capture the runoff from the largest storms is not cost effective. Urban residents and other property owners could reduce rainwater runoff by making their property more permeable to allow the ground to absorb water, or by directing runoff into their landscaping instead of to the street. As it is, only about 40 percent of water used in this region comes from ground water–the rest is imported from outside the region–so every little bit helps.”

Conservation needs to happen in the minds of Californians before it happens at the faucet, Dallman argues.

“California’s climate always has been a matter of ‘boom and bust.’ We have cycles of wet years and dry years,” she said. “There is no guarantee that the predicted El Nino next winter will solve the current drought problem. And even if next year is wet, no one can guarantee the northern reservoirs will fill. The population in California will not stop growing. The amount of water we use will continue to rise. Desalinization is too expensive due to high energy costs, and the intakes tend to damage sea life. Santa Barbara just decided to invest $50 million to bring back their desalinization plant that they built in the 1980s but never used. Ratepayers will have to bear that cost in higher water rates, and most people don’t want their water bills to go up.”

Dallman’s research has changed her lifestyle. Her home is equipped with twin rain barrels and she had rain gutters put on the back of her home to direct the roof runoff into the barrels.

“I replaced the grass in my front yard five years ago with drought-tolerant plants and I haven’t watered the backyard lawn for a year,” she said. “I think water conservation has to be part of life, drought or no drought.”