They've Seen Lots of Droughts, But This One's Different

BERKELEY, California—In the drought-plagued suburbs east of San Francisco Bay, John Baker watches his home’s water meter more closely than his TV.

Having lived through two other major droughts over the past four decades, the 67-year-old software engineer once again is doing everything he can think of to save water. Laundry is washed once every three weeks, water for daily tasks is meted out drip by drip, and the long, hot showers Baker used to love are now history. This regime has cut his family’s water use in the past year to fewer than 40 gallons per person each day, less than half of the state average.  (Read “5 Things You Should Know About California’s Water Crisis.”)

But as California’s four-years-and-counting dry spell wears on, Baker and other drought veterans say this one is unlike anything they have experienced before.

During the droughts of 1976-77 and 1987-1992, Californians were confident that the rains and snows—and their lifestyles—would return to normal. Now, heading into another arid summer, with cities facing unprecedented statewide water restrictions, they share a growing realization that things may never be “normal” again. (Read “If You Think the Water Crisis Can't Get Worse, Wait Until the Aquifers Are Drained.”)

“What’s different about this drought?” asks Baker. “A lot of things.” The severity and scope scare him more than past droughts, and the specter of climate change looms large. While the last protracted dry spell seemed manageable, this time, “we’re all wondering, is this the start of something much bigger?”

Many Californians now see water scarcity as the new reality, creating a water-miser culture that some say may be permanent.  This May, residential water use dropped 29 percent compared with May, 2013.

Los Angeles attorney Laura Vender sees the signs of change everywhere. During the last long drought, she recalls, people turned off sprinklers and drained pools—but quickly reverted to their usual ways after El Niño rains returned with vengeance in 1993. Now, some of these California icons are being permanently sacrificed to drought.

“People are just ripping up their lawns and putting down gravel. They’re saying ‘forget about it,’” Vender says. “It’s not a real attractive look. Kind of nouvelle San Quentin….Another thing they’re doing is painting their lawns green. Not a bad idea, I guess. But it’ll confuse your dog.”

An avid gardener, Vender has exchanged her own thirsty, calla lilies, and hydrangeas for low-water plants. All her neighbors in Los Angeles’ Hancock Park have dull, crispy lawns.

In Southern California, a Metropolitan Water District program offering rebates for turf removal has proved so popular its $100 million budget was depleted within a year. The budget has been expanded to $350 million—the largest such program in the nation—and is expected to pay for removing about 175 million square feet of water-guzzling lawns in its area serving 17 million people.

But while that ordeal was severe, Hart and her family always felt that if they took steps to conserve water, they would make it through. Now, she says, “There’s the idea that it’s going to keep going, that maybe we’re not going to be able to cut back as much as we need to… And then what’s going to happen?”

In fact, the effects on California will be far greater today than during previous droughts, says drought veteran Felicia Marcus. Chair of California’s Water Resources Control Board, Marcus was with at Los Angeles Department of Public Works during the drought in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. “It’s a much harsher and crowded and less-resilient situation than we had back then,” she says.

“It’s also worse precipitation-wise,” she adds. The Sierra snowpack, source of three-quarters of the state’s water supply, is nearly nil today, meaning there’s no runoff on the way for low reservoirs. “We’re just in a worse situation all around.”