Less water might be plenty for California, experts say, and conservation is only the start


Across California this summer, residents have been racking up water conservation numbers that defy expectations — a 27% reduction in June, followed by 31.3% in July. Perhaps more impressive than the percentage figures, however, is the actual volume of water saved over two months: 414,800 acre-feet.

That's a lot of water — more than twice the amount projected to be available annually from two proposed storage facilities that would cost a combined $3.5 billion to build: the Temperance Flat Dam on the San Joaquin River and an expansion of Shasta Dam.

The conservation performance raises a host of possibilities, and profound questions, for water policy analysts and managers as they contemplate California's hydrological future in an era of climate change and increased competition for an essential natural resource.

Some experts see an approach following the lead of the energy sector in California.

In the last quarter century or so, a "soft path" to energy reliability — one built on conservation, innovation and mutual incentives for buyers and sellers alike — has replaced the brute strategy of building all the generation plants needed to power all of the state all of the time.

Advocates for a comparable approach regarding water envision a mix of heightened consumer awareness, especially when it comes to landscaping options, as well as increased efficiencies in homes, industry and agriculture.

They also point to better reuse of water through groundwater reclamation, recycling and rainwater capture, and a reformulation of a financial model so that water agencies are not forced to charge more when their customers use less.

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Chris Alexakiswater