In the aftermath of record-breaking drought and faced with crippling water shortages, cities, companies and citizens are joining forces in California to protect supplies.
The American state of California, located on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, is a thriving region known for culture, technology and agriculture. It houses Silicon Valley and Hollywood and its economy - and its carbon emissions - matches that of many sovereign nations.
In recent years, California has become an epicentre for climate change impacts in the US. From 2012 to 2014, low rainfall and unusually high-temperatures brought about the state’s worst drought in 1,200 years, which led to severe water stress, losses in agricultural produce and economic losses to the tune of US$2 billion in 2014 alone and wildfires that blew through the fire services budget and further hit the agricultural sector.
In January 2014, Governor Jerry Brown declared a State of Emergency in California.
In the wake of continued drought, an Executive Order by the State of California called for a 25% reduction in portable urban water usage to relieve pressure on dwindling water resources.
With water stress expected to increase in the years to come, due to climate change and population growth, the cities of California have joined forces with the business community to conserve water and build resilience. No one body is fully in charge of water governance at the water basin level; working together is crucial.
A collaborative approach
Californian cities are responding to increased water stress in a number of creative ways:
- Long Beach introduced a ‘Lawn to Garden’ rebate, offering US$3.50 per square foot of front lawn replaced with drought tolerant landscaping;
- In Benicia, residents are challenged to take an online water conservation pledge;
- San Diego is aiming to reduce daily water use per person by four gallons by 2020 and nine by 2035 and is using water purification technology to enable to use of rainwater and greywater; and
- San Francisco has also redoubled its efforts to investigate how much water can be supplied with using purification systems.
Large companies are also getting in on the action:
- Bank of America uses drought-tolerant landscaping at six financial centres, saving 4.8 million of gallons of water;
- Eli Lilly & Co. worked with the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) and Kaiser Permanente to develop a supply chain water risk analysis framework; and
- Holiday Inn Diamond Bar in California has reduced water use by 16% since installing 186 water efficient toilets.
And through working together with companies, cities have been able to go even further. For example, between April and August 2015, the city of Benicia worked with a leak detection contractor, Utility Services Association to search for water leaks on 125 miles of pipeline throughout the city. They found 49 water leaks and were able to repair the 41 leaks on public city pipes by February 2016.
But company and city action will only go so far without citizen engagement and many Californian cities are also looking to engage their local populations. Benicia, for example, took a very citizen-inclusive and democratic approach to water governance, using public meetings, direct mail and online pledges to engage communities. Coupled with Benicia’s other actions this approach saw Benicia’s water use reduced by 46% by December 2015 compared to 2013 with residents using record low 43 gallons per person per day.
California’s response to the record-breaking drought has built up the state’s resilience to water stress, and has raised awareness of the risks and solutions. As climate change advances, we will see more frequent and more severe droughts and other water risks. The lessons of California show that water resilience can be achieved only by regional cities, companies and citizens working together with shared goals within a holistic strategy.
Updated September 2017.