As historic drought ends, Californians vow to retain water-saving habits

California Gov. Jerry Brown announced the end of the state's six-year drought earlier this month, but Golden State residents say they have no plans to return to their wasteful ways.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
In this April 3, 2017 photo, snow covers the Sierra Nevadas behind the PG&E hydroelectric dam at Spaulding Lake in Nevada County, Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown declared an end to California's historic drought earlier this month, lifting emergency orders that had forced residents to stop running sprinklers as often and encouraged them to rip out thirsty lawns during the state's driest four-year period on record.

Cooper Olson was relieved when he first heard that California Gov. Jerry Brown had declared the end of the state’s drought this month. Drought has marked six of the 15 years he’s lived in the state, he says, and it was uplifting to know that the recent rains had restored life to the parched lawns and dusty hillsides.

But Mr. Olson, a creative director at a Los Angeles advertising agency, has no illusions about the new situation. He plans to keep the habits he picked up during the drought, he says.

“It would be too bad if people took [the governor’s announcement] as permission to just run their faucets all day or wash their cars every day,” Olson says. “There’s no way of knowing that we’re not at the beginning of another six-year streak.”

His concerns are well-founded: In 2015, 39 percent of Californians named water as the state’s most important issue, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. The figure dropped to 8 percent in March, with interest shifting to flood management and infrastructure. The torrential rains that began the year appear to have washed away Californians’ drought worries, says Mark Baldassare, the institute’s president and chief executive.

“A year ago, I was saying that the drought had gone on for so long by recent historical standards that it was going to have a lasting impact on the way people thought about water conservation,” he says. “But because we’ve had such a dramatic turn, it’s suddenly hard for people to hear policymakers and leaders say we have to be ready for the next drought.”

Interviews with residents up and down the state, however, add some nuance to the picture.

Drought may no longer top Californians' concerns, but many say they plan on saving water. Their stories suggest that consistent messaging coupled with firsthand experience can prompt people to see water conservation as a long-term practice, not just a crisis response.

“We lifted the toughest mandatory standards a year ago, and folks are still saving a lot,” says Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board.

“We’re moving from an era in which we thought about water as a single-use product – something plentiful, something we can take for granted, particularly in an urban context,” she adds. “It’s really a shift to thinking about how we can be most reasonably efficient with how we use water.”

'A form of pragmatism'

For residents who have always been conscious of their ecological footprint, the drought affirmed the need for eco-friendly habits.

Michael Skrzypek – who considers himself the hardcore environmentalist in his family – encouraged his wife and 7-year-old daughter to recycle graywater from their showers to use on their plants. The family replaced the lawn of their San Francisco home with rocks.

“I feel like it’s a form of pragmatism,” he says. “It just sort of makes sense that on a planet with limited resources, you want to conserve as much as possible and not waste them.”

Taylor Herren, a graduate student in agriculture and environmental policy at Chico State University, says her field of study compels her to think about water issues at the systems level. But she also used the drought as a chance to change her personal habits. She stopped washing her car and watering her lawn. She took shorter showers, did less laundry, and tried to buy food produced through water-efficient methods.

“Even though I feel your personal use at an individual level has a nonexistent impact on the drought in California, it still has to be about people buying in,” Ms. Herren says. “And the greatest way to bring other people in on something … is to model and commit to it in your own life.”

It’s no surprise that the environmentally minded intend to stick to their low-water lifestyles. But even some who don’t see themselves as especially eco-conscious have come out of the drought convinced that California will need to conserve for years to come.

“When I was in my 20s, I didn’t think about whether or not the reservoirs were filled or if we had water table reserves,” says Peggy Owens, a government worker who lives outside of San Jose. Since the drought, she’s stopped using the dishwasher and has been running bigger laundry loads. “I’m very conscious of water usage now,” she says. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to start seriously rationing water.”

Nancy Betz of Modesto was less than pleased when the city restricted residential water use to two days a week per home. She was even less amused when city police started enforcing the rules.

Still, Mrs. Betz – a retired schoolteacher and active member of the local garden club – says she thinks the drought's end doesn’t mean people should feel free to use water like it won’t run out.

“[Water] was so plentiful for so long that people got in the habit of washing their cars and letting the water run down the driveway and into the gutter. I don’t think that should happen again,” she says. “There should be conservation. But I think it should be reasonable.”

A new framework

The notion of reasonable conservation is at the heart of the state’s post-drought water plan. In a report released this month, state agencies laid out a framework for long-term conservation that takes into account California’s diverse landscape, climate, and demographics.

The plan was prompted by an executive order Governor Brown issued last May, and it builds on the statewide response to emergency conservation measures enacted during the drought. In the 12 months that the state mandated a 25-percent reduction in water use, Californians cut back by 24 percent. Even after the measures were lifted a year ago, cumulative savings remained above 20 percent, the state reports.

The framework recommends permanently banning wasteful practices such as watering lawns after rains and requiring water suppliers across the state to regularly report their water usage and conservation efforts.

The idea, Ms. Marcus says, is to set state standards while letting local agencies decide on a reasonable way for their communities to hit those targets. “Folks want to conserve but they want it to be fair,” she says. “What this is about is how to be more efficient moving forward, so we’re more resilient in the face of climate change.”

Some doubt that residents will keep conserving water, especially as rains flood parts of northern California and reveal extensive damage to the state’s water infrastructure.

“Your average person doesn’t think very frequently about water,” says Heather Stratman, the chief executive officer of the Association of California Cities, Orange County, and a water policy expert. “It takes time to get people to behave in more conservative ways. I don’t think you can just flip the light switch on and off for them.”

But residents and policymakers alike remain optimistic. Once formed, Marcus says, habits are hard to break.

“There were so many stories about drought and climate change that we have much greater water literacy,” she says. “We don’t just unlearn those things.”

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