Water conservation has become a way of life throughout the West with a growing recognition that the supply of water is not unlimited.
Drought is the most common motivator of increased water conservation but the gradual drying of the West as a result of climate change means the amount of fresh water available for drinking, irrigation, industry and other uses must be used as efficiently as possible.
As the demand for water increases, officials recognize that greater progress is needed in water conservation as a critical part of the overall strategy for managing water resources efficiently. Conservation measures once thought unnecessary now are considered essential for meeting future water demand. Cities, for instance, use about the same amount of applied water today as they did decades ago but are still able to accommodate population growth.
A variety of forces have shaped this conservation ethic.
Higher water rates brought on by past droughts have encouraged more efficient water use practices by urban and industrial users. Wide fluctuations in water deliveries and water availability to agricultural customers have forced farmers to find new ways to manage their supplies.
Projected population increases for urban areas mean stretching every drop of water. New laws and regulations have been enacted at both the federal and state levels mandating conservation plumbing and appliance standards.
Environmental concerns have encouraged conservation as a means of making more water available to support fish and wildlife and their habitats.
Urban water agencies are also realizing the economic benefits of water conservation. Water can be procured through conservation at a much lower cost per acre-foot than purchasing that same water in the marketplace. And conserving now can mean delaying into the future costly new expansion facilities for both drinking water supply and wastewater treatment—and that delay means millions of dollars in savings.
The California Department of Water Resources’ 2018 Water Plan Update projects an increase in urban water demand of as much as 7 million acre-feet per year by 2050, depending on population growth. During the same period, agricultural water demand is expected to decrease by 2 to 6 million acre-feet.
At the same time, improving conservation and water-use efficiency, along with shifts in agriculture to permanent crops like nuts, will make it more difficult to reduce water use during droughts and periods of low supply, also known as “demand hardening,” according to the water plan update.
For homeowners, water conservation means understanding landscape and household water needs and making sure those systems operate as efficiently as possible. That might mean replacing thirsty lawns with more drought-tolerant landscaping.
For businesses, it means assessing the water needs of industrial processes and looking for ways to reduce water use. For farmers, it means understanding the water needs of the crops they’ve chosen to cultivate and using irrigation practices that meet those needs effectively.
Although no one is sure how big a role water conservation will play in the future, water-saving practices will be important in both drought and non-drought years.
As the West confronts drier and warmer conditions, accelerating the rate of water conservation assumes a greater mantel of importance to ensure water supply sustainability.
There are ongoing discussions regarding whether new storage capacity is needed to boost the state’s water system. And water districts have undertaken alternative ways to meet growing water demands, such as water marketing and water transfers, urban water conservation programs and increased reliance on groundwater banking and conjunctive use.
Technology such as variable-speed pumps and smart meters are also helping, researchers say. Farmers counter that there is still a need for more water storage and infrastructure.
Through the years, the Legislature has promoted water use efficiency through measures that required the installation of high-efficiency indoor plumbing appliances, provided financial incentives to utilities that implemented best management practices and spurred regulations for water efficiency and conservation standards for new residential and non-residential buildings.
Californians have collectively responded to the message of smart water use by exceeding goals for reduced per capita use.
Two laws enacted in 2018 set permanent overall targets for indoor and outdoor water consumption. The laws give California’s 400-plus urban retail water suppliers more flexibility than the strict cuts mandated during the 2012 to 2016 drought and allow state regulators to assess thousands of dollars in fines against jurisdictions that do not meet the goals.
The laws set an initial limit for indoor water use of 55 gallons per person a day in 2022, with the level gradually dropping to 50 gallons per person by 2030.
During the 2022 drought, the State Water Resources Control Board (water board) adopted emergency drought regulations that banned the use of drinking water to irrigate decorative grass outside most businesses and institutions, along streets, and in most common areas of homeowners associations.
Assembly Bill 1572, passed by the state Legislature in 2023, would make the water-saving measure permanent. Gov. Gavin Newsom was expected to sign the bill into law.
Also, in August 2023, the state water board released a proposed regulation implementing the 2018 water conservation legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.