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Pacific Institute Insights is the staff blog of the Pacific Institute, one of the world’s leading nonprofit research groups on sustainable and equitable management of natural resources. For more about what we do, click here.

  • California-toilet-savings-400x289

    National Geographic ScienceBlogs: Down the Drain: The Power and Potential of Improving Water Efficiency

    By Peter Gleick, President and Heather Cooley, Water Program Director

    July 9, 2015

    Debates about water in California, the western U.S., and indeed, worldwide, have traditionally focused on the question of how best to further expand water supply to meet some hypothetical future increase in water demand. And the solution frequently offered is to build massive new infrastructure in the form of dams and reservoirs, drill more groundwater wells, or expand water diversions from ever-more-distant rivers, in order to “grow” the supply available for human use.

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    New Data Show Residential Per Capita Water Use across California

    By Matthew Heberger, Senior Research Associate

    November 18, 2014

    New monthly water use data for California water utilities shows that residential water use varies widely around the state, and that the response to the drought has been uneven. Moreover, in some areas, residential use averages more than 500 gallons per person per day, indicating that we could be doing much more to save water.

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    What about Desalination during the Drought?

    by Amanda Pebler, Communications Intern

    August 13, 2014

    When discussing the current drought in California, there is often talk of desalination and its potential to increase our freshwater supply. Desalination, the process of removing salt and minerals from saline water, seems like an obvious solution to the drought and ongoing water scarcity concerns because it is a reliable, drought-proof water source. Indeed, fourteen new desalination plants have been proposed along the California coast and one is under development in Carlsbad. For many, this may seem like an answer to the “exceptional drought”. As consumers, it may also seem like a way to help us avoid making lifestyle changes, such as Governor Jerry Brown’s call for Californians to reduce their water use by 20 percent. But while desalination may be a reliable option, the answer is much more complicated.

    One of the greatest issues with desalination is the cost associated with these projects. A new plant may cost upwards of hundreds of millions of dollars to build (a billion in the case of the Carlsbad facility), plus considerable cost to run the plant.

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  • slow-the-flow

    Planning For Rain: Why Storm Water Management Matters during the Drought

    by Paula Luu, Communications Manager

    July 31, 2014

    slow-the-flowIt’s been weeks, even months, since some parts of California have gotten rain, and it’s likely it will be a few more months before rains return. Water districts across the state have imposed mandatory and voluntary water restrictions to encourage water conservation and efficiency, but there have been fewer discussions around what and how we can prepare for the upcoming rainy season  during the drought. 

    Stormwater runoff is generated when precipitation from rain and snow hits impervious surfaces such as roads, rooftops, or parking lots and is not absorbed into the ground. Instead, this water picks up trash, metals, chemicals, and other contaminants as it makes it way to our waterways. Due to concerns about flood damage in urban areas, stormwater was traditionally viewed as a liability, and urban areas were designed to get stormwater out to waterways as fast as possible. In California, stormwater typically bypasses water treatment plants, and as a result, is a major source of pollution in our rivers, streams, and ocean.  

    There are many opportunity costs associated with the traditional stormwater management, but the biggest one that concerns our thirsty state is groundwater recharge. By moving water away from the people and places that need it, stormwater cannot percolate into the ground and replenish water we keep drilling deeper and deeper to reach.

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  • percent-irrigated-cropland

    The Multiple Benefits of Water Conservation and Efficiency for California

    by Heather Cooley, Director of the Pacific Institute Water Program

    July 29, 2014

    California farmers have made great progress in updating and modernizing irrigation technologies and practices. For example, in 1990, more than two-thirds of California crops were flood irrigated. By 2010, that number had declined to 43% and is likely even lower today. During that same period, the percent of land irrigated with more efficient microsprinklers and drip irrigation increased from 15% to 38%. These improvements are one of the reasons that California remains among the most productive agricultural regions in the world, producing more than 400 different farm products.

    percent-irrigated-cropland

    Note: These data do not include rice acreage, which is grown using flood irrigation. If rice acreage were included, the percent of crop land using flood irrigation would be higher.
    Source: G.N. Tindula, M.N. Orang, and R.L. Snyder. 2013. “Survey of Irrigation Methods in California in 2010,” ASCE Journal of Irrigation and Drainage Engineering 139: 233-238.

    But despite past efforts, great untapped potential remains to use water more efficiently. Water efficiency – defined as measures that reduce water use while maintaining the benefits water provides – has been shown to be a cost-effective and flexible tool to adapt to drought as well as address longstanding water challenges in California. Moreover, today’s investments in efficiency will provide a competitive advantage in the future and ensure the ongoing strength of the agriculture sector in California.

    Water-efficiency improvements provide multiple benefits. …»

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  • These signs are common along Highway 5 in California’s Central Valley, especially where junior water-rights holders have land that won’t get water during droughts. Ironically, this one is placed right in front of a newly planted almond orchard.

    National Geographic ScienceBlogs: Why Has the Response to the California Drought Been so Weak?

    By Peter Gleick, President

    July 20, 2014

    In the past few weeks, I have had been asked the same question by reporters, friends, strangers, and even a colleague who posts regularly on this very ScienceBlogs site (the prolific and thoughtful Greg Laden): why, if the California drought is so bad, has the response been so tepid?

    There is no single answer to this question (and of course, it presumes (1) that the drought is bad; and (2) the response has been tepid). In many ways, the response is as complicated as California’s water system itself, with widely and wildly diverse sources of water, uses of water, prices and water rights, demands, institutions, and more. But here are some overlapping and relevant answers.

    First, is the drought actually very bad?

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  • ca-drought-87-92-cover

    Over Twenty-Five Years Later, How Does the Drought in California Compare?

    By Amanda Pebler, Communications Intern

    July 20, 2014

    “Future droughts are likely to cause still more severe impacts to California’s environmental resources.” -1987

    “The drought is not over. Without doubt, another dry year would result in much more severe situation than California has experienced thus far.” -1991

    In the midst of the California drought and the hot summer months ahead, more data and public information are needed about what to expect and what are our options for action. The Pacific Institute works to give the public and policymakers the ability to access the latest data on the California drought and have been doing so for over 25 years. Recently, two past reports from the Pacific Institute regarding the California drought that occurred in the late 20th century have been released online. Even then, the drought warned that future impacts would be more severe than ever before. For those who have wondered how the current drought compares to those of the past, these are fantastic resources that give insight into previous drought conditions and how California responded.

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    A Tale of Two Farms: How Water Efficiency Could Help Drought-Proof California Farms

    By Heather Cooley, Director, Pacific Institute Water Program, and Claire O’Connor, Senior Attorney and Agricultural Water Policy Analyst, NRDC Water Program 

    June 10, 2014

    This article is cross-posted at the NRDC Switchboard.

    For many California farmers, this growing season has been the “worst of times”. While all of the state is in the midst of a severe drought, conditions are most acute in the state’s most productive agricultural region.

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    Urban Water Conservation and Efficiency – Enormous Potential, Close to Home

    By Matthew Heberger, Research Associate, Pacific Institute, and Ed Osan, Senior Policy Analyst, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)

    June 10, 2014

    This post is cross-posted at the NRDC Switchboard.

    As California continues to face severe drought conditions, a new report released today by NRDC and the Pacific Institute tallies the huge potential to lower water use in virtually every community across the Golden State. Reducing water demand can help make our cities more resilient to future droughts, saves energy and reduces air pollution, and leaves more water in rivers and estuaries for fish, wildlife, and recreation. Compared with the water consumption levels of the last decade, urban water use can be cut by one-third to one-half using technologies and practices that are available today. We helped develop these estimates, and summarize the most significant of them here.

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  • 2014-06-10-CArunoff20022014May-thumb

    Huffington Post: Solving California’s Water Problems

    By Peter Gleick, President

    June 10, 2014

    For over 150 years, Californians have argued, litigated, yelled, and otherwise fought over water. California is a big state – we have redwood forests, desert regions, mountains, coasts, rich agricultural lands, amazing natural ecosystems. And overall, we have a pretty good amount of water.

    The problems with California’s water are that it is highly seasonal, highly variable, and poorly managed. Now, halfway through the second decade of the 21st century, we’ve hit the wall. California is in a drought – some call it the third year of a drought, but it could also be called the tenth dry year out of the last thirteen (see Figure 1). Even if next year brings some relief, our water problems will remain.

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