Real Estate

California’s drought hits home: San Francisco homeowners and businesses enlisted in water conservation emergency

Governor Brown announces statewide water conservation rules. Photos: California Department of Water Resources

The continuing drought threatening to turn the Golden State into the Brown State has a number of unpleasant or worrisome side effects. Rodents are heading indoors in search of scarce water and food; avocado growers and other agribusiness concerns are exempted from mandatory water cutbacks, but the cost of their water is going way up; wildfires could have a heyday in the drought; and talk of “publicly shaming” water wasters is spreading.

All of those impacts and more could be long-term challenges for the Bay Area and the state, because climate experts warn that drought could be the “new normal” — lasting longer and recurring more frequently. Now local and state officials are looking to residents and businesses to do their part.

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought state of emergency, but it wasn’t until April 2015 that he imposed the state’s first-ever mandatory reductions in water use. Cities

and towns across the state will have to reduce water usage by 25 percent. To reach that goal, the governor’s executive order mandates the replacement of 50 million square feet of lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping; the creation of a rebate program to get consumers to replace old appliances with water- and energy-efficient models; force campuses, golf courses, and other large landscapes to make significant reductions in water use; ban the watering of ornamental grass on public street medians; and prohibit new homes and developments from irrigating with potable water unless efficient drip-irrigation systems are used. Water prices will also go up, as local water agencies respond to the order’s direction to adjust rate structures to reflect “conservation pricing”; and the state is rolling out a series of enforcement mechanisms to increase standards for toilets, faucets, and outdoor landscaping in residential communities and taking action when those standards aren’t met.

“As Californians, we have to save water in every way we possibly can, and we have to pull together,” Governor Brown said in April. “We have to become more resilient, more efficient, and more innovative, and that’s exactly what we are going to do.”

“San Franciscans are some of the most efficient water users in the state of California,” notes District Two Supervisor Mark Farrell. He said that residential daily use of 45 gallons per person is one of the lowest in the state, thanks to investments the city made in conservation programs and education. He also points to Mayor Ed Lee’s January 2014 executive order for municipal departments to reduce water use by 10 percent, a goal that was even exceeded by a number of departments, including Recreation and Park Department (18 percent reduction), the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (19 percent), and Public Works (a huge 46 percent).

“San Francisco sips water compared to many cities, but we could still do more,” said Greg Dalton, founder and director of Climate One at The Commonwealth Club, a dialogue between climate scientists, policy makers, activists, and business. “Climate disruption increases the probability that this drought could be wicked-bad and long. The idea that this is 1977 again and we can ride it out is tempting and foolish.”

City leaders say they not only aren’t waiting, they have been ahead of the game. In a statement supporting the governor’s order, Mayor Lee said the city had reduced its residential per capita water use by more than 20 percent over the past decade, and he said the SFPUC’s “retail and wholesale customers surpassed the goal of a voluntary 10 percent reduction and achieved 14 percent in savings, a total of 9.9 billion gallons of water.”

By 2017, the mayor said that many San Francisco residents will have their water blended with groundwater from an aquifer on the city’s west side as the result of a water recycling project scheduled to begin construction in 2016.

Farrell added that local residents and businesses have a number of concrete steps they can take to lessen the impact of the drought: no washing driveways and sidewalks except for health and safety purposes; no runoff from landscape irrigation; no nonrecirculating fountains; no hoses without shut-off nozzles; people have already begun to notice restaurants only serving water if it’s requested; hotels give guests the option of not washing linens and towels every day; and people should limit irrigation to two days a week. Farrell directs people to for more tips and guidelines.

Residents who think this crisis will pass quickly or that the conservation efforts don’t have to include them because the state will come up with some other solution are likely to be disappointed. One option that is mentioned often is the desalination of seawater, but desalination plants are expensive to build, consume huge amounts of energy, and create potential destabilization of ocean habitats. Midwestern states have long feared plans (real or imagined) to pipe their Great Lakes water to the West Coast; now actor William Shatner has advocated the construction of a $30 billion pipeline to bring water to California from Seattle. It won’t happen (Seattle needs its water, too), but realistic or not, large-scale remedies take lots of money and time to build, and the water savings are needed now.

“I grew up in Northern California bashing the way Southern Californians waste ‘our water,'” said Dalton. “The hard truth is Southern California has come a long way and in some cases has done more on water efficiency than Northern California — because they had to. Orange County recycles waste water. It’s a smarter option than desalination. Los Angeles has a million more people and uses the same amount of water as 20 years ago.”

Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger once noted that he imposes a five-minute rule on showers in his household. He made that statement before the current drought, but it is just one of the realistic ways that individuals can have an impact in the current water emergency. Additional guidelines and ideas for conservation are available at

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