Conservation Goals Can Keep California Afloat

If California wants an informed and water-conscious public, then it should not be acceptable that water agencies have no conservation goals at all, writes Robb Barnitt, the CEO at water analytics company Dropcountr.

Written by Robb Barnitt Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
A drought-tolerant garden in Irvine, California. California water officials have dropped a mandate requiring conservation in the state's fifth year of drought.Jae C. Hong, AP

Several weeks ago, my daughters “graduated” from the third grade. The final day of the school year was an unusually warm June day, and after pizza and games, their teacher said goodbye for the summer after extracting a solemn promise – to read “at least 10 books” during their time away.

Ten chapter books in 10 weeks, I reminded them on our drive home – a healthy dose, remembering the pile at my bedside. Easy, they promised, no problem.

Their goal was set. The teacher didn’t simply remind my daughters to read over the summer, she asked them to meet a certain goal. Pick a book, any book, as long as you read.

Goals are healthy. They provide something to work towards, to track progress, to measure against. Goals can be as benign as losing weight, as lofty as putting a man on the moon or as needed as conserving water in the arid West.

May 2016 marked the final month of mandatory water restrictions, despite the fairly pathetic El Niño winter. Governor Jerry Brown gave California a 25 percent conservation goal, and the state came within 0.9 percent of achieving the unprecedented goal. In June, agencies were asked to self-certify their water supplies and propose conservation standards they would be held accountable to. Max Gomberg from the State Water Resource Control Board speculated that about “half” would submit a 0 percent conservation target.

Cars in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, drive by a sign encouraging residents to save water. California lifted its statewide water conservation mandate in June 2016, but some think some level of conservation by water suppliers is still needed. (Chris Carlson, AP)

Cars in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, drive by a sign encouraging residents to save water. California lifted its statewide water conservation mandate in June 2016, but some think some level of conservation by water suppliers is still needed. (Chris Carlson, AP)

California runs the risk of behavior relapse. Never before has the state been as aware, as galvanized, as committed in water conservation efforts. Nor have we needed continued efforts as much as we do now: El Niño didn’t deliver what was hoped for in California as 42 percent of the state is in extreme to exceptional drought, and a La Niña winter could mean dry weather for parts of California.

Behavior change requires two things: reason and the right conditions. Our drought conditions need no further introduction. Reason, however, is fickle. Not every Californian shares the same values. The state and the many agencies that make up our water system must fight for reason, must fight to be heard and must fight for long-term behavior change. Last year, Californians needed a declared state emergency to rally the citizens; Governor Brown’s 25 percent goal played no small part.

Drastic conservation standards may not be appropriate (yet), but a mandatory conservation floor should be applied, regardless of current supply. California needs to conserve water like the drought is here to stay. If an informed, water-conscious public is the long-game, allowing any agency to maintain a 0 percent conservation target is not the place to start. As the Los Angeles Times editorial board echoed last month, “If the drought emergency is over, it’s only because drought is no longer an emergency, but a permanent reality.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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