As we move into a fourth year of drought in California, what drives you nuts about how people respond?
Being someone who spends a lot of time outdoors, I notice where river levels are and where reservoir levels are. I’m really into fishing. I spend more time than most people thinking about water levels.
It doesn’t necessarily drive me crazy, but it is strange that it doesn’t bother most people.
Is that all?
It drives me crazy to see someone outside using a hose to wash off their car. I saw that the other day – my neighbor. But what drives me more crazy is that most people don’t understand these giant lawns use more than that.
Even more is the water footprint of our food. Many people talk about food having a carbon footprint, but food also has a water footprint. So it drives me crazy that that’s not part of the typical conversation.
To put this in perspective, what will happen if we don’t save water?
As these aquifers become empty, the ground is collapsing, and that’s scary for so many reasons. No. 1: It can lead to flash flooding, because now the ground is so dense it can’t absorb the water. No. 2: Once an aquifer collapses, it can’t recharge to the same extent. So even if we start to get enough rain, the water doesn’t necessarily flow back to where it’s supposed to be.
So, yeah, it would be great if it rained x inches in y months and [lakes] Casitas and Cachuma went up z number of feet. That would be fantastic, but fundamentally, the landscape is changing in these drought conditions.
If you could ask people to do just one thing, what would it be?
If you have a lawn, the No. 1 thing you can do is to reduce the amount of water that lawn requires – whether that means not watering as much or changing what your yard is made of.
If you don’t have a lawn and you have zero outdoor watering, then yes, five-minute showers make a difference. Turning the water off when you’re not using it makes a difference.
And if you’re the kind of person who likes your shower scalding hot and your shower is nowhere near the water heater, then keep a bucket there and collect the water, and use it for something else, like outdoor plants.
What about diets? You mentioned that some foods have big water footprints.
That’s a tough one. Maybe you say, “I’m taking a stand not to buy rice products from California.” That’s something I’ve been doing for 15 years, long before I moved here. Any time I pick up a rice cake, I just flip it over, and if it’s from California I don’t buy it.
What difference is that making? I don’t know. It doesn’t impact my water bill. It likely doesn’t impact my city’s water infrastructure in the slightest. It makes me feel a little bit better about myself (laughs).
The point is that understanding your water footprint doesn’t just mean knowing what your water usage in your house is. It also means knowing where you’re getting your crops and meat and other products from and how much water went into them.
In a culture of water awareness, there can be a connection between not buying product A and buying product B instead, and reducing your shower time, and also changing your lawn over to xeriscape.
Xeriscape. That just comes from Greek for “dry,” xero or xeri.
Oh. Drought-tolerant plants can be expensive, right? Fake grass and even gravel cost a lot to put in.
There’s a turf buyback program in many California cities. Basically, they give you a certain amount of money per square foot to rip up your water-thirsty grass and replace it with something else. The “something else” you figure out for yourself, but they give you enough money to potentially close that gap between wanting to do it and not having enough money.
Do you see Californians making much progress on saving water?
I feel like there are people talking about water all around me, more so than the last time I was in a drought, which was in Colorado and not nearly this bad. So I guess I’m encouraged.
You can’t change what you can’t measure. I would encourage everyone to understand how much water they use, and if they live in a city that’s called for a 10 percent reduction, to at least meet that. That presupposes people know what their water usage is, which is probably something most people don’t know. People who rent sometimes never see their water bill.
What government policies are we going to see if this drought, or a future drought, goes on and on?
I don’t know when the breaking point is, but my guess is that we’re going to have a conversation about the water footprint of certain crops. Our cities are taking a slightly bigger chunk than they were 30 years ago, but agriculture is still the biggest water consumer. Certain cities up north are being told now they have zero allocation from the state water project. Sooner or later, that’s going to be a city of 100,000 people or more.
And what are you going to do, tell a city of 100,000 people that they get no water while we grow food out here that may or may not get exported? It’s probably true that some poor farmers are going to get hurt disproportionately.
To learn about turf buyback programs in Thousand Oaks and other cities, visit www.socalwatersmart.com. For more water usage rebates, see www.bewaterwise.com.
In addition to his teaching at Cal Lutheran, Pattison is a sustainability consultant and board commissioner on the City of Ventura’s Housing Authority. He has been fly-fishing in each of the contiguous 48 states.