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California Water Experts Explore How To 'Live With' Long-Term Drought


We turn now to California where Governor Jerry Brown is imposing mandatory water rationing on state residents for the first time ever. Lack of rain over the last four years has left more than half the state grappling with extreme drought conditions. When the governor made his announcement Wednesday from a meadow in the Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe, he said we're standing on dry grass. We should be standing on five feet of snow. Doug Parker is director of the California Institute for Water Resources at the University of California. We asked him how the water rationing plan will work.

DOUG PARKER: What the order does is it directs the State Water Resources Control Board to devise a plan to cut urban water use by 25 percent across the state. What it doesn't require is an even cut across the state because different parts of the state use different amounts of water. So what it does is it allows the board to set those cuts differently in areas where per capita water use is higher or areas where it's lower to average that out across the state.

CORNISH: Are there some parts of the state that are thriftier than others when it comes to conservation?

PARKER: Certainly, yes. The per capita water use in the state ranges from about 60 gallons per person today to at least 300 gallons per person today. So we see quite a bit of difference. A good portion...

CORNISH: Oh, wait, can you name names (laughter)? I mean, who's using that amount of water?

PARKER: Most of the difference in water use is outdoor irrigation. So the people who are using more water are people who have large lots in hot areas and lots of landscaping that is using a lot of water. The people using less water would be people like apartment dwellers in urban areas who really don't have outdoor water use.

CORNISH: I don't mean to pick on California, but just like when you mention wealthy desert communities, at a certain point it feels like it's sort of part of California to be like, we're going to have water where there isn't water sometimes (laughter). And we're going to have the prettiest lawns, even though we've been talking about this drought for a long time.

PARKER: Yeah. I mean, I guess you could kind of think with the way the West was sort of taken and the wild West kind of is, you know, we do what we want. And so people do like the challenges of trying to figure out how to bloom in the desert kind of thing. So I think that could be a piece of sort of California's attitude towards this.

CORNISH: What are a kind of bigger picture, more long-term measures that some California communities are really going to have to look at more closely?

PARKER: I think in the long run communities are going to be looking at two things - one is the demand-side management. And that is really looking at re-landscaping a lot of these communities with drought tolerant landscapes that are more appropriate for a Mediterranean climate we have here in California.

CORNISH: So get rid of the grass, basically. Get rid of the lawns.

PARKER: Exactly. It definitely means taking out lawns and finding better landscaping. And then there is also promotion of water efficient appliances. So there's actually funding available through this temporarily to help promote more water efficient appliance purchases, so dishwashers, washing machines, things like that. We need to learn how to live with drought. With our situation in California, droughts are common. And they're going to become more common, and they may become more severe. So we need to figure out how to have that ability to adapt to this changing weather.

CORNISH: So what does it mean to live with drought? How will they have to take a different approach to water in order to do that?

PARKER: Yeah, I think what it means is how do we diversify our water supply picture? Now, I think there's a lot of room in California to be doing more with water reuse, treating water and putting it back into the system, in ways that allows us to reuse that water rather than putting it out into the ocean. And as well, desalination is gaining favor in the state. We've got one plant under construction; a couple more that are in the permitting process. There's some environmental issues with desalination. And it's also fairly energy intensive, so it's not something that you turn to sort of as a quick idea, but it's something that we need to be as part of our broader water picture.

CORNISH: Doug Parker - he's the director of the California Institute for Water Resources at the University of California. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

PARKER: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.