Why Californians are not conserving water this drought.

There are two things going on here. The first is that Governor Newsom and his water officials don’t have the pull to get good response to a public call for conservation. The second is that the burdening the public with behavior changes to save water has always been a symptom of failure. We should never have been proud that we made people’s lives harder in the course of getting through a drought.

Look. I don’t pretend that most people in California follow water, and I don’t expect that they are reacting to his delayed actions on drought the way I am. I don’t imagine Uber drivers exclaiming “The nerve of that man! Telling me to fix my dripping faucet after he vetoed SB1 in 2019!!!! Sheer gall, I tell you!”. I don’t think anyone besides me is reacting at that level. But I do think that the public feels no strong attachment to Governor Fingerguns and won’t go to much effort for him on the basis of affection. On water specifically, if they vaguely follow the news, they’ll know he’s made of … nothing. He fired the effective Chair of the State Board and replaced her with a pleasant fellow who shows no urgency. His top executives cannot state a clear goal. The Water Resilience Portfolio is some weak-ass “keep doing what you’re doing” document. Even the name of it is weak sauce. I wasn’t impressed by the Water Action Plan, but the name isn’t nearly as boring as Water Resilience Portfolio.

Look at the top takeaway on water supply in the Water Resilience Portfolio (pg 13):

Key insights from assessing the current health of California’s natural systems:
» Improved understanding is needed about the amount of water that must stay in rivers and streams to protect fish, wildlife, habitat, and water quality, and further actions are needed to support the availability of water for these needs.

Are you fucking kidding me? This wishy-washy passive voice, qualified bullshit? We need understanding, not actual water? Or, um, support for the availability of water? Again, I don’t think the broad public knows this level of detail and I don’t think that’s why they aren’t conserving. But there isn’t any good, strong core to the Newsom Administration on water and they do sense that. They can sense that there’s nothing there, and that Newsom doesn’t have the credibility or connection to ask Californians to conserve.

That’s the first problem. The second problem is that water conservation that requires behavioral changes is a small ongoing burden on people’s lives. Last drought, people had the capacity to do that. People I respect said that it was altruistic and not a problem, and I reluctantly went along with that even though I had doubts. I had doubts that it could last. I firmly believe the layering of small ongoing burdens distinctly worsens our quality of life. Now, in the pandemic, asking for behavior changes is just plainly a limited strategy that isn’t always available. Asking people who are managing the much greater burdens of All The Pandemic Things to please also keep a bucket in their shower? You are out of your fucking mind. That capacity is already taken by “where is my kid’s clean mask?”. It is not available for water conservation, even in a drought.

The solutions are systemic. They will be shifting substantial water from ag to urban and environmental use. They will be written into building codes and fixed into new landscaping. They aren’t “hope that the governor can call on people to do annoying daily things”. That approach is failing.


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16 responses to “Why Californians are not conserving water this drought.

  1. Drone Guy

    If you do not follow reservoir levels and do not understand where our water comes from there is no way of understanding what they are saying. We have done this song and dance many times with no consequences. I have cut water use over the years and really do not have much more to cut, nor do I feel the responsibility to cut. I use just barely over the minimum allocation. Others use many times this and only pay a small amount extra for that use. Farmers depending on where they are on the pecking order do not see any reason to cut, I can go right now, 20 mph wind, 93 F and see rainbirds spraying, alot going into channels and some on the roads. But we the small user must give up 15% so the farmers will have 1.5% more water to waste. Dont get me started on crops sent overseas.

  2. kierassociates@att.net

    Oh, my bad – it’s just OTPR leading with a bit of the new LAT water person’s piece – and then it’s pure OTPR from there on


  3. John

    California needs to stop flushing it’s fresh water from the Sacramento River into San Francisco Bay. Wonder when will the new bypass water tunnel be built?

  4. Alysia

    I had this same discussion today. Colorado River allocations are getting cut FFS. We saw all the dead almond trees on our summer road trip up the state. There will be a shift, certainly. But I thought exactly about what you did: I cannot deal with the bucket in the bathtub this year.

    However, the difference is that I understand now that even if people understand that we require big structural change, people do not want big structural change. We’re just going to ostrich until some disaster — pick one or perhaps several — takes us out because we collectively do not want to face climate reality. There will be a shift, but only when there is no choice. As long as burying our heads in the sand is a possible choice, that is what we will do. Because those are the leaders that we consistently elect.

    • onthepublicrecord

      Asking people to deal with the bucket in the bathtub should never have been our strategy. It is pushing work on to citizens so that politicians can avoid taking difficult action.

      I agree with you. I no longer believe that we will act proactively to avert any disaster. We are gonna do this the ‘hard way’ for sure.

    • Nicole

      I so totally agree.

  5. Maya

    Most of the water we use now is the result of water infrastructure projects dating back to the 1930’s through 1960. Where would we be now if government told us to use less water, instead of building new projects appropriate to the growing population?

  6. Doug

    OK, let’s have some fun. First, remember BP’s campaign to get us to obsess over our personal carbon footprint? Hey, they even provided a handy calculator to make you feel so guilty that you overlooked their industry’s crimes against humanity over many decades. Or, how about this article for perspective? It’s all about the new feudal lords who control a vast amount of California’s water, making your personal conservation efforts a sucker’s game. Oh yeah, and that’s Forbes reporting, not Mother Jones. Go, OTPR!


  7. Mary Steele

    I think the pandemic experience has demonstrated conclusively that a large percentage of people are concerned only with their own comfort and convenience, and will continue to be non-responsive to requests/demands to take any action solely for the benefit of others, be those others people, wildlife, or nature in general. I’m expecting that the water situation will have to get really ugly before individuals will do anything that inconveniences them. Greatly increased prices, including serious fines? Reduced availability instead of 24/7 service? Eliminating golf courses?

  8. Carolee Krieger

    80% of consumptive water in California is used by agriculture; 13% of California’s consumptive water is used by people…every shower, toilet and urban garden; 7% of California’s consumptive water is used by industry.

    When are the Governor and the state agencies going to go after the elephant in the room…big, industrial agriculture…big ag.uses 80% of the total water used by ag.

    And no concrete, steel or billions of dollars is going to produce one drop more water.

    These are the facts…until officials deal honestly with reality, there will never be solutions…and in the end, the people/taxpayers are asked to pay and the environment is being decimated.

  9. jaylund

    Most Californians see little evidence of drought in their daily lives. The media environment is so full of politics, COVID, and other subjects, that drought (in only year 2 with few major urban areas really hurting) doesn’t penetrate. Perhaps also, local urban utilities would like to maintain financial reserves for a year 3 by not seeing greatly reduced water use. Perhaps a down side of most urban areas being well-prepared so far.

  10. The SWRCB conservation reports data shows that urban Californians were still saving 15% below the 2013 benchmark used in the last drought. So a call for another 15% on top of that translates to a 27% reduction from the same 2013 baseline. Californian’s have not heard that this drought is worse than 2015 yet the state is calling for a more drastic overall reduction. Of course we aren’t seeing an even further reduction. https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/water_issues/programs/conservation_portal/conservation_reporting.html

  11. “Governor Fingerguns” — it resonates. There is the plus factor that Newsom is not obviously crazy or sadistic, but he sure isn’t the strong, decisive leader we need in Times Like These. I remember my early-pandemic frustration while listening to a press conference to see if Newsom was going to order a school closure; instead of coming out and directly saying Yes or No, he nattered on for forty-five minutes about his thoughts, and concerns, and about very explicit guidance that came out on Thursday and Friday, and that would be coming out next Tuesday — without mentioning what *any* of that guidance said. It is no surprise that this same energy pervades his administration; we have perhaps literally chosen death by wishy-washy MBA-speak.

  12. Patricia Schifferle

    Happy 4th of July.

    FYI: Attached is the handout from WWD’s Strategic Plan from the Westlands’ June 28, 2022 meeting. There are a number of interesting facts including fallowed land, how 60% of the crops have shifted to permanent crops from 1978-2020 and how they have roughly 470,000 acres of irrigable land not the 610,000 acres claimed under their permanent CVP contract. And the disclosure around 1:02:39 that they cannot use all the water when they get 100%. I think you will find a number of interesting factoids.

    Regards, Patricia Schifferle

    Here are the recordings:

    WWD Special Board of Directors Morning Meeting: https://youtu.be/pG8NyOKAEy8https://nam12.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fyoutu.be%2FpG8NyOKAEy8&data=05%7C01%7C%7C8f6f0f426ac942d1a81608da5a471e76%7C84df9e7fe9f640afb435aaaaaaaaaaaa%7C1%7C0%7C637921558747436038%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C3000%7C%7C%7C&sdata=VBqDOdIItswYYSwm%2Bm%2F%2FBH0%2BPSb7dfVcDIpAD6lAsh8%3D&reserved=0 Here’s the second meeting from Tuesday: https://youtu.be/8jtzV3Xfruohttps://nam12.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fyoutu.be%2F8jtzV3Xfruo&data=05%7C01%7C%7Cb973a94cb1f14a2a192608da5b07fa32%7C84df9e7fe9f640afb435aaaaaaaaaaaa%7C1%7C0%7C637922387061796272%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C3000%7C%7C%7C&sdata=NPjXb%2FQtsmNsLOta40BqZIS%2FDrLjKNGe7i7I784jel0%3D&reserved=0

    Also here’s John Oliver on Water in the West:

    This is well done: https://youtu.be/jtxew5XUVbQhttps://nam12.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fyoutu.be%2Fjtxew5XUVbQ&data=05%7C01%7C%7C086b4398dc8a42fc4bbc08da5d1306e2%7C84df9e7fe9f640afb435aaaaaaaaaaaa%7C1%7C0%7C637924633547310116%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C3000%7C%7C%7C&sdata=bvA4rfQpsjHn5fJaoYO8dY8Nqossv2NGx8mo5w%2B1cpg%3D&reserved=0