This Year’s Drought Requires More Than Just Turning Off Your Tap While You Brush

California is currently in the midst of a severe drought. Our streams and rivers are carrying only about 40 percent of their average water flow, and smoky skies have clouded the Bay Area for weeks as wildfires born of dry conditions rage in nearby communities.

By Sejal Choksi, Baykeeper and Program Director
Published: August, 2008 

As the summer stretches on with no relief in sight, many of us are reminded of how important healthy waterways are for our state.

This spring was California’s driest in 88 years. The snowpack of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range is the primary source of our state’s water supply, but in the last two years, precipitation has fallen far below previous levels and the amount of snowpack has declined drastically. Meanwhile, existing snowpack is quickly evaporating due to warmer than normal temperatures—leaving us with rapidly declining water reserves.

At the same time, there is still a high demand on California’s dwindling water supply. The Central Valley agricultural industry uses 80 percent of California’s water supply to grow crops like alfalfa, cotton and rice in an arid climate. Yet our rivers, lakes and waterways need to be healthy and plentiful to provide habitat for millions of wildlife, birds and fish—including endangered species like Chinook salmon and Delta smelt. Water remains the lifeblood of our state, essential to California’s booming urban populations, agricultural industry and the survival of our native ecosystems.

In June, Governor Schwarzenegger declared the first statewide drought in nearly 20 years. Those of us who have lived in California for more than a few years know that drought events are cyclical, and we are familiar with doing our part to reduce demands on precious water resources, such as turning off the tap while we brush our teeth and watering our lawns less often. This year’s drought, however, is turning into more than just a normal dip in the cycle. Current conditions—and forecasts for future summers to be just as dry—are causing enough concern to require action from policy-makers, businesses and industrial agriculture. In the next few years, we’re likely to see significant reforms to both statewide policies and standard business practices.

In the meantime, Bay Area water agencies and residents are taking big steps to conserve water resources. Many Bay Area water districts have imposed drought restrictions in the form of voluntary cutbacks ranging from 10 to 20 percent. The East Bay Municipal Utility District, which serves Contra Costa and Alameda counties, has taken cutbacks one step further by imposing fines on customers who violate the restrictions, with some of the heaviest penalties on residential consumers who use excess water.

Tried-and-true water conservation tips like fixing leaky faucets are important all year. But as California is faced with a significant drought, we should all go further in conserving our vital water resources. You can make a significant difference in the health of California’s waterways with some changes to the way you use water. Remember, reducing water use is also an important element of protecting our waterways from pollution. For example, if you send less water down the drain, you put less of a strain on our aging sewage systems, which, in turn, helps prevent sewage spills that contaminate the Bay. And watering your lawn more judiciously means less water runoff carrying pesticides, fertilizers, oil and other pollutants into our storm drains and into the Bay. We can all do our part to conserve and protect the water that is so important for all Californians.

Here are some steps you can take to help protect California’s waterways:

• Run only full loads of laundry and dishes

• Repair leaks and running toilets

• Replace old appliances like toilets, dishwashers and washing machines with water-efficient models; install water-efficient showerheads and sink faucets; and install low-flow toilets or retrofit older toilets with water-saving devices

• Reduce lawn watering to only what’s necessary; water your lawn in the early morning or late evening to prevent instant evaporation; and consider installing a drip irrigation system

• Support local water agencies’ efforts to reduce residential water conservation

• Encourage local businesses and city departments to reduce their water consumption and implement water conservation measures

• Advocate for legislation that would require water conservation by the agricultural industry—it’s a necessary first step to making sure future Californians have enough water

• Become a member of San Francisco Baykeeper and help us protect our waters at


Sejal Choksi, San Francisco Baykeeper and Program Director

Sejal first joined San Francisco Baykeeper as an attorney in September 2002, spearheading San Francisco Baykeeper’s efforts to secure the nation’s first regulations to control agricultural pollution. As the San Francisco Baykeeper, she now directs all aspects of Baykeeper’s advocacy programs, pollution patrols, and legal docket.