California Has a New Plan to Beat the Drought, One Glass of Water at a Time

New restrictions on water use don’t measure up to the enormity of the problem.

(Photo: Tom Wachtel/Flickr)

Mar 18, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

A tiny bit of water fell from the sky in Los Angeles today—too little to measure—a rare instance of that meteorological phenomenon known as “rain.”

It was an ironic tease, in a way, the scattered showers coming the day after new water restrictions were announced by the State Water Resources Control Board.

“I am sorry we have to do this,” Felicia Marcus, the board’s chair, said before the new restrictions were voted on. “But we are not seeing the level of stepping up and ringing the alarm bells that the situation really warrants.”

And so, Marcus announced, drastic measures would be instituted, so severe they bring to mind Stalin’s Five-Year Plans and Chairman Mao's Great Leap Forward: Restaurants will no longer be allowed to serve water to patrons unless they ask for it.

Marcus knows the situation is dire. Now in its fourth year, the drought has left California in the driest conditions it has seen in 1,200 years. According to a NASA hydrologist, we only have one year of water reserves left. And while this winter has seen a decent amount of rain in some parts of the state, the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, which provides much of California’s freshwater, is at a dismal 12 percent of normal.

So the state is going to fight back, one glass of complimentary water at a time. The rule comes in addition to banning watering lawns during the two days following a rainstorm and limiting yard irrigation to no more than two days a week. None of the new restrictions address the agricultural sector, which accounts for 80 percent of the state’s water use.

“At a restaurant like ours, where you’re paying $100 just for food, if you’re not presented with water at the beginning of a meal, we’re immediately going to see a backlash on that,” said Ari Taymor, chef-owner of Alma, a restaurant in Downtown Los Angeles.

As environmentally conscious restaurateurs, Taymor and co-owner Ashleigh Parsons are doing all they can to conserve and limit the water they use both at the restaurant and in Alma’s garden. They have the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power monitoring the irrigation system for the vegetables they grow in the front yard of a Venice bungalow, with the goal of using less water than a traditional lawn would. At the restaurant, kitchen staff uses water judiciously, whether to prep ingredients or wash dishes. The restaurant serves very little animal protein too, which limits overall impact, as raising livestock—cattle in particular—uses incredible amounts of water resources.

So when it came to drinking water as a drought-related concern, “we hadn’t really thought about it,” Taymor said, “because it seems like such a minor part of our water consumption.”

When the new restrictions go into effect later this spring, Alma and other restaurants could face fines of up to $500 for offering water without its being requested.

“It’s so cynical, it just makes you want to scream,” said Taymor.

The new conservation measures, which expand on similar restrictions enacted last year on things such as spraying down sidewalks and driveways, are getting a less-than-enthusiastic welcome from water-policy experts. Asked if the restrictions go far enough, Peter Gleick, president and water program codirector of the Pacific Institute, had a brief, immediate response: “No.”

“I don’t think the current provisions are going to be enough to reduce the demand for water to the degree needed,” he elaborated. “A lot of the restrictions are cosmetic, which is helpful from an education and communications point of view, but it doesn’t help all that much to save water.”

The narrow focus—and the lack of restrictions on agriculture—can be partly explained by the vast and sometimes archaic nature of infrastructure and regulatory bodies that keep the water flowing to urban and farming areas alike. Since we can’t rebuild the 150-year-old system from scratch, Gleick said, “we have to fiddle around at the margins.”

“The one advantage of the drought is that it raises awareness to the seriousness of the challenge,” he continued, “and it opens the door to doing things that we wouldn’t think about doing in a wet year.” California finally has groundwater regulations, for example, which, while far from strict, were finally passed last year as countless drills sank more and more wells into depleted aquifers.

Research by the Pacific Institute and the Natural Resource Defense Council (where Marcus was once western director) suggests that far more could be accomplished than just cracking down on restaurants. According to a study the groups copublished last year, by implementing more aggressive water-conservation measures, expanding reuse programs, and creating more efficient stormwater-capture systems, the state could be saving “more than the amount of water used in all of California’s cities in one year.”

The drinking water restrictions seem to indicate that such an aggressive approach isn’t in the cards just yet. But Gleick believes the focus on lawn watering is a step in the right direction. Stopping altogether—and replacing grass with drought-tolerant, native plants—would go a long way toward eliminating one of the most significant urban water demands. (Half of summer water use in Los Angeles is outdoors.) Taymor, too, is looking to foraged native and wild plants to bring a taste of the Central Coast beaches and chaparral that inspires his cooking to the plate.

Gleick wonders what will come next and how far state agencies will go. “The drought is going to get worse in the coming months,” he said, “and the things that we [just] put in place are going to be inadequate.”

Taymor doesn’t have to wait: He’s already convinced that the new measures aren’t enough. “Having guests ask for water isn’t such a bad idea,” he admits. “But having it be a first step in a plan that needs big solutions, it almost seems like, why bother?”