Brisbane, Queensland, resident Tanya Graves, a lawyer turned full-time mom, no longer gets to enjoy watching her kids cavorting on the Slip ‘n Slide or running through the sprinklers. Forget about watering the yard. "Our rationing has slowly changed," she reports. "It started with watering of gardens being limited more and more. Firstly, odd-numbered houses could only water every other day, then only from 4-7 p.m. This progressed on to watering by bucket only. At the worst stage they did not allow watering of gardens at all," says Graves. In addition, "The ‘powers that be' have recommended 4 minutes maximum per person for showers and even gave everyone free timers."
While local and state agencies in California aren't sure if we're headed in the same direction, they can't rule it out. "We've been tracking that 10-year drought in Australia and their situation is really bad. They wish they had taken certain actions earlier to save the water they had," says Jennifer Persike, spokesperson for the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), which happens to be the largest coalition of public water agencies in the country. "We're in our third consecutive year of drought, and the problem is we don't know how long it's going to last. Agencies are facing difficult water management decisions."
Who's in charge, anyway?
California has 56 water agencies imposing mandatory restrictions on residents and another 57 are actively encouraging and educating the public about conservation. The Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD), whose local boundaries extend from Palm Springs to the Salton Sea, covering 1,000 square miles, is one of those fifty-seven. CVWD's recent adoption of a tiered-rate system is a proven method of yielding 22- to 37-percent water savings.
Some customers aren't conserving as much as they thought. "What we've found is that 20 to 30 percent of people don't realize the extent of their water usage," says Steve Robbins, general manager and chief engineer at CVWD.
The largest amount of household water waste occurs outside. The state average allocated to the outdoors is 50 percent, but the Coachella Valley average is much higher, at 70 to 80 percent. Inefficiency and lack of attention are the biggest water wasters, especially through the summer months, when people overcompensate for the heat. Still, residents can make more of a difference than they think.
So what can I do?
Removing a 1,500-square-foot lawn can save an average of 56,000 gallons of water per year. Then adding native plants in conjunction with organic materials like mulch, and inorganic materials like decomposed granite and glass, can make a beautiful garden. "There is more to desert landscaping than a rock and a cactus," says Diane Hollinger, landscape specialist for the City of Palm Desert. "There are hundreds of annual plants to choose from with beautiful flowers and interesting leaves." Just select your favorites.
Artificial turf is another option. "If you're going into a new property or planning to redo your landscaping, it is something to consider," says David Luker, general manager at Desert Water Agency. But while prices for artificial turf have been declining, all that square footage can add up.
Both CVWD and DWA are promoting a more economical solution by encouraging homeowners to buy Smart Controllers. This is an irrigation system that uses sensors and historical data to respond to environmental changes. Then it automatically adjusts watering frequency. Smart Controllers are an immediate way to see water usage reduced by 26 percent, along with a resulting lower water bill.
What about those golf courses?
It might seem like residents are the only ones being asked to save water. A common refrain in the valley is, "Why should I be asked to conserve when we have so many golf courses?" While the majority of courses still use groundwater for irrigation, Robbins says that golf courses are some of the most efficient water users around because of the technology available.
Many golf course superintendents use industrial-size Smart Controllers and then gladly convert to recycled water as it becomes available. But there is a limited supply. Oddly enough, it all depends upon how many toilets are being flushed.
The influx of people to the valley in the winter months means there is more recycled water available. But because the weather is mild, the demand to water the courses is less. In the summer, water demand goes up as the heat rises, but there is less recycled water because 100,000 people leave the valley, and there are fewer toilets flushing.
Toscana Country Club in Indian Wells has irrigated with recycled water on its 18-hole south course since 2005. The nine-hole north course, which has been designed with desert landscaping, will convert to recycled water when an additional nine holes are completed.
Currently, Toscana uses 60 percent recycled water and golf course superintendent Rick Sall hopes that by the end of 2009 those numbers will be between 75 and 80 percent. "Only using 20 percent groundwater can be regarded as a huge savings," he says.
The proverbial canary in the mine
As for Australia, why should we care about a continent more than 7,200 miles away? Because its struggle could provide a glimpse into our future. While our short-term water needs will be met, the Coachella Valley's exponential population growth and California's uncertain drought conditions are putting a strain on our groundwater table. "We have an underground water supply with a balance in the ‘bank account,' says the water district's Robbins, "but we can't keep withdrawing, and at some point we are going to run out of water. Without water, our desert is just a desert."
In her keynote address at the Australian Water Summit in April, Maude Barlow, senior water advisor to the president of the United Nations General Assembly, pointed out, "Suddenly it is so clear: the world is running out of clean water. This information contradicts what we all learned in school, which was that there is an infinite [supply] and we cannot run out no matter how much we use or waste. What our teachers did not know and could not teach us was that in a few short decades, humans would create a freshwater demand that far outstrips the earth's supply."
Inevitably facing greater scrutiny from across the state, the Coachella Valley can choose to be a model for California and the Southwest's deserts and avoid Australia's mistakes by preserving water for future generations. Or, we can take a collective walk outside and stick our heads in the sand. Unlike water, there's plenty of that to go around.
Text from mydesert.com, a California based newspaper, click view for more information