California Water Rationing: 9 Things (2023) You Have to Know

In 2022, California water rationing came into effect as the state is in its worst drought in over a century.

Governor Gavin Newsom appealed to California residents to reduce their water consumption.

He said, “Every water agency across the state needs to take more aggressive actions” to save water.

Southern California, in particular, is in a tough spot as the region imposed mandatory water cutbacks on its residents.

These cutbacks are an effort to cope with extremely dry conditions — the driest in recorded history.

Here’s what you should know about California’s water rationing efforts.

1. What is water rationing?

Water rationing means there’s a specific amount of water available to each customer or resident during a specific time frame.

The limiting of water use is typically due to concerns regarding the water supply.

2. Why is California rationing water?

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California declared a water shortage emergency in April 2022.

This district supplies water to roughly 19 million people.

Because of the emergency, the district voted to curtail water use and restrict outdoor water through other actions.

When it comes to cutbacks, most utilities have focused on outdoor water.

Believe it or not, outdoor water is responsible for about half of the city’s water use.

That said, some outdoor watering is still permitted.

In LA, residents are allowed two 10-minute periods of outdoor watering per week.

The specific days that residents are allowed to water are based on their address.

These mandatory restrictions request that homeowners cut back on water usage by 30 percent.

Here are the specifics of the restrictions.

bulletAddresses ending in even numbers may water on Tuesdays and Fridays

bulletAddresses ending in odd numbers may water on Mondays and Thursdays

bulletCommercial properties may water on Mondays and Fridays

bulletNo water period can be longer than 10 minutes

bulletWatering is only permitted between 6 PM and 10 AM

The restrictions may also more specifically depending on the area.

For instance, in the City of Malibu, spray irrigation is prohibited between 8 AM and 8 PM daily.

Furthermore, no landscape irrigation is permitted within 48 hours of rainfall.

By taking these steps, the city hopes to save more than 28 million gallons of water annually.

3. Where is California water rationing occurring?

Parts of Los Angeles, San Bernadino, and Ventura counties are part of California water rationing efforts.

These counties are limited to watering outdoor plants once a week, which is an unprecedented move for the region.

4. Is California water rationing impacted by climate change?

Many view water rationing as a means of adapting to climate change in real-time.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has never had to ration water before, but unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures.

The reason California is rationing water is because of a drought that they’ve been in for the fourth year in a row.

In the state’s recorded history, six previous droughts have lasted four or more years and two of them have been in the past 35 years.

To get out of this drought, it’s estimated that 140 percent of average precipitation is necessary.

Climate change has absolutely influenced the need for California water rationing.

It has altered the natural pattern of droughts and made them more frequent, longer, and more severe.

Since the turn of the century in 2000, the western U.S. has experienced some of the driest conditions on record.

Southern California (as part of the American southwest) is going through an extraordinary period of extreme drought.

5. Is water rationing effective?

Determining the most effective water conservation techniques is critical when there is a drought.

Many cities and states will try different water conservation methods to help promote behavior changes in different communities.

Unfortunately, voluntary measures surrounding water conservation tend to be the least effective.

Simply telling people to conserve water won’t actually make it happen.

It can result in a tragedy of the commons scenario in which everyone believes that someone else will make changes.

No one alters their water use habits unless they have to.

That said, is California water rationing the most effective route for the state?

The Alliance for Water Efficiency would say no.

After looking at several studies from various parts of the county, water restrictions aren’t an effective tool for maintaining the water supply during shortages.

If year-round restrictions are used, they tend to be less effective and successful than seasonal strategies.

This is because when regulations are in place for too long customers are liable to become restriction fatigued.

They care less about the issue at hand because they’ve been under the regulations for so long, and the conservation messages have lost their ability to influence their habits.

That’s not to say that messaging doesn’t have a place in water conservation.

When messaging and practice are enacted through the worst of the drought season, it tends to spark change among most residents.

People are most willing to conserve water when they know the restrictions will lift at some point.

This is why seasonal restrictions can also spur changes that last beyond a formal restriction period.

For instance, when residents install drought-free irrigation systems for their lawns and gardens, they’ll continue to use this equipment all year.

It doesn’t matter if the area is in a drought or not.

Thus, it’s helpful to encourage changes to fixtures and irrigation systems that will continue to conserve water without the resident having to alter their actions.

Another great example of a fixture that residents could install is low-flow toilets.

They help conserve water without the user having to about their actions at all.

Their only drawback is that they can clog more easily.

6. What are the most effective water conservation strategies?

Is the California water rationing effort the best way to go?

Here are some of the strategies to encourage water saving in drought conditions.

bulletCall for voluntary restrictions

This can be a helpful way to introduce an upcoming drought season.

That said, voluntary messaging and measures are often the least effective.

Most people won’t change their behavior if they have a choice.

bulletProvide clear messaging

Clear messaging is critical to an effective water restriction strategy.

Residents must understand when measures are active.

As noted above, people often do best with restrictions when there’s a clear end date.

Otherwise, they’re less likely to stick to them long-term.

They must also have clarity about the municipal expectations.

When guidelines are concrete and clear, residents are more likely to follow the rules.

bulletMake drought restrictions mandatory

With all that said, mandatory drought restrictions clearly have a place in water conservation and rationing.

An example of a practice that’s often included in drought restrictions is lawn watering.

Most municipalities that enact this will instruct their residents to only water on certain days.

The key to any compulsory restriction is that it must be temporary.

Seasonal strategies have an advantage over year-round strategies.

While people are willing to endure inconvenience for a limited time, their willingness to comply won’t last forever.

bulletGo for the wallet

Often, the most effective water conservation strategies are those impacting the wallets of residents.

People care about money, and when you impose surcharges, this can help with compliance.

One way to do this would be to impose fines if someone breaks the rules.

So, if people are only allowed to water their lawn once a week, and they’re found to be doing it more often, then a $500 fine if caught will prompt people to pay more attention.

They may not care about conserving water, but they will care about having to pay $500 because of their own negligence.

They’ll be sure to reset their sprinkler schedule.

bulletInvolve financial incentives

There’s also an incentive approach rather than a punitive approach.

Some municipalities are considering rewarding residents who use less water than permitted.

This is a divergence from the more common route of punishing people (through fines, for example) who exceed their water allotment.

Another option is to partner with a company that sells efficient plumbing fixtures and drought-free irrigation equipment to offer a discount or rebate to all residents who purchase them.

This can help get efficient equipment into residents’ homes and cut back on the water that is being used daily without it feeling like an arduous task.

California water rationing efforts have taken a slightly different approach.

A partnership between LACWD and the City of Malibu is offering residents a cash rebate for the removal of their grass lawns.

To get the rebate, they must install a more water-efficient option such as xeriscaping.

Residents can apply for a rebate of $1 per square foot of grass removed up to $5,000.

7. What are the impacts of water rationing?

When water rationing occurs, there is a greater chance of discoloration and contamination as a result of the water being shut down and pipes being emptied.

Water treatment is highly effective.

However, tiny particles in the water settle in pipes with low-flow velocities like dead-end pipes.

Particles that come from inside the pipe also add to this.

When water flows through the pipes again, the particles will be mixed into the water which creates discoloration.

If you begin to notice any water discoloration or possible contamination, reach out to your municipality to get your water tested as soon as possible.

You can also use home filtration systems or boil any drinking water to ensure it’s safe for consumption.

That said, if you happen to see discolored water during a rationing event, it’s best not to waste it.

Put it in a jug that you can use for flushing toilets.

While it may not be appropriate for consumption in any form, you can always use it for flushing.

When you’re in a drought or under water restrictions, finding a safe way to conserve and reuse water is essential!

8. Will California have a change in precipitation moving forward?

Overall, while climate models have attempted to predict the major increase or decrease in the average annual precipitation in the state, there hasn’t been a consensus on the changes that may occur in the 21st century.

That said, these models do agree that temperatures will continue to rise.

This means that water demands will rise significantly to meet evaporative losses.

There’s also evidence suggesting that the length and depth of droughts will increase in the coming years.

In the past, California has increasingly relied on groundwater during past droughts.

Yet, the groundwater resources of the state are displaying clear signs of unsustainability.

Residents have extracted groundwater from the water table in California for both agricultural and domestic purposes over the past 150 years.

This has caused the table to fall about 100 feet or so in some instances.

The deep aquifer level has also declined by even greater depths in parts of the San Joaquin Valley.

This is dangerous because it’s one of the most productive agricultural areas worldwide.

Moving forward, the San Joaquin Valley is anticipated to experience high degrees of warming.

This is likely to increase agricultural water demands in the region.

As a result, it won’t be possible to rely on groundwater to help with drought relief.

The state has reached its limit when it comes to this solution.

Another common solution that the state of California has used when it comes to resolving issues with droughts (other than water rationing) is the Colorado River.

Colorado is the largest single source of water for Southern California.

The river itself is fed by precipitation from faraway sources in Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado.

Each year, the water in the river is apportioned to the states of the Colorado Basin and Mexico.

California has been allotted the largest share of the river’s water (4.4 million acre-feet out of 16.5 million acre-feet).

Before 2003, California was also able to claim additional “surplus” water that could total more than 1 million acre-feet or more of additional water annually.

However, because the long-term average discharge of the river is now only 15 million acre-feet, the state agreed to wean itself down to its 4.4 million acre-feet portion.

9. What should you know about California’s water crisis?

California water rationing is inconvenient.

Having the government tell you when you can and cannot use water is annoying, but there’s a larger issue at hand.

The record-breaking drought in the state is not only because of low precipitation.

There are other factors at hand including rising temperatures, groundwater depletion, and the shrinking Colorado River.

Because California is the most populous state, its residents must learn to adjust.

Otherwise, they’re like to face years of water shortages and rationing.

Here’s how you can help so water rationing is not constantly necessary.

bulletChange your landscaping from all grass to a mix of drought-resistant plants 

bulletExpand the use of recycled water and desalination (this will likely lead to higher water costs)

bulletTry stormwater capture which can help on domestic and citywide scales

bulletInstall water-saving irrigation technologies for agricultural purposes (agriculture requires a LOT of water, and this means that cutting down on water used when irrigating crops can make a big difference)

Final Thoughts

California water rationing may not be fun for anyone, but it’s done out of necessity.

If you’re a California resident, start looking at what you can do to cut water usage around your home.

Investing in water-efficient appliances can help the state conserve water.

Unfortunately, it’s only likely to get worse because of climate change, so now is the time to adapt long-term!

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