Droughts are nowhere near a new phenomenon in California, and it can be easy to tune out the constant stream of emergency declarations and best practices.
But Santa Clara County has been in a drought emergency — a serious one — since early July. And it isn’t getting any better.
Here’s what you need to know about the current drought, including what it means for community members and what actions you can take to help.
WHAT IS A DROUGHT, REALLY?
Gary Kremen, a board member of the Santa Clara Valley Water District who represents cities including Palo Alto, Mountain View and Los Altos, said that the current dry cycle not only happened much quicker than previous cycles, but is also more severe.
“For hundreds, if not thousands of years, California has had wet and dry cycles,” Kremen said. “[But] these are the two worst years in recorded California history.”
Kremen cited the previous year’s dry spell as a factor in this severity.
Additionally, in drought times, the prioritization of different types of water usage comes into question and can leave certain uses with less access.
“Should we really reserve 50% of our water for the environment?” Kremen said. “That’s kind of what we always see people are saying. [They’ll ask], ‘Well, why are we allocating it all for the fish — why aren’t we having it for us to drink?’ … It’s very complicated and political.”
For community members, possible action mainly comes down to knowing what to keep an eye out for.
Examples given by Susan Cordone and Dawn Smithson of the California Water Service include speaking up if a property’s sprinklers are turned on within a couple of days after it rains, or if a neighbor is washing their driveway; these situations fall under Cal Water’s prohibited uses of water.
Other prohibited uses to identify around the community include having water systems that cause runoff off, using a hose for vehicle washing purposes (except when using certain nozzles) and the irrigation of newly constructed properties without drip or micro spray systems.
“Use your voice to educate people — a lot of people don’t even know,” Smithson said.
For example, Cordone encourages students to speak up if they notice a leak in school restrooms — “every drop counts” in a time like this.
“Water systems can lose even more than 10% of their water just through leaks,” Smithson said. “When you think of how many millions of millions of gallons are used each day, 10% of that is a lot.”
Household efforts to collect and use greywater (water collected from previous uses like sinks and baths) whenever possible can contribute to conservation — and of course cutting down on household water usage in areas such as showers and dishwashing. As a general rule, handwashing uses much more unnecessary water than dishwashing machines do, so opting for the latter is optimal in drought times.
“It’s up to each and every individual, in my opinion, to take a look at where water is being used in their life, and where we have control of that water use,” Cordone said.
Other actionable measures include removing grass lawns in favor of native plants. In fact, Valley Water’s Landscape Rebates program allows Santa Clara County residents and businesses to qualify for monetary rebates after converting high-water-use landscapes such as lawns and pools to more water-efficient landscapes.
Water conservation efforts like this are also in conjunction with local and state government restrictions. For example, the City of Mountain View wrote in a statement affirming its support for Gov. Newsom’s request for a 15% usage cutback.
“We work very closely with the local cities, and they will set ordinances and rules in place,” Smithson said. “We support that wholeheartedly.”
“We really want to emphasize the importance of making water conservation a California way of life at all times, regardless of drought or our rain situation,” said Catherine Elvert, utilities communications manager for the City of Palo Alto. “That’s just a smart way to go about living and treating the environment and [water is] such a precious, precious resource.”