California Drought, climate change, past megadroughts, impacts on birds, policies that work and what we can do




Leading Scientists Explain How Climate Change Is Worsening California’s Epic Drought

By Joe Romm on January 31, 2014 at 9:15 am

Scientists have long predicted that climate change would bring on ever-worsening droughts, especially in semi-arid regions like the U.S. Southwest. As climatologist James Hansen, who co-authored one of the earliest studies on this subject back in 1990, told me this week, “Increasingly intense droughts in California, all of the Southwest, and even into the Midwest have everything to do with human-made climate change.” Why does it matter if climate change is playing a role in the Western drought? As one top researcher on the climate-drought link reconfirmed with me this week, “The U.S. may never again return to the relatively wet conditions experienced from 1977 to 1999.” If his and other projections are correct, then there may be no greater tasks facing humanity than 1) working to slash carbon pollution and avoid the worst climate impact scenarios and 2) figuring out how to feed nine billion people by mid-century in a Dust-Bowl-ifying world.

Remarkably, climate scientists specifically predicted a decade ago that Arctic ice loss would bring on worse droughts in the West, especially California. As it turns out, Arctic ice loss has been much faster than the researchers — and indeed all climate modelers — expected. And, of course, California is now in the death-grip of a brutal, record-breaking drought, driven by the very change in the jet stream that scientists had anticipated. Is this just an amazing coincidence — or were the scientists right? And what would that mean for the future? Building on my post from last summer, I talked to the lead researcher and several other of the world’s leading climatologists and drought experts.

First, a little background. Climate change makes Western droughts longer and stronger and more frequent in several ways, as I discussed in my 2011 literature review in the journal Nature:….

precipitation patterns are expected to shift, expanding the dry subtropics. What precipitation there is will probably come in extreme deluges, resulting in runoff rather than drought alleviation. Warming causes greater evaporation and, once the ground is dry, the Sun’s energy goes into baking the soil, leading to a further increase in air temperature. That is why, for instance, so many temperature records were set for the United States in the 1930s Dust Bowl; and why, in 2011, drought-stricken Texas saw the hottest summer ever recorded for a US state. Finally, many regions are expected to see earlier snowmelt, so less water will be stored on mountain tops for the summer dry season.


I labeled this synergy Dust-Bowlification. The West has gotten hotter thanks to global warming, and that alone is problematic for California. “The extra heat from the increase in heat trapping gases in the atmosphere over six months is equivalent to running a small microwave oven at full power for about half an hour over every square foot of the land under the drought,” climatologist Kevin Trenberth explained to me via email, during a drought. “No wonder wild fires have increased! So climate change undoubtedly affects the intensity and duration of drought, and it has consequences. California must be very vigilant with regard to wild fires as the spring arrives.”


Climate change undoubtedly affects the intensity and duration of drought, and it has consequences. And then we have the observed earlier snow melt, which matters in the West because it robs the region of a reservoir needed for the summer dry season — see “US Geological Survey (2011): Global Warming Drives Rockies Snowpack Loss Unrivaled in 800 Years, Threatens Western Water Supply” and “USGS (2013): Warmer Springs Causing Loss Of Snow Cover Throughout The Rocky Mountains.” As climatologist and water expert Peter Gleick noted to me, quite separate from the impact of climate change on precipitation, “look at the temperature patterns here, which are leading to a greater ratio of rain-to-snow, faster melting of snow, and greater evaporation. Those changes alone make any drought more intense.”


But what of the possibility that climate change is actually contributing to the reduction in rainfall? After all, as Daniel Swain has noted, “calendar year 2013 was the driest on record in California’s 119 year formal record, and likely the driest since at least the Gold Rush era.” Trenberth explained that, according to climate models, “some areas are more likely to get drier including the SW: In part this relates a bit to the “wet get wetter and dry get drier” syndrome, so the subtropics are more apt to become drier. It also relates to the expansion and poleward shift of the tropics.”

Back in 2005, I first heard climatologist Jonathan Overpeck discuss evidence that temperature and annual precipitation had started to head in opposite directions in the U.S. Southwest, which raises the question of whether we are at the “dawn of the super-interglacial drought.” Overpeck, a leading drought expert at the University of Arizona, warned “climate change seldom occurs gradually.”


What’s going on in the Southwest is what anthropogenic global warming looks like for the region. In a major 2008 USGS report, Abrupt Climate Change, the Bush Administration (!) warned:
“In the Southwest, for example, the models project a permanent drying by the mid-21st century that reaches the level of aridity seen in historical droughts, and a quarter of the projections may reach this level of aridity much earlier.” In 2011 US Senate testimony, Overpeck stated:

There is broad agreement in the climate science research community that the Southwest, including New Mexico, will very likely continue to warm. There is also a strong consensus that the same region will become drier and increasingly snow-free with time, particularly in the winter and spring. Climate science also suggests that the warmer atmosphere will lead to more frequent and more severe (drier) droughts in the future. All of the above changes have already started, in large part driven by human-caused climate change.

Overpeck told me this week, “because I think the science only gets stronger with time, I’ll stick to my statements that you quote.” He added, “what’s going on in the Southwest is what anthropogenic global warming looks like for the region.”


Beyond the expansion and drying of the subtropics predicted by climate models, some climatologists have found in their research evidence that the stunning decline in Arctic sea ice would also drive western drought — by shifting storm tracks.

“Given the very large reductions in Arctic sea ice, and the heat escaping from the Arctic ocean into the overlying atmosphere, it would be surprising if the retreat in Arctic sea ice did *not* modify the large-scale circulation of the atmosphere in some way,” Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, told me this week. “We now have a healthy body of research, ranging from Lisa Sloan’s and Jacob Sewall’s work a decade ago, to Francis’s more recent work, suggesting that we may indeed be seeing already this now in the form of more persistent anomalies in temperature, rainfall, and drought in North America.”



Back in 2004, Lisa Sloan, professor of Earth sciences at UC Santa Cruz, and her graduate student Jacob Sewall published an article in Geophysical Research Letters, “Disappearing Arctic sea ice reduces available water in the American west” (subs. req’d). As the news release at the time explained, they “used powerful computers running a global climate model developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) to simulate the effects of reduced Arctic sea ice.” And “their most striking finding was a significant reduction in rain and snowfall in the American West.”


“Where the sea ice is reduced, heat transfer from the ocean warms the atmosphere, resulting in a rising column of relatively warm air,” Sewall said. “The shift in storm tracks over North America was linked to the formation of these columns of warmer air over areas of reduced sea ice in the Greenland Sea and a few other locations.” Last year, I contacted Sloan to ask her if she thought there was a connection between the staggering loss of Arctic sea ice and the brutal drought gripping the West, as her research predicted. She wrote, “Yes, sadly, I think we were correct in our findings, and it will only be worse with Arctic sea ice diminishing quickly.” This week, Sewall wrote me that “both the pattern and even the magnitude of the anomaly looks very similar to what the models predicted in the 2005 study (see Fig. 3a).” Here is what Sewall’s model predicted in his 2005 paper, “Precipitation Shifts over Western North America as a Result of Declining Arctic Sea Ice Cover“:


Figure 3a: Differences in DJF [winter] averaged atmospheric quantities due to an imposed reduction in Arctic sea ice cover. The 500-millibar geopotential height (meters) increases by up to 70 m off the west coast of North America. Increased geopotential height deflects storms away from the dry locus and north into the wet locus


“Geopotential height” is basically the height above mean sea level for a given pressure level. The “500 mb level is often referred to as the steering level as most weather systems and precipitation follow the winds at this level…. This level averages around 18,000 feet above sea level and is roughly half-way up through the weather producing part of the atmosphere called the troposphere.”

Now here is what the 500 mb geopotential height anomaly looked like over the last year, via NOAA:


Look familiar? That is either an accurate prediction or one heck of a coincidence. The San Jose Mercury News described what was happening in layman’s terms:

… meteorologists have fixed their attention on the scientific phenomenon they say is to blame for the emerging drought: a vast zone of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast, nearly four miles high and 2,000 miles long, so stubborn that one researcher [Swain] has dubbed it the “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge.” Like a brick wall, the mass of high pressure air has been blocking Pacific winter storms from coming ashore in California, deflecting them up into Alaska and British Columbia, even delivering rain and cold weather to the East Coast. This high pressure ridge is forcing the jet stream along a much more northerly track. Sewall told me that multiple factors are driving drought in California:

There are, of course, caveats. This is one year, the model studies were looking at averages of multiple decades (20 or 50 years). There are other factors besides the Arctic ice that influence storm tracks; some preliminary work suggests that a strong El Nino overwhelms any influence of the ice. In El Nino “neutral” times (such as recently), the ice impact can have more of an effect.

And for this year, it looks like ice may well be having more of an effect.
The geopotential height anomaly looks very much like what the models predicted as sea ice declined. The storm track response also looks very similar with correspondingly similar impacts on precipitation (reduced rainfall in CA, increased precipitation in SE Alaska). While other factors play an influence, the similarity of these patterns certainly suggests that we shouldn’t discount warming climate and declining Arctic sea ice as culprits in the CA drought.


NOAA and Prof. Jennifer Francis of Rutgers have more recently shown that the loss of Arctic ice is boosting the chances of extreme US weather.

…this extremely distorted and persistent jet stream pattern is an excellent example of what we expect to occur more frequently as Arctic ice continues to melt.

Francis told me this week that “the highly amplified pattern that the jet stream has been in since early December is certainly playing a role in the CA drought. The extremely strong ridge over Alaska has been very persistent and has caused record warmth and unprecedented winter rains in parts of AK while preventing Pacific storms from delivering rain to CA,” she explained. “But is this pattern a result of human-caused climate change, or more specifically, to rapid Arctic warming and the dramatic losses of sea ice? It’s very difficult to pin any specific weather event on climate change, but this extremely distorted and persistent jet stream pattern is an excellent example of what we expect to occur more frequently as Arctic ice continues to melt.”

While there is no doubt that climate change is making droughts more intense, the specific connection the loss of Arctic ice is emerging science, and some, like Trenberth, are skeptical that the case has been made.


Whether or not there is a proven link to the loss of Arctic ice, Senior Weather Channel meteorologist (and former skeptic) Stu Ostro has been documenting “large magnitude ridges in the mid-upper level geopotential height field” lasting as long as many months that “have been conspicuous in the meteorology of extreme weather phenomena.” Ostro gave a talk last year (with Franics), and as Climate Desk summarized, “Ostro’s observations suggest that global warming is increasing the atmosphere’s thickness, leading to stronger and more persistent ridges of high pressure, which in turn are a key to temperature, rainfall, and snowfall extremes and topsy-turvy weather patterns like we’ve had in recent years.”


The climate is changing. “All of our weather is now, and increasingly in the future, influenced by climate change,” Gleick wrote me. “The question about attribution (i.e., is this drought caused by climate change) is, of course, the wrong question — easy for deniers to dismiss because it is not easy to show unambiguous links to some kinds of individual events.” What is especially worrisome is that climate change has only just started to have an impact on Western droughts. We’ve only warmed 1.5°F in the past century. Absent strong climate action, we are on track to warm 10°F over the next century!


We continue to dawdle even though scientists have been warning us of what was coming for decades. Hansen himself co-authored a 1990 study, “Potential evapotranspiration and the likelihood of future drought,” which projected that severe to extreme drought in the United States, then occurring every 20 years or so, could become an every-other-year phenomenon by mid-century.


So we should listen to Hansen’s current warnings. In 2012 he warned in the NY Times of a return to Dust Bowls, writing, “over the next several decades, the Western United States and the semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will develop semi-permanent drought … California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.” Hansen repeated those concerns in an email to me this week, noting that the current drought “will break, of course, likely with the upcoming El Nino, but as long as we keep increasing greenhouse gases, intense droughts will increase, especially in the Southwest. Rainfall, when and where it comes will tend to be in more intense events, with more extreme flooding. These are not speculations, the science is clear.”


How long can these droughts last? They have lasted for decades in the distant past, and one 2010 study warned that we could see “an unprecedented combination” of multi-decade droughts “with even warmer temperatures.” Drought researcher Aiguo Dai was quoted in a 2012 NCAR news release for a 2012 study warning, “The U.S. may never again return to the relatively wet conditions experienced from 1977 to 1999.” This week I asked him, “Do you still stand by that statement?” He replied:

Yes, I still stand by that statement. The model projections have not changed. To the extent we can trust the CMIP [Coupled Model Intercomparison Project] model projections, I still think the U.S. will experience increased risk of drought in the coming decades. What has been happening during recent years in the central and western U.S. is very consistent to what I have been predicting: both the natural variability (IPO [Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation]) and human-induced climate change will increase the risk of drought over these regions for the next 1-2 decades. After that, the IPO may switch to a positive phase that normally would bring more rain over the U.S. regions, but by that time the human-induced warming have over-dominate the natural variability, with the U.S. regions still in drier conditions (compared with the 1980s-1990s).


Finally, a 2009 NOAA-led paper warned that, for the Southwest and many semi-arid regions around the world, “the climate change that is taking place because of increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop.” Impacts that should be expected if we don’t aggressively slash carbon pollution “are irreversible dry-season rainfall reductions in several regions comparable to those of the ‘dust bowl’ era.”


When the climate changes, it ain’t gonna change back.



California drought: Past dry periods have lasted more than 200 years, scientists say

By Paul Rogers San Jose Mercury News Posted:   01/25/2014 04:21:50 PM PST |

A boat dock is nowhere near the low water level at the Stevens Creek Reservoir in Cupertino, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014.


California’s current drought is being billed as the driest period in the state’s recorded rainfall history. But scientists who study the West’s long-term climate patterns say the state has been parched for much longer stretches before that 163-year historical period began. And they worry that the “megadroughts” typical of California’s earlier history could come again.

Through studies of tree rings, sediment and other natural evidence, researchers have documented multiple droughts in California that lasted 10 or 20 years in a row during the past 1,000 years — compared to the mere three-year duration of the current dry spell. The two most severe megadroughts make the Dust Bowl of the 1930s look tame: a 240-year-long drought that started in 850 and, 50 years after the conclusion of that one, another that stretched at least 180 years.

We continue to run California as if the longest drought we are ever going to encounter is about seven years,” said Scott Stine, a professor of geography and environmental studies at Cal State East Bay. “We’re living in a dream world.”

California in 2013 received less rain than in any year since it became a state in 1850. And at least one Bay Area scientist says that based on tree ring data, the current rainfall season is on pace to be the driest since 1580 — more than 150 years before George Washington was born. The question is: How much longer will it last?

A megadrought today would have catastrophic effects. California, the nation’s most populous state with 38 million residents, has built a massive economy, Silicon Valley, Hollywood and millions of acres of farmland, all in a semiarid area. The state’s dams, canals and reservoirs have never been tested by the kind of prolonged drought that experts say will almost certainly occur again.

Stine, who has spent decades studying tree stumps in Mono Lake, Tenaya Lake, the Walker River and other parts of the Sierra Nevada, said that the past century has been among the wettest of the last 7,000 years.
Looking back, the long-term record also shows some staggeringly wet periods. The decades between the two medieval megadroughts, for example, delivered years of above-normal rainfall — the kind that would cause devastating floods today. The longest droughts of the 20th century, what Californians think of as severe, occurred from 1987 to 1992 and from 1928 to 1934. Both, Stine said, are minor compared to the ancient droughts of 850 to 1090 and 1140 to 1320. What would happen if the current drought continued for another 10 years or more? Without question, longtime water experts say, farmers would bear the brunt. Cities would suffer but adapt….



Prolonged drought forces birds from Central Valley fields

By Edward Ortiz January 31, 2014 Sacramento Bee

On a typical January in the Sacramento Valley, the rice fields are ankle-deep in water – and full of birds that use them for food and shelter. This year, however, lack of rain and limited access to allocated water has forced rice growers to leave fields dry. The result: Waterfowl are changing where and how they congregate and when they fly. South of Sacramento, in the San Joaquin Valley, scientists have seen a significant drop in the number of migratory waterfowl. Almost all of the 550,000 acres of rice planted in the state is in the Sacramento Valley – where farmers keep rice fields flooded in the winter as much to create “surrogate wetlands” for birds as to decompose rice straw. That flooding is considered crucial to waterfowl, given that only 3 percent of the state’s historic wetlands remain, the rest displaced by farmland and urban growth. Nearly 7 million waterfowl and 300,000 shorebirds annually visit the Sacramento Valley, a key stop on the Pacific Flyway. A majority of the food they eat comes from rice fields. “The few places that have water – they have birds,” said rice grower Tom McClellan. “But you’re not seeing a great number of birds.” The effect of the drought is most telling in the western part of the Sacramento Valley, where McClellan farms. He has not been able to replenish his fields with water. When drought conditions take hold, the federal Bureau of Reclamation looks to rice decomposition water for additional supplies. When that happens, as it has this year, water cannot be diverted to McClellan’s farm from the federally controlled Sacramento River. Whatever water is found on his property is water that already existed in storage drains, he said. As a result, many of the 1,500 acres that McClellan farms in Sacramento and Sutter counties are now dry. …Studies have shown that when rice field burning was replaced with flooding in the 1990s, the change had a positive effect on waterfowl. “We saw an increase in the winter body weight of many duck species,” said Greg Yarris, wildlife biologist … [Central Valley Joint Venture]. “Birds that have higher weight have higher survival weights and will reproduce at higher rates come spring.”

Disease rates also plummet when weights are higher, he said. How the drought is affecting bird populations in the Sacramento Valley is still unclear. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife is conducting its annual midwinter survey of birds in the Sacramento Valley and expects to release results in the first week of February, said Melanie Weaver, an environmental scientist with the department.

Currently, the only thing that is known for sure is that a dry spring will affect bird breeding, Weaver said. “If there is no rain going into summer – that would be bad,” said Weaver. “It doesn’t mean that ducks are going to disappear from the landscape. We’ve had drought cycles before and they’ve gone through that.”

“But less water means that hens do not have an area to take their broods, or ducklings,” she said. “They don’t have a safe place to molt.”……

California drought lessons – what works, what doesn’t

Ellen Hanak and Jay Lund SF Chronicle Published 4:51 pm, Sunday, January 26, 2014


California is now officially in a drought emergency, and the signs are bleak: record-low flows in many rivers and streams, shrinking reservoirs and mountain snowpack at just one-fifth of normal. The governor’s declaration of drought won’t reverse these trends, but it does increase the state’s flexibility to help manage available supplies and reduce hardships for some communities. Past droughts show us that this crisis is not only a challenge, but also an opportunity for making California’s water system better able to support its cities, farms and environment. The challenge is to avoid making hasty decisions that provide some short-term relief at a much higher long-term cost.


During the longest recent drought, 1987 to 1992, California’s water managers fell prey to this temptation when deciding how much water to export from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Water was pumped from the delta to supply cities and farms at record-high levels, dramatically changing flow and salinity conditions, and favoring the proliferation of invasive species that compete with native species for food and habitat. Notably, the overbite clam, which strips plankton from the western delta, became widespread during the drought. These invasions helped set the stage for the dramatic declines of delta smelt and other native fish species that have plagued the management of this system ever since.

Grants for drilling

Another example of imprudent crisis management comes from the most recent drought, from 2007 to 2009, when federal aid to San Joaquin Valley farmers came in the form of grants to drill more wells. Groundwater is often valuable during droughts, but in places that are already severely over-tapped, additional pumping can cause significant harm. In this case, excessive pumping during the drought accelerated the sinking of lands near major infrastructure, damaging the California Aqueduct, a key artery in the state’s water system.

Fortunately, California has also gotten it right in some important ways during past droughts. The drought in 1977 – before now, the single driest year on record – led to widespread urban water conservation and spurred the creation of a water market, in which those who have relatively ample supplies can lease water to those who don’t. Agencies within the federal Central Valley Project traded among themselves that year, and the Legislature subsequently passed a series of laws to facilitate trading more broadly. The state led the way in developing this market as the 1987-92 drought unfolded, reducing the costs of water shortages to cities, farms and wildlife refuges. That drought also saw the launch of the California Urban Water Conservation Council, a collaborative effort among the state’s urban water agencies to manage demand and reduce per capita water use over the longer term.

Protecting communities

The 1987-92 drought also spurred broader thinking about making communities more drought-resistant, and in subsequent years numerous investments have occurred in groundwater storage, new surface storage in local reservoirs, reuse of highly treated recycled wastewater, and even desalination. Local Bay Area agencies have also invested to interconnect their systems so that they can help one another during emergencies.

Without all these measures, California would be facing a much more serious water crisis today. Indeed, Southern California cities and suburbs are in relatively good shape despite a third year of dry weather, thanks to systematic attention to reducing water use and diversifying supply sources.

So, how can we leverage this current drought to address short-term emergency needs while making our water system more resilient? One priority is improving the water market. Opaque and shifting trading rules and cumbersome approval procedures diminished the effectiveness of the market during the 2007-09 drought. The current drought emergency offers an opportunity to focus high-level state, federal and local agency attention on how to simplify trading rules without compromising protection for the environment and others who might be harmed by water trading.

Another priority is to prevent irreparable harm to our overtaxed groundwater basins. Instead of freely spending tax dollars on new irrigation wells that will exacerbate the problem, agencies might better spend those funds on needy communities affected by the reduced agricultural activity that is unavoidable in a major drought.

And last, but not least, officials need to make balanced decisions about allocating water to cities, farms and the environment. As part of this effort, we should be prepared to use public funds to purchase additional water to support habitat for fish and wildlife.

California’s leaders – and all Californians – are facing a major challenge, but this is not the first time we’ve faced a drought, and it won’t be the last. It’s time, once again, to roll up our sleeves and make sure we don’t let a good crisis go to waste. Managing this crisis well will help ensure that the next one is less critical.

Online: To read more about the California drought, go to

Ellen Hanak is a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California and Jay Lund is director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis and adjunct fellow at PPIC. Jeffrey Mount, a PPIC senior fellow, also contributed to this commentary.


What We Can Do

Water is a critical part of California’s way of life. Our economy, our environment and our day-to-day lifestyle need water to flourish.  But our water is limited–especially this year. The lack of rain and snow mean that our water supply will be challenged to meet the state’s needs.  Conservation will help us stretch the water that we do have.  California is suffering from a drought so we cannot afford to waste any water.  The good news is there are lots of simple ways to reduce the amount of water that we use at home, both inside and outside.  If we all work together, we can make a difference for California’s future.

* Follow our easy tips both indoors and outdoors and start saving water every day. 

* Tour the California Urban Water Conservation Council’s interactive H2ouse to learn more ways to save water indoors and outdoors!

Calculate Your Water Use at Home

Use our handy calculator to find out how much water you use inside and outside each day!

Saving Water, INDOORS

It’s easy to save water at home. Learn new ways to conserve indoors and outdoors. Water is essential to each of us every day. But it’s a limited resource, so we all need to rethink the way we use water on a daily basis. By following these water-saving tips inside your home, you can help save water every day:

Laundry Room

  • Use the washing machine for full loads only to save water and energy
  • Install a water-efficient clothes washer Save: 16 Gallons/Load 
  • Washing dark clothes in cold water saves water and energy, and helps your clothes retain their color.


  • Run the dishwasher only when full to save water and energy.
  • Install a water- and energy-efficient dishwasher.  Save: 3 to 8 Gallons/Load.
  • Install aerators on the kitchen faucet to reduce flows to less than 1 gallon per minute. 
  • When washing dishes by hand, don’t let the water run. Fill one basin with wash water and the other with rinse water.
  • Dishwashers typically use less water than washing dishes by hand.
  • If your dishwasher is new, cut back on rinsing. Newer models clean more thoroughly than older ones.
  • Soak pots and pans instead of letting the water run while you scrape them clean.
  • Use the garbage disposal sparingly. Instead, compost vegetable food waste and save gallons every time.
  • Wash your fruits and vegetables in a pan of water instead of running water from the tap.
  • Don’t use running water to thaw food.   Defrost food in the refrigerator.
  • Keep a pitcher of drinking water in the refrigerator instead of running the tap.
  • Cook food in as little water as possible. This also helps it retain more nutrients.
  • Select the proper pan size for cooking. Large pans may require more cooking water than necessary.
  • If you accidentally drop ice cubes, don’t throw them in the sink. Drop them in a house plant instead.
  • Collect the water you use while rinsing fruit and vegetables. Use it to water house plants.


  • Install low-flow shower heads. Save: 2.5 Gallons
  • Take five minute showers instead of 10 minute showers. Save:  12.5 gallons with a low flow showerhead, 25 gallons with a standard 5.0 gallon per minute showerhead.
  • Fill the bathtub halfway or less. Save: 12 Gallons
  • When running a bath, plug the bathtub before turning on the water. Adjust the temperature as the tub fills.
  • Install aerators on bathroom faucets. Save: 1.2 Gallons Per Person/Day
  • Turn water off when brushing teeth or shaving. Save: Approximately 10 Gallons/Day
  • Install a high-efficiency toilet. Save: 19 Gallons Per Person/Day Read more about toilets.
  • Don’t use the toilet as a wastebasket.
  • Be sure to test your toilet for leaks at least once a year.
  • Put food coloring in your toilet tank. If it seeps into the bowl without flushing, there’s a leak. Fix it and start saving gallons.
  • Consider buying a dual-flush toilet. It has two flush options: a half-flush for liquid waste and a full-flush for solid waste.
  • Plug the sink instead of running the water to rinse your razor and save up to 300 gallons a month.
  • Turn off the water while washing your hair and save up to 150 gallons a month.
  • When washing your hands, turn the water off while you lather.
  • Take a (short) shower instead of a bath. A bathtub can use up to 70 gallons of water.



Most Californians think that they use more water indoors than outdoors.  Typically, the opposite is true.  In some areas, 50% or more of the water we use daily goes on lawns and outdoor landscaping.  There are lots of ways to save water at home, but reducing the water you use outdoors can make the biggest difference of all.  Here are a few easy ways to change the way you use water outside your home.

Know the Basics

  • Water early in the morning or later in the evening when temperatures are cooler.   Save: 25 gallons/each time you water
  • Check your sprinkler system frequently and adjust sprinklers so only your lawn is watered and not the house, sidewalk, or street. Save: 15-12 gallons/each time you water
  • Choose a water-efficient irrigation system such as drip irrigation for your trees, shrubs, and flowers. Save: 15 gallons/each time you water.
  • Water deeply but less frequently to create healthier and stronger landscapes.
  • Put a layer of mulch around trees and plants to reduce evaporation and keep the soil cool. Organic mulch also improves the soil and prevents weeds. Save: 20-30 gallons/each time you water/1,000 sq. ft.
  • Plant drought-resistant trees and plants. Save: 30- 60 gallons/each time you water/1,000 sq. ft

Don’t Overwater

One easy way to cut down how much water you use outdoors is to learn how much water your landscaping actually needs in order to thrive.  Overwatering is one of the most common mistakes people make.  To understand how much water your landscaping really needs, learn more about evapotranspiration (ET) here.  For Southern California residents, try this easy watering calculator to help determine how much you should be watering outside.  

Get Smart

If you really want to be a sophisticated water user, invest in a weather-based irrigation controller—or a smart controller. These devices will automatically adjust the watering time and frequency based on soil moisture, rain, wind, and evaporation and transpiration rates.  Check with your local water agency to see if there is a rebate available for the purchase of a smart controller.  

Know Your Climate

One way to save water outdoors is to plant the right plants for your climate. Here are some tools to help you learn how to be a water-wise gardener:

Outdoor Cleanup

Water is often a go-to tool for outdoor clean-up jobs.   

  • Use a broom to clean driveways, sidewalks and patios. Save: 8-18 gallons /minute.
  • Wash cars/boats with a bucket, sponge, and hose with self-closing nozzle. Save: 8-18 gallons/minute.
  • Invest in a water broom.  If you have to use water to clean up outside, a water broom will attach to your hose but uses a combination of air and water pressure to aid cleaning. Water brooms can use as little as 2.8 gallons per minute (gpm) to remove dirt, food spills, leaves, and litter from concrete and asphalt while a standard hose typically uses 5 to 20 gpm.

Click here for more information ways to save water outdoors. For more information on water-wise sprinklers, visit Sprinklers 101.


Build a Beautiful Water-Wise Garden

See gardening tips and photo galleries with interactive garden and plant images.


Upfront: Fifty shades of graywater
(became legal in Marin County in 2011)

Drought solutions flooding in as agencies take action by Peter Seidman January 30 2014 Pacific Sun

….. According to the newly created WaterNow website, “Today’s best opportunities are at the beginning and the end of the water use cycle. Source water landscapes—watersheds—provide enormously important services capturing, storing, filtering and releasing water for downstream consumption. Ensuring the health of this green infrastructure is vital for water quality and supply. Once potable water has reached our homes and businesses, there are major opportunities for conserving and reusing this expensive resource that we are only now, and slowly, beginning to employ.” ……Promoting methods to use graywater, for instance, is a major part of the WaterNow rollout in Marin….The WaterNow goals to promote sustainable water use and technologies fall into two broad categories: restoring and maintaining watershed land in the state and promoting what WaterNow calls “urban water use.” That includes recycling and reusing water. It also involves reducing the amount of potable water used for irrigations and other outdoor purposes. In Marin that outdoor use accounts for about 60 percent of the total supply….


A major focus of the WaterNow strategy for Marin focuses on increasing the use of graywater, which is the wastewater that doesn’t include serious contaminants. Baths, showers and clothes washers generate graywater. Wastewater from toilets, kitchen sinks and dishwashers is called blackwater. Graywater can be used to irrigate. Considering the large amount of water used outdoors, graywater could become a valuable water source in the Marin district. ….Promoting the use of graywater can stretch a water supply, essentially creating a new supply source, but more mundane strategies also can make a big difference. Dan Carney, conservation manager at the district, says customers with large yards can meet a 25-percent reduction target just by turning off their outdoor irrigation systems and watering manually. He notes, however, that many customers don’t have large yards, or any yards. “But a lot of people,” he notes, “still have older toilets, and changing to a high-efficiency toilet can sometimes cut a flush in half.” That, along with installing a high-efficiency showerhead “can get to 20 to 25 percent right there.”


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