SANTA MONICA, Calif. – Drops of rain fell on Josephine Miller’s 1920s bungalow — a watery relief in the midst of a punishing drought. Instead of flowing into storm drains and washing out to sea, an oversized tank harvested the precious resource to keep her thirsty citrus trees and vegetables from shriveling up on dry days.
Across Santa Monica, back-yard rain barrels and cisterns are becoming fashionable. Since 2010, the beach city has doled out 385 rebates to homeowners who direct rainwater back into their gardens as part of a broader effort to become water independent that also includes cleaning up contaminated groundwater and recycling water.
“This is kind of a no-brainer, low-hanging-fruit solution for anyone,” said Miller.
Searching for solutions
California is gripped by historic parched conditions that have dried up farmland and reservoirs and forced rural communities to ration water.
Even before this latest drought emergency, some agencies that historically draw their water from the overtapped Colorado River and Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta have taken steps to slash their dependence on water from outside sources and boost their own supplies. Past drought woes, particularly in the late 1980s and early ’90s, have forced some communities to rethink where their water comes from, and they’re increasingly realizing local sources are insurance against future dry weather.
Santa Monica, population 92,000, has perhaps the loftiest goal: to completely wean itself off outside water by 2020. The city long depended on its groundwater wells, but supplies became polluted in the mid-1990s from underground gasoline storage tank leaks and the addition of a fuel additive.
The contamination forced Santa Monica to buy most of its water from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a giant wholesaler that provides drinking water to nearly 19 million people in six counties. Meanwhile, the city used proceeds from settlements with oil companies responsible for the pollution to purge the wells. The cleanup, completed three years ago, allows the city to tap groundwater for up to 70 percent of its water needs.
Santa Monica is also investing in other water-conservation tactics, such as recycling and rain harvesting. Near the touristy Santa Monica Pier, a water recycling plant treats excess irrigation and other urban runoff that is then used to water parks, school grounds and a cemetery.
The drought has caught the attention of foreign leaders. During a recent swing through California, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Gov. Jerry Brown that the semiarid country has no water troubles because it emphasizes desalination, wastewater recycling and irrigation that uses less water than traditional sprinklers.
Kevin Wattier, Long Beach Water Department general manager, said incentives are important, but there’s no substitute for educating people to stop watering sidewalks. “People need to quit wasting water. It’s that simple.”