California’s Drought and What To Do About It


By this summer, due to the worst drought in memory, California will resemble the desert planet Arakis in Frank Herbert’s novel Dune. Not only will we be watering our lawns less, we’ll be drinking our own urine. Knife fights with a bikini clad Sting will break out and we’ll be trading our bikes for rides on the over-sized worms emerging from our compost bins. But I digress. Let’s cover what we’re doing at the Root Simple compound.

  • We’ve expanded our drought tolerant plantings over the past few years. These plants use less water and encourage beneficial wildlife. I consider them part of the vegetable garden, in a way.
  • I just made a major change to our laundry to landscape greywater system–more on this in another post.
  • I’ve consulted historical irrigation data to more intelligently program our drip irrigation system.

Keep in mind that 77% of California’s water use goes to agriculture (the media tends to forget this). Residential water use is a small part of the total. That being said, there’s a lot more we can do–the residents of Sydney Australia use half as much water per person as Californians in a similar climate.

I’m fairly certain we’ll eke our way out of this crisis but I’m not sure about the next one. In the meantime I’ll be walking without rhythm so as not to attract those big worms.

What are you doing to deal with the drought? If you’re outside of California, how are you surviving those arctic vortexes?

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  1. While you folks have been worrying about your water, we’ve had more than we can stand in the form of snow. On Monday, nearly 8″ fell, then yesterday there was another 8″ – topped with a lovely 1/4″ of ice, which makes the shoveing especially grueling. Yes, we do live in a place that gets “real” winters, but I can’t recall too many when more snow fell, and certainly none when the temperatures were as low as they’ve been. I don’t think it got out of the teens for the entire month of January and it was in the negative double-digits most nights.

    So, what have we been doing? Wearing layers of thermal underwear and extra sweaters, being grateful that we put that extra layer of 1″ foam insulation around each of the beehives, shoveling the driveway over and over (it is so much longer and wider in winter than in summer) and being grateful that the nasty storm of 2012 felled so many trees that we have extra firewood for this year. Oh, we’re also reading a lot of seed catalogues.

  2. What Donna said! I’m tired of the wind and cold, but am thankful for the snow and ice cover on the Great Lakes. Hopefully, the snow melt will fill the lakes a bit and they won’t evaporate as much with the ice cover. But really, I’m READY for Spring!!

  3. I know what one of our neighbors will do. He will reprogram the timers for the lawn irrigation to turn on everyday at 3am instead of 6 or 7 in the hopes no one will notice. He explained that this was his go-to plan during water shortages.

    • Here in Texas you can report people violating restrictions. They send out a warning and apparently 95% of people change their behavior because a second offense ends in a huge fine.

      We just bought land here in south Texas over the summer. Our tiny house will be parked upon it. There’s already one rainwater tank and we’ll be adding more and installing a full catchment system. We’ll have a Humanure bucket toilet, and a greywater system going underground to edibles for both of our sinks, the shower, and our hand-crank WonderWash laundry unit. I’m still doing research, but the plan is to make hugelkultur berms all over the property and have a branched drain system for the greywater going under each one. Then I’ll be attempting to grow food from those berms. My long-term plan is to use the space as a sort of test-site for the drought-stricken Hill Country and educate as many people as I can about how they can turn their lawns into edibles or at least rainwater harvesting earthwork swales.

      On the 77% of water being used for agricultural purposes topic, this just shows the importance of growing as much of your own food as you can. Preaching to the RootSimple choir here. I only wish our city government would ban front lawns before the water crisis reaches “drink your own urine” levels. But I don’t have a lot of hope there.

  4. “Walking without rhythm” LOLOL

    Next time, warn me. That really woke me up as I laughed and gasped my way awake! Then, I choked for a bit. The coughing so long and hard afterward must surely be good for my heart. Or not.

    You can have some of my “humid subtropical climate.” When the temperature reached 7F, I seriously thought about where I could go that was a little more comfortable. But, a drought as serious as you and the news describes makes me wonder if this area will ever succumb to such conditions. All the rocks in my yard have nice green mold.

    I think of California as a lush landscape. Maybe I should reform my vision. The news lady on NBC is announcing right now rain for CA. Can you take some real life pictures of the result of the drought in your area/neighborhood?

  5. Can’t wait for your graywater post. My parents used to have tubing that went out the window from the washing machine, but they have a lot of renters in the house now and everyone uses different detergent. They got a new washing machine since and the tubing was dismantled. :/ i would be concerned about all that excessive soap.

    • I’m interested in a post on laundry greywater too. I use soap nuts, which I think would be less of a worry than all that detergent and fabric softener although they still contain plenty of saponin.

  6. With 4 of us at home, we do at least one load of wash per day. I catch both the wash and rinse cycles in plastic trash barrels from our washing machine. This amounts to about 80 gals of water saved per day. We use the wash water for flushing the toilets and, on occasion when it’s dirty, for washing down the driveway. We use the rinse water for hand watering our garden.

    • Max, it’s great that you’re saving so much water, but Erik and I wanted to check and make sure that you’re using greywater compatible soap in your laundry, even if you’re just using the rinse water. The salts in detergents, even eco detergents, deposit salts in the soil, causing leaf burn and other things–especially here in SoCal, where the soils are already salty.

      We use Oasis BioCompatible, which, unfortunately, we have to order online. On the good side, it’s superconcentrated so a gallon lasts a long time.

  7. I don’t live anywhere near CA. I’m honestly a little worried about all the fresh produce that gets grown in CA. Will that constant stream diminish? Are other states in a position to pick up that slack quickly? Or will we see instances of veggie and fruit outages in far flung US cities?

    • First, I don’t think you have to worry about shortages in the immediate future–the water game is huge and complex and I doubt they’re going to let the Central Valley go dry without a protracted fight. Price rises…maybe.

      That said, CA agriculture seems to me to be inherently unstable and fragile and almost overly dependent on imported water. Furthermore, I’ve seen climate change projections that make most of the state look like a desert by 2040.

      All this is to say that I believe that the current drought should be considered a warning. All of us need to support and encourage our own local farmers, for reasons of flavor, variety, increased nutrition as well as oil-savings and food security. We need to re-establish local food systems all across the country. And grow our own, too, of course!

  8. What timing! (I just posted about the CA drought myself)

    A couple of years ago we ripped out 2/3 of the lawn out front and the only regret I have is that we didn’t finish the job!

    We decided to let the back lawn die this year, and of course just when it started getting brown and crunchy, (we live up in the Bay Area) we started getting some rain.

    Now, if we only knew what was causing all the camphor trees on our block to weep, we’d be even happier. At least the rain is washing the goo off of the streets and sidewalks.

    Looking forward to reading your post on laundry graywater!

  9. We’re finally getting some rain up here in the SF Bay Area! It’s been raining since last night, and forecasts say it will continue through Saturday!
    I live in a condo, so there are fewer grey water options for me to implement. When the plants need watering though, I stop up the shower and collect the water from my shower. I make sure to do this on days I don’t wash my hair, since I know my soap is ok for plants but I’m not sure about my shampoo! We’re also collecting any excess water from rinsing veggies, or boiling pasta, and using that to water the plants. So far the little balcony veggie garden hasn’t minded.
    When we first moved in, we installed a low flow shower head. Sadly, the pipes in our building don’t let us use the lowest flow setting. It makes horrid loud noises and the pressure doesn’t function correctly. Ah, communal living and old pipes.
    I have a feeling the HOA for my complex will not let the lawns die, but at least the water for communal landscaping comes from a private well. I think it’s still a waste, but we will see what happens as the situation evolves.

  10. Since the sump pump in our basement hasn’t seen any use this year, I rigged it up to recycle my bath water. A hose through the window waters the fruit trees planted at the back of our lot. They haven’t received much deep watering over the past 3 years, and should really benefit from this.
    Other than that, we have the kitchen sink bucket brigade – rinsing veggies and dishes over a bucket to water the ornamental plants out front. Even the natives needed help this winter!
    Four rain barrels are gathering water from the first significant rain in months. This should stretch the veggie watering “budget” come Summer.
    A grey water laundry system is on the to do list for this Spring – look forward to your post! We also have a leaky toilet to fix – which should reduce water use dramatically in our house.
    While I believe every individual has her role to play in saving water, it galls me that the media seems myopically focused on reducing residential water use. Smart irrigation systems in big Ag, smart industrial use, banning FRACKING in CA, and creating grey water irrigation systems for parks, etc would have much more of an impact here.
    A side note – a friend who is a wholesale produce distributor told me last night that a lot of organic farms here in Nor Cal are in danger of going under because they did not build purchasing water into their business models.

    • Ah yes, FRACKING…Funny how so many are all keen to FRACK in CA and yet it is going to take enormous amounts of water and will probably pollute what water we do have. Again Big Money/Big Influence.

  11. We are also concerned with the drought especially since we are on well water. It’s looking pretty cloudy here in SoCal right now but sadly, not one drop of water. We have low flow showerheads, low flow toilets, high efficiency washer, etc., etc. BUT we still need to do something about capturing gray water and rain water. I will be interested to see that post on how you captured your gray water.

  12. So far we’re just letting most everything die. It’s a somewhat unintentional survival of the fittest experiment to discover what to plant more of in the future. Here is what’s surviving with almost no water in our Bay Area peninsula climate: all the salvias, calendula, rosemary, marjoram, lavender. I think the bougainvillea would have been fine too if it hadn’t been for the big freeze in December. As for veggies, the two that are thriving with very low water are radicchio and peas.

    We’d love to install a laundry greywater system too, but as renters, there’s an added level of complexity. Any ideas?

  13. Not keen on drinking my urine,(although treated wastewater released back into rivers and then sucked into drinking water plants is no problem) but… if you want to reduce water use from the toilet, peeing into a bucket and then diluting the urine and watering plants works really well.
    Same as the humanure bucket/compost system, but no need for sawdust, just dilute and use, rinse and repeat.

  14. Our house is already pretty well optimized, so I decided to cut back on the meat I eat. I’m not ready to go full vegetarian yet, but if you google how much water goes to livestock, it’s an eyeopener. I have no way of knowing if the water I’m saving is California water or Midwest water, but with the house pretty well optimized, I was out of ideas.

  15. Shake my fist at folks who use their hoses to spray off their dusty patio furniture? Otherwise, we’re sticking with drip irrigation and mulch and planning to let the beds die if necessary in hopes of saving the trees (though with this wonky weather, we’ll see if any of those blossoms become fruit). With the fire risk being so extreme, I’m not sure we’ll do anything else to this house in terms of rain harvesting and such, but we’re making plans on how we’d rebuild if the town does happen to burn down. I’m thinking cobb or something fireproof, built into the side of our hill if such a thing is possible, and grow succulents up and over it (I was trying to think of something that would keep the house cool without being a whole ‘nother fire risk or shading the solar panels). It’s kind of exciting to think about the chance to rebuild intelligently. The way houses have been built in the U.S. reminds me of your description of the ridiculous fridges from the 1970s (in The Urban Homestead). Other than that, we sometimes consider moving. If places keep going up a zone on the USDA map and if the drought map doesn’t spread, who knows maybe somewhere like Western Montana turns out to be hospitable to the kind of gardening we had once done in SoCal. Though if it comes to that, I don’t suppose we’d be the only ones migrating. I feel like we are living in science fiction.

  16. I live in Adelaide, South Australia where we are going through a severe heatwave of consecutive days with temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius. Ways we protect our plants is to start seedlings earlier than other states, so roots can be established before it gets too hot, use shadecloth to prevent leaf burn, rain water drip irrigation early in the morning or late at night is a must (hand watering will not do), and choosing vegetables that are more heat tolerant. It’s hard but it can be done! There are many farms in Australia, some in desert towns that have developed incredible ways of having thriving crops in hot dry conditions. Adelaide’s permaculture food forest is one such example.

    • Thanks for the tips! I’m especially interested in finding veggies that are bred not to need as much water.

  17. Oh and I should add mulch is also a must! Crops won’t last a day of our weather without a good thick layer of mulch to help water retention and keep roots cool!

  18. One last tip! We keep a bucket between our feet in the shower which we use to water the pot plants (must use biodegradable products for this to work) and forget lawn, they are impossible to keep alive in drought! We use native Australian plants instead, moet councils do the same.

  19. I’m in the Uk where lack of water has definitely NOT been a problem this winter.
    I’m in the Midlands, near Oxford, so we haven’t had it too badly (some homes and villages in the South West have been flooded and/or cut off by floods since Christmas) but we’ve still had standing water in our back garden for 6 weeks (I can fill a bucket without disturbing the soil). The ducks have one big pond with islands for house and food (I actually saw one swimming in the run this morning) and the chickens are fed up of squelching around in the mud. I keep putting straw in their run, but the water’s coming up from the water table now (I live on clay in a valley).
    I went to water my blueberry bushes with my coffee dregs this morning, and even they’re waterlogged in their old tin bath.

    The main road out of the village is shut again today because the bridge has flooded. You can still get in and out, but via a more circuitous route.

    If only I could send you some of our water- you’d be welcome to it…

    • Maybe, someday, great scientific minds will be able to figure out how to do that. Meanwhile we have flooding in some areas and drought in others. The water and snow should be spread around to drought areas to replenish their water tables. Then maybe some areas would get more sunshine too. Hopefully some great mind will figure out how to do this.

  20. While most folks think of the Pacific Northwest as the place where it rains all the time, in fact we normally have a somewhat Mediterranean climate, with rain in the winter and dry sunshine in the summer. This year we have had VERY little rain all winter and according to the NOAA website are down over 16 inches from “normal” and looking at drought in the summer. Here at Acorn Cottage we do all the simple things like rain barrel cachement and saving dish rinse water and non-soapy shower water. Several years ago converted from an ancient washing machine to a small front loader that only uses 14 gallons instead of 45+. It is common here even in ordinary summers to see folks with brown lawns, (except in the posh neighborhoods, since our water fees are pretty high) I am hoping to build a few small raised beds so we can start some simple gardening to help with the future higher cost of veggies

  21. I’ve got a bucket under the tub faucet that I collect all the water in while waiting to get hot. Because our water heater is on the other side of the house, its about 5 gallons worth. I use that to water the fruit trees, and if I don’t need to water that day, I dump it into a 55 gallon covered drum to save for the next day.

    Its pouring right now here in Santa Rosa, the first real rain in a long time, but we are still 2-years of normal rainfall behind! We recently bought our house, and the big plans for this year is to install greywater both on the washer and the shower. I’m thankful for where I live- the city encourages, does workshops and even rebates for people to put in systems.

    I’m also planning on planting more drought tolerant veggies- Bountiful Gardens out of Willits has a few listed.

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