The Great California Drought – Part III, what can work and what you should do

It’s easy to be pessimistic about the drought and worry about running out of water.  The situation isn’t good and likely to get worse.  Wells are running dry and the fire season is getting very bad with hills so dry.  Still there are reasons to hope as there are solutions.

Let me take a step back and remind you of something you learned in school – the water cycle.  Goes like this: water in the ocean evaporates and forms clouds.  The clouds float over the land and drop their moisture in the form of rain and snow which falls to the ground where we get to use it.  When we’re done with it, we let it flow back to the ocean where the whole thing starts over again.

“Using water,” is a bit of a strange term.  Water never really goes away – what happens is we take nice pure, clean rain water, and pollute it with – well all kinds of nasty stuff – from our kitchens, bathrooms and workplaces then let it run down our sewers and eventually back to the ocean where a process of natural distillation takes place and we get clean water again.

The problem is that we pollute it faster than nature can clean it.  Science has learned how nature does it and we can create pure and clean drinking water from the oceans.  At a cost, but more about that later.

What can be done to increase our available water? There are a few things:


There is a lot of water waste in America.  As a nation we consume about 151 gallons per person per day – the most of any other nation.  There are still a number of ways we can reduce in our homes.  I won’t list all those, just a couple of big ones:

– Get low flow toilets – something like 30% of household water use is flushing toilets.
– Think before you turn the water on, and turn it off as soon as you get what you need.  Think that it’s really gas and costs $4.00 per gallon (soon it might).
– If you have a yard, you know the drill, drought tolerant plants, drip irrigation and lots of mulch.  Those lawns would look just as nice if you planted artificial turf or maybe a nice rock garden.  Landscaping, especially lawns, consume a lot of water and there is plenty you can do to reduce the water use and still have nice looking landscaping.

At the city, regional, or water district level there are a few things that water managers are looking at that you should support and encourage.  Here’s my list:

– Everyone should have a water meter.  You’ll be surprised to learn that there are places in California where property owners aren’t billed for how much water they use.  The pay a flat fee for a hookup.  No motivation to reduce for them.
– Tiered water pricing.  A home owner should be able to buy enough water for basic usage like cooking, cleaning, sanitation, etc, at a low fair price but those who want more water than needed to sustain life, should pay extra.  People will start to conserve when they notice that watering the lawn just doubled their water bill.  Sounds harsh, but it works.
– Offer rebates and discounts to people who install water saving devices.
– Offer grants and/or low interest loans to low income homes so they can install water saving devices – good for all of us in the long run.
– That big, huge lawn in front of city hall – could you at least adjust the sprinklers so they don’t water the parking lot too?
– Use recycled (purple pipe) water for landscaping uses – more about that below.

The best answer to reduce, is to limit the number of people in the state to the number we can support with natural rain fall, but it’s unlikely that 5 million people will want to move to Seattle just to save us water here.

Create More Water

We do know how to duplicate what nature does in the water cycle.  We humans can take dirty, yuck, poopy, water and make it clean, pure and drinkable.  Seriously, it only takes an input of money and energy.  As long as we continue to grow in population, we’ve got to start doing some of these.  The increased energy use is the biggest problem as that adds to both the cost and the greenhouse gasses that are likely partly responsible for our lack of rain.  It’s the age only problem, fix problem A with solution B which only makes problem A worse – kind of like getting a cash advance on our Visa card to make the Master Card payment.

Here are a few ways we can make some water.


In Santa Clara county, the water district provides water via a “purple pipe” system.  The water in the system is treated waste water from our sewage treatment plants.  The water is filtered, processed and made clean enough for landscaping and some industrial uses.  The water district has been putting these pipes all over the place and water customers like golf courses, colleges, cities, large office complexes and others have been taking this water to irrigate their lawns and other landscaping.  Every drop reused is one less that comes from the drinking water supply.

I am hoping that they’ll continue to expand the system.  There is a long range proposal to use this water to replenish underground aquifers.  I think that is a real possibility.  Makes a lot of sense when you consider that a large amount of our water comes from wells.

And yes it does take some energy to reclaim the waste water, but we have to do that anyway to prevent raw sewage from being dumped into the ocean so we’re already processing a bunch right now that just flows out to sea.  A few more pipes and pumps and this can be a major source of non-potable water.  A few solar panels and some wind generators at the sewage plant could help offset the energy cost.

In newer, “Green” construction, often dual plumbing systems are installed, one for drinking water and one for non-drinking uses like flush toilets.  If a building is plumbed that way, then have a supply of recycled water to flush toilets – makes a lot of sense and saves huge amounts of water.

Storm Water Capture

In many cities in California there are two drainage systems: the sanitary sewer for the “black water” from our homes and toilets and the storm drain system.  The sanitary sewer flows to the water treatment plant and then most dumps out to the ocean with some sent back through the purple pipe system.  The storm drain system dumps directly into our creeks and rivers and right out to the San Francisco Bay.  One bad part of this is that oils and other roadway contaminates make there way into the bay, harming that fragile environment.

With an investment in piping, pumping, filtration and storage it would be possible to capture some of this waste run off for later use.  Either put into the purple pipes or back into the reservoirs for another round of cleaning by the water treatment plants.  The cost in infrastructure is likely to be high but I estimate that long term energy cost would be less than my next option.


California’s long coast line has access to an unlimited amount of water we can’t drink – salt water.  That water can be converted to drinking water with ease. Well, with a big processing plant and lots of electricity.  We’ve started building these plants already and I suspect over time there will be lots of pressure to build more.  The biggest problem is the cost and that the electricity need to run the plants is likely to come from “dirty” sources like coal.

I recently saw an article on a company building a solar desalination plant.  The current plant is in the central valley where it is cleaning well-water, but I could see applications on the southern coastline for similar facilities.

That well-water has salt in it is a longer blog post but the short version is that runoff from farms pickup the salts and minerals in the soil and then that water settles into the aquifer contaminating it with salt making wells unusable.  It’s a big problem and this company <URL> has come up with a creative solution that doesn’t add to our energy problems.  I hope this one makes it big some day.

Gray Water Use

Research sewage and water reuse and you’ll come across two terms: Black water and Gray water.  Black water is sewage from sources like toilets and kitchens.  Black water has biologic contaminates that have to be treated and exposure to the water is unsafe – which is why we flush it down the drain and send it off to the treatment plant to be made safe to release.

Gray water comes from sources like clothes washers, showers, bath tubs and bathroom sinks.  This water generally only has soap, hair, lint and less harmful contaminants.  In 2009 the state issued guidelines and laws on how this water can be reused by homeowners for landscaping.  The simple example is piping the drain water from your washing machine out onto your garden.  The water has to be discharged under two inches of mulch and has to be able to soak into the ground with in 24 hours.  It does mean that you have to switch to biodegradable soaps and impose a few other restrictions.

But, you get 30 to 40 gallons of water for your yard each time you wash your socks, saving that much drinking water.  Clothes washing can consume up to 30% of household water reusing it saves that much drinking water from being dumped on the ground.  It does cost a bit to install the piping.

If you want to get fancy and have the option to re-plumb your toilets to accept input water from other than the main drinking supply there are gray water systems that filter the gray water so it can be stored and then reused to flush your toilets.  Not always an option for an existing home but a great idea for new construction or if you’re doing a major renovation where re-plumbing is an option.  This can save 30% of normal water use. <URL of One system> Here is one systemAnd here’s a resource for more information.

This is easier to do in new construction and difficult in existing homes.  I’ve been considering this for my home, but at best it’s a difficult system to install.

Air Extraction

Some of the wackier fringe ideas are around getting water out of thin air.  All air has some amount of water in it and depending on factors of humidity, temperature, geography, you can get water out of thin air.  These are not likely to be major water sources but on a small scale – say a single home far from city water, these might provide realistic supplemental water.

Dew collectors: You’ll find this in survivalist books all the time – stretch some plastic out over night and dew will form that can be collected.  I did a google search and found a number of sites showing how to make larger versions that collect more water.

Fog Fence: The northern coast can often be shrouded in fog – lots of fog.  This fog can be collected using a ‘fog fence.’ Basically a large sheet of fine mesh wire or even canvass.  It’s a system that’s been tried in a couple of areas.  I am not sure how much water you’d get out of one, but it’s low cost with no energy input.

Dehumidifier: You’ve heard of humidity – the amount of water in air.  You can extract that water by chilling the air.  The colder the air gets and the water vapor condenses into liquid – like what happens on a glass of ice water or over the cooling coils of an air conditioner.

We don’t use them much here in California, but in some places with high humidity, they use dehumidifiers to dry the air in a home or wet location like a basement.  Basically these are just little AC units with a cooling coil and a fan to blow air over the coil.  Water condenses out of the air and drops into a bucket – reducing the humidity in the house and filling the bucket with water.

That’s when I got a wacky idea for creating more water for our garden.  Goes like this: Get a small dehumidifier.  They are rated by how much water they remove per day (ones on-line are listed between 40 and 70 pints, or between 5 and 9 gallons).  The unit takes about 5 amps of power to run and to be ‘green’ about it, I’d get a small solar panel to power the unit.  Then a hose, a 55 gallon drum and each week I’d have about 50 gallons to water my garden (I don’t figure the system will run at full efficiency and the sun doesn’t shine at night).

Actually, I could fit two or three of these in the yard before the city noticed and told me to stop.

If I come up with any more really great ideas, I’ll let you know.

I am seriously thinking of building a gray water system for watering the garden – I’ll post pictures if I actually do that.

Till next week,

About Andrew Reynolds

Born in California Did the school thing studying electronics, computers, release engineering and literary criticism. I worked in the high tech world doing software release engineering and am now retired. Then I got prostate cancer. Now I am a blogger and work in my wood shop doing scroll saw work and marquetry.
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