Drought Hits California's Already Tight Water Supply California is in the midst of its driest spring on record. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last week declared a drought — the first in nearly 20 years. Now California residents who have been living on a dwindling supply of water are being urged to conserve even more.
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Drought Hits California's Already Tight Water Supply

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Drought Hits California's Already Tight Water Supply

Drought Hits California's Already Tight Water Supply

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here in California, we're used to living on a dwindling supply of water. Still, this ongoing drought is forcing people to think about conserving even more. Andrew Phelps of member-station KPBS began his report at a place where water is usually flowing.

ANDREW PHELPS: Even though water is so scarce, it's gasoline that really worries Kris Kissner(ph).

Ms. KRIS KISSNER (General Manager, Uptown Touchless Car Wash, San Diego, California): It's brutal, actually. We had to send a bunch of guys home today.

PHELPS: Kissner is general manager of Uptown Touchless Car Wash in San Diego, which is practically empty at the moment.

Ms. KISSNER: With the gas prices going up, we've noticed probably, oh, I'd say, a 40-percent drop in our business.

PHELPS: A gallon of regular runs about $4.50 here. That's why Kissner hopes the state-wide drought is good for business. You see, Kissner is trying to sell the idea that Uptown Touchless is the environmentally friendly choice in these dry times.

Ms. KISSNER: I mean, even before I got in this business, the perception that I had was look at how much water they use.

PHELPS: But nearly all of those gallons of water are reclaimed and recycled on site. Wash a car at home, and the extra water evaporates or runs down the driveway.

Ms. KISSNER: And then with one person walking around with a hose around the perimeter of the car, it's less efficient than high-pressure jets that would go over the whole car in, you know, a second.

PHELPS: Some California cities have considered banning the home carwash altogether. The state may turn to more far-reaching measures, such as mandatory water rationing. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger last week declared a drought, the first since 1991.

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): You know, with the last two years, California has suffered from low rainfall, low snowpack and court-ordered restrictions on pumping from the delta.

PHELPS: Southern California's Metropolitan Water District is the state's largest water agency, serving about half the state's population. The district is now drawing on reserve supplies, and officials are urging people to conserve: take shorter showers, fix leaky faucets and try not to flush so much.

Mr. JEFF KIGHTLINGER (President, Metropolitan Water District): I believe this is worse than we've ever seen it because of a couple of factors.

PHELPS: Jeff Kightlinger is president of Metropolitan.

Mr. KIGHTLINGER: We are dry in all our systems: the Colorado River, our local supplies and our Northern California supplies. All of our major supply areas are dry all at once. That wasn't the case in the early 1990s, when we had ample Colorado River supplies.

PHELPS: The other factor is a major court ruling. A judge ordered the state to stop pumping water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta because a little endangered fish called the smelt was getting killed in the pumps.

Mr. KIGHTLINGER: And that really causes us to lose a lot of our flexibility and a lot of our water supply.

PHELPS: Kightlinger says the district is short half a million acre feet of water. That hurts one of the biggest water users, California farmers. Agriculture is a $32-billion industry, and the state grows half the nation's fresh produce.

Ms. ROSANNA WESTMORELAND (California Farm Bureau Federation): You know, if there's no water, then there's no reason to plant a crop.

PHELPS: That's Rosanna Westmoreland of the California Farm Bureau Federation.

Ms. WESTMORELAND: We look at the ability to grow food on our own soils as a national-security issue. I mean, if we can't grow food on our own soils and we have to import food, that would put us in the same position that we are with fuel right now.

PHELPS: Governor Schwarzenegger is proposing nearly $12 billion in state-wide water projects, including new pipes and reservoirs. Many environmentalists opposed the idea, and they say it's not cost-effective, anyway. In California, money is another scarce resource. For NPR News, I'm Andrew Phelps in San Diego.

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