Op-ed: Steps we can take towards long-term drought solutions

By Anya Kamenskaya, Ingrid Severson and Linda Hunter

Anya Kamenskaya and Ingrid Severson are part of DIG Cooperative, Inc., an ecological design-build cooperative with a focus on sustainable urban water infrastructure. Linda Hunter is the Director of the Watershed Project, a Richmond-based nonprofit whose mission is to inspire Bay Area communities to understand, appreciate and protect our local watersheds.


“When it comes to drought, California has a tendency to stick its head in the sand until it’s almost too late.” Photo: Bert Kaufmann

Many of us waited for months for Governor Jerry Brown to make official what our reservoirs and landscapes had already been showing: California’s water situation is dire. This isn’t the first time the state has weathered drought conditions, and, according to reports from government agencies and climatologists, these conditions may only worsen.

The water agency that covers Berkeley, the East Bay Municipal Utility District, recently issued guidelines on water use reductions (reservoir levels are only 63% of normal) and is asking their East Bay customers to reduce their water usage by 10% .

Critical stop-gap measures are being imposed around the state, but they tend to reveal that when it comes to drought, California has a tendency to stick its head in the sand until it’s almost too late.

That’s why EBMUD needs to step up its long-term water reuse and conservation measures on all fronts: personal and community, urban and rural, municipal and legislative. And residents should be glad to know that many options and technologies already exist.

Installing low-flow shower heads, fixing leaks and insulating pipes are just the beginning of integrating a water-smart ethic into everyday life. EMBUD is already offering free water conservation toolkits and rebates. They also recently released the results of a “behavioral water efficiency” pilot project.

The next critical step is to make greywater reuse, landscaping for water retention and rainwater harvesting the norm.

Berkeley city government can follow the lead of projects such as Orange County’s wastewater purification system, San Francisco’s Subsidized Greywater Program, and Arcata’s wastewater treatment wetlands. In addition, implementing city-wide low impact design strategies such as replacing impervious services with rain gardens and bioswales will make our watersheds more healthy and resilient.

Berkeley residents already engaged in promoting integrated water-reuse strategies have the support of many local organizations: The Ecology Center’s Eco House and Greywater Action; ecological design businesses such as DIG Cooperative, Planting Justice, Indra Designs, and Bay Friendly Gardeners; and forward-thinking institutions such as the Peralta Colleges and UC Berkeley’s Water Center. All of these organizations are working diligently towards creating watershed healthy alternatives that will serve us well during times of drought.

Many residents are discovering that laundry-to-landscape greywater is a low tech, attainable and affordable form of recycled irrigation.

Hank Obermayer of Berkeley worked with residents in his shared co-housing community to install a laundry-to-landscape system.

“Our laundry to landscape made a big difference,” he said. “Our greywater feeds a whole area of fruit trees and raspberries. With six households, we produce about 50 gallons a week. The water goes directly to the roots of the plants in our garden and since installing the system, the trees are so much healthier and are growing faster. We get lots of fruit. We were so pleased with the results that we just got a second washing machine and are about to install our next greywater system.”

By implementing simple systems that mimic nature, we can all save money and water and help California weather this drought.

Berkeleyside welcomes submissions of op-ed articles. We ask that we are given first refusal to publish. Topics should be Berkeley-related and local authors are preferred. Please email submissions to us. Berkeleyside will publish op-ed pieces at its discretion.

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  • Chris

    With personal water consumption only accounting for 5-6% of California water usage, the real attention and resources should be used to reign in the large consumers – the diary, beef, and wine industries.

    Personal water consumption is a drop in the bucket.

  • NoMoreWaterToSoCal

    There is no way i will reduce my consumption by not flushing toilets skipping showers when we are sending endless water to SoCal so they can have golf courses in desert and wash their sidewalks and driveways down with water. Also the population in Cal has increased dramatically over the past 25 years but our water storage capacity remains stagnant this is a recipe for failure…Did anyone not see this coming?

  • bgal4


    but I still want to install a rain barrel onto the downspouts and would like to know if anyone knows of a local source for reused food grade 55 gal barrels.

  • Bruce_Mc

    “This isn’t the first time the state has weathered drought conditions…”

    This is why I tend not to use the word “drought.” It implies natural causes for this water shortage, when the causes are human made. There is word for droughts that naturally happen every few years or every decade. That word is “normal weather.”

    So, we have a human made water shortage because of normal weather. Find the humans that decide who gets how much water in California, and you find the cause of the water shortage.

    A good place to start looking: Agriculture uses most of the water in California, around 80 percent. They are used to paying very little for the water that they use. Essentially Agribusiness in CA is getting their water subsidized by the US and State governments. Is giving welfare payments to pistachio growers in the form of cheap water a good idea?

  • Chris

    While that may contribute to groundwater pollution, I don’t believe fracking consumes anywhere near the amount of water that dairy/beef/wine does.

  • waterguy

    Yup. Southern California did, and that why it doesn’t have a water supply problem this year.

  • guest

    Bu that’s insane because they don’t even HAVE a natural water supply.

  • guest

    Why don’t we hang on to the water that we get in our deluge years, and use it during our low rainfall years?? WHY??? This is a predictable cycle.

  • Tizzielish

    I more or less agree. The cost of water should come from the profits of pistachio growers. in reality, if we charge more for water, and we should to ag producers, they will pass that cost along to us. Rapidly rising food prices.

  • Utterhypocrite

    I’d love to save water, but only in conspicuous ways so everyone can know how green I am, and please don’t ask we to change my gluttonous western style diet, even if it could save thousands of gallons of water PER MEAL and do more to reduce healthcare costs than anything else under the sun. This is Berkeley after all and it is ALL about ME!

  • Bruce_Mc

    … and rapidly lowering taxes.