Brown: The Worst Drought in California – Lessons Learned


Brown1by Judhajit Chakraborty, Assoc. AIA

A picture can say a thousand words. These pictures of Lake Oroville, just north of Sacramento, tell the story of the unprecedented reality of California’s drought situation.The photo you see of the lush green lake filled with water was taken Brown2in 2011, while the second photo was taken this year. When I saw these photos side-by-side, I made up my mind then-and-there to devote this month’s column to writing about our current drought. Therefore, instead of our regular “Green” column, I have written a “Brown” column this month.

This drought has reminded us again of the crude reality of our shortage of resources and the need for water conservation at every level. However, with this drought and the previous droughts spanning the past 20-30 years, things have changed for the better and the results are noteworthy; we still have drinking water, we still have water for irrigation and other needs and we still can do the Ice Bucket Challenge in California.

So, what has changed? The following are just a few lessons we learned from history that have helped us in this catastrophic drought.

■ Effective water rebate programs have been initiated by many forward-thinking counties, that provide residents and businesses with incentives to install low-flow shower heads, low flow toilets, waterless urinals and highly efficient drip irrigation systems that respond to the weather and plant conditions, rather than to a set schedule.

■ LEED and federal regulations have a flush fixture flow of 1.6 gallons of water per flush as a baseline for WCs, and one gallon per flush urinals have become widely used. For most of the projects we see or work on now-a-days, the water usage/flush is much lower than the 1992 EPA guidelines.

■ Rain water collection programs on district levels have been beefed up to take advantage of the slightest rain that we may get.

■ Regulations for washing machines and dishwashers have resulted in machines that use considerably less water

■ Regulations for restaurants and the food industry have influenced businesses to use high-efficiency water fixtures and systems.

■ In general, there has been a new attitude toward water consumption. Many big campuses like Google, Facebook and Salesforce—to name a few—have placed water conservation as the very top priority of their sustainability programs, and have seen to it that these programs are all implemented.

■ Peer review systems have been set up across many water districts to red flag single customer water usage if it is higher than the district average district, and to investigate the reasons for their high volume of water consumption.

■ Variable rate systems for irrigation have enabled farmers to be more selective with their water needs, especially for their schedules. Soil sensor systems have also been developed to determine selective water needs.

■ Water audit programs have been useful in determining where water is being used and where there is scope for potential savings.

■ Last but not least, kudos to us, architects, designers, engineers, policy makers and environmental consultants who have been on the forefront of water efficient design! We can all see and cherish the results.

However, in no way can we be complacent. Climate pundits are forecasting more of such mega-droughts in the near future and we have to be more prepared. We have to make use of affluent wastewater (grey and black) and try to design net-zero communities. Now that we know we are responsible for this drought because of much of our global actions, it is time to accept the need for conservation and design more responsibly.

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