By Année Tousseau, July 2016 —

In the past five years, “drought” has become a familiar word for residents and businesses in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley.

And while you might think that after five years people would grow tired of saving water, that simply isn’t the case.

Silicon Valley residents and businesses are still saving water—suggesting that conservation is becoming a way of life. Sustainable Silicon Valley encourages water conservation, along with reuse, as part of its Intelligent Water REuse Initiative. The goal is to create a more resilient, sustainable water supply for people, businesses, and natural habitats in the Bay Area.

Suisun Marsh, San Francisco Bay
USFWS photo/Steve Martarano – Flickr at


Water conservation still strong

Earlier this month, the State of California Water Resources Control Board released the May 2016 water use statistics for most of the major water suppliers in the state. We took a closer look at the data to see how communities in the San Francisco Bay Area fared that month.

On average, Bay Area communities used about 32% less water in May 2016, as compared to May 2013, before the state’s current drought was officially declared. This percentage is a bit higher than the statewide average decrease of 28%.

Leading the pack was the City of Benicia, which used an impressive 52% less water than it did in May 2013. Several other Bay Area communities beat the state average of 28% as well—have a look at the graph below.

In the South Bay, San Jose used about 36% less water, while San Francisco used 15% less—but the latter city’s per person water consumption is among the lowest in the entire state.

Water Conservation Graph
The red line shows the state average decrease of 28%.

Until recently, California had been under Governor Jerry Brown’s 25% urban water conservation mandate. This June, new regulations came into effect that allow urban water suppliers to set their own conservation goals based on “stress tests” of their supplies. The water conservation data for June is not available yet, and water suppliers had until June 22 to submit their three-year plans for review by the State Water Board.

The need for conservation is still high. Last winter’s El Nino was forecast as one of the strongest on record. However, the state received only a roughly average amount of rain and snow. A fifth of the state is still in “exceptional drought”—the most extreme classification according to the US Drought Monitor. The Bay Area ranges from “abnormally dry” to “severe drought.” In the Sierras, the source of much of the Bay Area’s water, the amount of water in the snowpack was just 6% of average for mid-June.

How to keep the momentum going

Fortunately, there’s still huge potential in terms of untapped water savings.

At home, fixing leaks, installing low-flow faucets and toilets, and opting for high-efficiency washing machines and dishwashers can yield immediate water savings. So can replacing lawns with native or drought-tolerant plants, as well as installing drip irrigation systems.

At the community level, even greater reductions in water use may be possible with the State Water Board’s recent General Order. The new regulations intend to streamline the permitting process for nonpotable water recycling projects—like those that treat wastewater so it can be used for landscape irrigation, construction, and other non-drinking purposes.

Silicon Valley has made significant steps toward embracing the potential of nonpotable water recycling. For example, the Santa Clara Valley Water District’s Advanced Water Purification Center is the largest water recycling plant of its kind in Northern California. Every day it pumps out 8 million gallons of purified water for irrigation and various industrial purposes across Santa Clara County. The cities of Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, and Gilroy also recycle water, and construction is underway to extend recycled water pipes to supply the new Apple campus on Wolfe Road in Cupertino. Last year, San Francisco became the first city in the nation to require all new buildings of 250,000 square feet or more to use recycled water for toilet/urinal flushing and irrigation.

As our climate changes, no can predict when the drought will end, but conservation coupled with recycling can help create a more resilient water supply—no matter what the future brings.