Sarah Newsham


Every winter, usually sometime in November, the parched, brown hills of the Bay Area turn, seemingly overnight, into a vibrant green. This transformation happens a week or two after the first solid rain, and I always breathe a deep sigh of relief. This bright green is a sign that we have finally come to the time of year when our entire state takes a long drink of water as we prepare for the dry seasons ahead.

As a life-long Bay Area resident, it seems that for as long as I can remember, we have been in a drought. It rains every winter, but never enough. The statistics that are thrown around about how much rainfall we would need in one year to fill the reservoirs are always outlandish. And it seems that no amount of captured water and neglected lawns will fill our deficit.

And yet this current drought seems to be the worst one yet. Just how bad it was I didn’t realize until I began this project.

I decided to do this project because I wanted to explore how water impacts California residents, and more specifically, Bay Area residents. What relationships do Bay Area residents have with water? How do these relationships change during a drought? How is the Bay Area affected by the drought compared to the rest of California?

I have conducted research and interviews and taken photographs in an attempt to answer these questions. Please scroll down to see my work.

“Among all our uncertainties, weather is one of the most basic. We can’t control it. We can only live with it, and now we have to live with a very serious drought of uncertain duration.”
-Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr.
State of the State Speech, January 22, 2014

According to a study by scientists at the University of Minnesota, California is currently experiencing its worst drought in 1,200 years. According to Art Hinojosa, Chief Hydrologist at the California Department of Water Resources, California will need eight more major storms like the one in mid-December–which caused many schools to close due to rain and heavy winds–as well as additional, smaller storms, in order to end the drought.

Despite the above average rains as of mid-December 2014, ninety-four percent of California is still suffering from severe drought. Major reservoirs are at 29% capacity and 51% of normal volumes.

“I think of water 24 hours a day. When I go to sleep, I’m thinking about tomorrow morning. If I don’t have any water, what’s my plan? In the evening I’m thinking, what am I going to do? Am I gonna take a shower at my daughter’s house? Or am I going to take a shower at my sister’s house? I’m constantly thinking about Plan A, Plan B.”
-Becky Quintana, school bus driver in Seville, CA

In the central valley of California, thousands of residents turn on their taps–and nothing happens. More than 150 residential wells have run dry which has forced residents to go to extreme measures to get water for basic things such as cooking, washing, and even drinking. The agriculture industry, which is the life source for this region, is also suffering at the hands of the drought.

“We’re living in a third world country now.”
-Ray Quintana, Vietnam veteran living in Seville, CA

According to the Rural Community Assistance Program, a federally funded network of small-town water utility systems, there are 2 million people in the United States who do not have access to clean water. While basic utilities such as running water are taken for granted in the Bay Area and by most people living in the U.S., there are communities that do not have even this most basic service.

Residents of Tulare County, a county in California’s central valley that has been hit especially hard by the drought, must spend considerable time and resources finding work-arounds to complete basics tasks.

Since much of the land in Tulare County is unincorporated, there is no municipality in charge of providing water to residents. Instead, residential wells provide water to households. However, most of those wells have dried up. Farms, which rely on irrigation to make a profit, have had to drill their wells deeper into the ground to get water, which has contributed to the drying up of residential wells.

Some families have water tanks in their front yards which are filled by charities or in nearby counties. But many families rely almost exclusively on bottled water, some of it donated by charities but much of it purchased out of pocket, a considerable expense for already strained families.

“When you wake up in the middle of the night sick to your stomach, you have to think about where the water bottle is before you can use the toilet.”
-Angelica Gallagos, Tulare County Resident

Basic tasks, such as showering and going to the bathroom, are not as simple as they once were.

High schools that still have running water have allowed students to shower at school. But some parents keep their kids home if they are unclean, which has long-term negative impacts.

Not only is a lack of running water an inconvenience, it is an economic hardship as well. In addition to buying bottled water, families are buying paper plates and plastic utensils to avoid having to wash dishes. Washing machines are useless, so residents without running water have to wash their clothes at laundromats, another expense. The Gallegos family of Tulare County estimated that they had spent hundreds of dollars on disposable utensils and laundromats alone in recent months. Because washing vegetables uses water, many residents are buying fast food instead of cooking, which has health impacts as well.

Here are some excerpts from interviews I conducted with Bay Area residents.

“It’s almost ironic because everybody knows that…we need massive water reforms before our current water usage is completely unsustainable, but at the same time nobody’s really changing their behavior. I think the only way they will change their behavior is if there’s huge monetary consequences for people who go over a certain water allotment.”
-Lizzie Bjork

“There are so many signs on the way to LA saying ‘talk to your congressperson to get them to pass stricter regulations on water’ and ‘end the dustbowl.’”
-Kelia Human

“Our back yard is mostly drought-resistant plants now. We took out most of the ground cover plants that needed to be watered every day and we replaced them with mosses that just use the fog to be watered. We make sure we know what the weather report is going to be and if it’s going to rain we turn off the watering systems.”
-Gabby Rigby

“We were hiking on Day 22 or something [of a 26-day backpacking trip] and we were supposed to stop and pick up water at a creek. We had three creeks where we could stop for water and each one was a backup for the [previous one]. They were about a mile apart each and we managed to reach all three of them and all three of them were completely dry except for the last one which had a couple of puddles. That really opened our eyes to how bad the drought was.”
-Alex Yares

“People don’t see [the drought] as a power outage, they just see it as having a little less water. They don’t see that it could just stop.”
-Blair Hagen

Moving forward

The state of California is taking action to encourage residents to conserve water in all ways possible. Governor Jerry Brown has set a goal of a 20% reduction in water use, and while that goal is still a long way off, progress is indeed being made. Water usage compared to the previous year decreased 4.3% in June 2014, 7.5% in July, 11.5% in August, and 10.3% in September.

Bay Area communities have been among those leading the charge in reducing water usage. Livermore, Dublin-San Ramon, and Pleasanton reduced water usage during the month of August by 36.9%, 35.8%, and 33.4%, respectively.

And as of November, San Francisco recorded the lowest per person per day water use of any area in California, at 45.7 gallons per person per day, down from 49 gallons. Granted, this may have more to do with climate, small living spaces, and a scarcity of yards in homes than with strict conservation measures, but according to Max Gomberg, an environmental scientist for the State Water Resources Control Board, San Francisco is a model for communities throughout California. In comparison, suburbs north of San Diego consume 548 gallons per person per day.

On August 1, 2014, a $500-per-day fine was imposed for wasting drinkable water due to washing sidewalks and driveways, watering plants leading to runoff, using drinking water in non-circulating fountains, and washing cars without shut-off nozzles.

Additionally, water agencies will have to pay $10,000 per day if they do not implement plans to promote water conservation, and since October these water agencies have also been required to monitor and report water usage per person per day.


“You don’t think of water as a privilege until you don’t have it anymore.”
-Yolanda Serrato, Tulare County resident

Droughts always end, and so too will this one. Just how long that takes and the severity of the lasting impact remain to be seen.

Challenges such as this one can tear a state apart, as communities point fingers at one another and fight for the little water that remains, but also unite us against a common foe. Water is what connects ALL Californians, whether we are confronted with its absence on a daily basis or whether we go on using water freely, or, as is the case for most of us, somewhere in between. This drought provides us with the opportunity to look critically at waste and our environmental impact, and hopefully we come out the other side of this with a greater appreciation for the fragile ecosystem in which we live and the enormous impact we have on it, as well as the power our environment holds over us. Hopefully we can learn to take a little less from and return a little more to the wondrous land upon which we live.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Alexander, Kurtis. “California drought: Big water cuts by many Northern Californians.” SFGate. October 8, 2014.

Alexander, Kurtis. “S.F. residents praised for using least water in state.” SFGate. November 5, 2014.

California Department of Water Resources. “History of Water Development and the State Water Project.” California Department of Water Resources. Accessed December 22, 2014.

California Natural Resources Agency, California Department of Food and Agriculture, and California Environmental Protection Agency. “California Water Action Plan.” 2014.

Dukoupil, Tony. “Not One Drop: How Long Will California Survive Life Without Water?” NBC News. September 12, 2014.

Gutierrez, Melody. “California drought: $500-a-day water fines passed.” SFGate. July 16, 2014.

Madrigal, Alexis C. “American Aqueduct: The Great California Water Saga.” The Atlantic. February 24, 2014.

Medina, Jennifer. “With Dry Taps and Toilets, California Drought Turns Desperate.” The New York Times. October 2, 2014.

Pacific Institute. “The California Drought.” Pacific Institute. Accessed December 22, 2014.

Public Policy Institute of California. “Floods, Droughts, and Lawsuits: A Brief History of California Water Policy.” Public Policy Institute of California.

Rogers, Paul. “California drought worst in 1,200 years, new study says.” Accessed December 22, 2014.

UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. “California WaterBlog.” UC Davis.

Warrick, Joby. “West’s historic drought stokes fears of water crisis.” The Washington Post. August 17, 2014.