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Health, Science and Environment

In California, 1 State Is Seeing 2 Drastically Different Responses To The Drought

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Every corner of California is in drought, and it's playing out very differently in two of the largest metropolitan areas - San Jose and Los Angeles. Ezra David Romero of member station KQED and Caleigh Wells of KCRW report from two very different lawns.

EZRA DAVID ROMERO, BYLINE: Eighteen-year-old Adam Whyte is in his front yard in San Jose. He was shoveling mulch over dead grass. It died during the last multi-year drought ending in 2017.

ADAM WHYTE: It was an eyesore compared to everybody else in the neighborhood, who had all this perfectly nice grass.

ROMERO: This San Jose street is a perfect example of how people are adapting to drought. There are dry yards, some grassy lawns and a few drought-tolerant landscapes with cacti and bark.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPRINKLER SPUTTERING)

CALEIGH WELLS, BYLINE: But it's harder to find a brown lawn in Los Angeles County. Lianne Rugeroni owns a home in Long Beach, about a half hour from downtown LA. She feels obligated to keep her lawn green.

LIANNE RUGERONI: If you wanted to sell your house, you don't want to have your next door neighbor having a house that looks like, you know, a dust bowl.

WELLS: San Jose and Los Angeles both have had a few dry years, and that's normal for California. What's becoming more normal are long droughts and shorter, often more intense rainy seasons.

KATERINA GONZALES: We now live in a fundamentally different climate.

ROMERO: Katerina Gonzales recently finished her dissertation at Stanford on how climate change is altering rainfall patterns in the West. It's challenging California's aging water system.

WELLS: That system was designed to gradually collect runoff from snowmelt, not in a couple big storms called atmospheric rivers. Sometimes that's just what California needs to get out of a drought. But...

GONZALES: We can't rely on this assurance of drought-busting atmospheric rivers because of the way that the ingredients in the atmosphere have changed.

ROMERO: Ingredients like carbon. All this pressure on the state's water system could mean trouble for San Jose if the drought continues. Gary Kremen directs Santa Clara Valley Water, which supplies water to San Jose. He says they have a supply for now, but...

GARY KREMEN: I do not believe there's enough water for a third year.

ROMERO: A large portion of the district's water comes from snowmelt more than 100 miles away. That Sierra Nevada snowpack was meager this year, and it didn't rain very much locally. The other issue is their biggest reservoir's empty because its dam is being retrofitted to withstand large earthquakes. As a result, the agency has a mandatory 15% water restriction.

WELLS: Meanwhile, Southern California has a buffer. There are multiple sources of water, like the Sierra Nevada, the LA aqueduct, which moves water from the northern part of the state and the Colorado River. LA also relies on recycled wastewater and groundwater.

ROMERO: Since the last drought, there is some good news. Karla Nemeth is the director of the California Department of Water Resources.

KARLA NEMETH: Californians are already on average using about 16% less water.

ROMERO: Still, Nemeth says climate change is pressing the state's water system, and residents will need to adapt.

WELLS: But adapting means more than replacing lawns with turf.

ALEX HALL: You know, water conservation is not the only strategy here.

WELLS: Alex Hall is a climate scientist with UCLA who says the next step is recycling water.

HALL: When there is wastewater produced, we don't separate out the gray water, which could be reused on the spot very easily.

ROMERO: For things like flushing toilets. So even though parts of Southern California are still green for now...

WELLS: The entire state is in drought, and Los Angeles isn't that far behind San Jose. For NPR News, I'm Caleigh Wells in Los Angeles.

ROMERO: And I'm Ezra David Romero in San Jose.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRANS AM'S "INSUFFICIENTLY BREATHLESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.