On the third floor of University Hall, there’s a stall in the women’s restroom with a sign on the outside that reads: Low Frequency Flush Stall. Below the text, an image of a giant drop of water juxtaposes against a green recycling sign. The sign gives users the option to flush only when necessary, not every time they use the public space. As the popular adage goes, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” It might be obvious, but in Berkeley, small habitual changes like this are a central focus in combatting California’s extreme drought.
The California drought has been a pressing issue since 2012, but it’s recently become even more dire. Still, for Berkeley students and citizens, the drought exists primarily in the news. Unlike residents in regions of the Central Valley where the drought has truly left its mark, the Berkeley community and Bay Area as a whole still have running water. Students can run their taps and take 30-minute showers and feel nothing but guilt in return.
For impoverished communities in Tulare County, drying wells and a dearth of tap water make basic routines such as doing laundry, using the bathroom and drinking water extremely challenging. State officials told the New York Times that at least 700 households in the area have no access to running water. Water for domestic uses such as dish-washing come from limited water supplies at the county fire station. Because the land is not part of a municipal water system, connecting to one would be extortionately expensive.
The Central Valley is a crucial area for agriculture, which makes the drought especially dire. Since the government cut the flow of irrigation water to the area, Bloomberg reports that half a million acres of crops have been fallowed, and unemployment has escalated.
What’s clear is that unimpeded access to water is an understated privilege. Despite not feeling the drought’s most severe impacts, students and officials in Berkeley are organizing for water conservation and the ways the drought does touch Bay Area life.
Although the Bay doesn’t feel the drought’s immediate consequences, there are still serious repercussions. Take, for example, the fact that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has tracked rising produce prices in previous drought years as groundwater becomes scarcer that undoubtedly affect the Bay.
The evidence is there — it just requires some publicity. Berkeley community members are pushing for both small, sustainable habits and widespread implementation of technological improvements around the city and at the university — movements that take time, money and manpower to execute.
UC Berkeley used 615 million gallons of water in 2013. About half of this consumption takes place in the campus and residence halls. The Residential Sustainability Program, a student group that works with the residence halls, focuses on two aspects of sustainability: water conservation and waste diversion. Yifat Amir, a student coordinator at the program, said that some of the group’s long-term goals include implementing mandatory sustainability training for freshmen and providing more water-efficient technologies in the residence halls. According to the university’s Water Action Plan, water usage in the residence halls has decreased by 35 percent over the past 10 years. Newer residential buildings such as the Maximino Martinez Commons have water technologies like low-flow toilets and showerheads, which save gallons of water at each use.
“A lot of water conservation is about science and technology, but the biggest thing is changing societal outlook and making sustainable habits a priority,” Amir said.
The city of Berkeley’s also making moves to reduce water usage. A report from the city of Berkeley reveals that community water consumption in 2013 has decreased by 15 percent since 2000.
Still, conservation has its limits. Most of these reforms are rather technical and slow-moving. In the Bay Area, their gradual nature is, in part, a luxury of affluence and location. Although the implications of the drought lack immediacy for UC Berkeley students, maintaining awareness remains perhaps the most important conservation method of all.