Cities Cast in a Central Role to Solve California’s Water Crisis

Thomas Mullen
June 11, 2015

Perhaps no state in America offers a more varied or vast cultural landscape than California, which boasts enough iconic cache to fill an entire continent. From South Bay surfers to Silicon Valley data pioneers, from Hollywood studios to hardscrabble adobes, the state’s distinct, fantastically diverse imagery has long aided its residents in bucking any outside attempt to classify them under a single banner.

Likewise, its cities operate less like conjoined governmental units than they do individual cultural fiefdoms. If you’ve ever watched the Game of Thrones opening that majestically showcases the kingdom’s far-flung outposts (Dorne! King’s Landing! Winterfell!) you know how it feels for Californians to look at the cities on their state map – each Spanish-tinged name offering something starkly and viscerally different from the others in a way that’s almost lyrically crafted.

But lately California’s civilian centers are the unique ingredients in a far less delicious stew, lumped together in an epic, four-year drought which last month caused state leaders to impose historic emergency water-usage restrictions. Looking to combat record-low snowpack and groundwater supplies, state leaders have tasked cities with curbing statewide urban water use by 25%. Some cities are being asked to do more, some less. And while the state water board can levy fines for non-compliers and issued a handful of no-nos (such as using potable water to irrigate medians), state officials are largely leaving it up to the locals to determine how they want to handle the restrictions – whether they target residential or commercial users, as well as how they enact incentives and penalties.

And while the situation is serious, the result of this make-your-own-rules mandate allows us an interesting peek into how each community is using its own unique toolbox to curb water usage – from the star power of L.A. to the analytic acumen of the Silicon Valley. Below, SmartComment details the water-saving strategies of California’s true cast of characters – its cities.

Los Angeles

The City of Angels doesn’t do anything halfway – even if that something is cutting water usage. So it may not be surprising that the centerpiece of L.A.’s water-saving campaign is a highly commercial public engagement campaign called “Save the Drop.” Borrowing a page from the city’s ubiquitous screenwriting class, it casts water as an always-there-for-you friend in the form of a doe-eyed water drop who travels hundreds of miles to help cook, clean and do the dishes – but who can’t help but feel a little taken for granted in what has become a one-sided relationship. On billboards, in ads, and even in a pretty terrific animated video narrated by Steve Carell, the city is asking its residents to value their use of water the way they do time spent with a friend. “It’s time to ask ourselves, every time we go to use water, is this a good use of our friend? Let’s turn this one-sided relationship around,” Carell says. But a town that closely follows box-office receipts isn’t going to pin all its hopes on a cute cartoon water drop. It’s following that up with some serious action in the form of steeper rates at certain water usage tiers, a three-day-a-week watering limit, as well as incentivizing residents to replace grass lawns with water-friendly landscapes by paying them up to $3.75 per square foot. “Let’s do this, L.A. Or pretty soon, our friend might not stick around,” Carell says.

San Diego

In a city famous for its gorgeous beaches and people, it’s no surprise the city is employing photography in its anti-drought efforts. To get out the water-saving message, the city is giving away “When in Drought” yard signs, magnetic car decals, and even shower timers. They then encourage users to post photos of their goodies under the hashtag #DroughtSelfie. But San Diego’s anti-drought efforts aren’t some social media stunt. The city has also stopped irrigating the city’s medians, reduced watering at parks and golf courses, and revived up to $450,000 in turf replacement rebates. City officials also have their eye on constructing a “less potable” reclaimed water system for irrigation purposes. This is in addition to permanent restrictions in place since 2011 that prohibit things like using an open hose to wash driveways or sidewalks, and overfilling swimming pools.

San Francisco

Only facing a state-mandated 10 percent reduction due to its relatively stable water reserves and past conservation, this famously liberal city can take a decidedly hands-off approach to handling the drought problem in comparison to its water-starved neighbors to the south. But the city isn’t taking the situation lightly, enacting its “Brown is the New Green” campaign aiming to raise awareness of the situation. It encourages residents to let their grass go brown and to post a “Brown is the New Green” sign as a badge of honor. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission also has a page of tips to help residents cut back on water usage and even offers a water-wise evaluation and site visit from a water-efficiency specialist, who will review residents’ billing history, provide tips for efficient outdoor water use, and even provide free water-efficient showerheads and toilet repair parts.

Santa Monica

If Los Angeles is the beautiful, socially voracious trendsetter who gets all the attention, Santa Monica is her fun, socially conscious little sister who happily goes her own way – and always makes it work. Sorry, L.A., but Santa Monica doesn’t need your street signs. It painted its own. And mom’s old sitting room with the wall-to-wall views of the beach? Yeah, that’s now Santa Monica’s bedroom. And while L.A. was out busily putting together the guest list for its strictly A-List water-conservation program, Santa Monica laughed, threw her head back – and threw an awesome little get-together at the house. That’s right, Santa Monica kicked off its water-saving campaign with a street festival that included a “Doggy Dishwasher Contest” featuring a plethora of plate-licking pooches as a tongue-in-cheek way of reinforcing the many ways of saving water. The city also set up an eye-catcher of a website that combines “message” and “fun” as only Santa Monica can – by giving the latest information on the drought and how to save water both at home and at work, and then inviting locals to show their Santa Monica love by ordering a yard sign or window cling. That Santa Monica. She really does throw the best knowledge parties…


Facing a water reduction mandate of 28%, this seat of government power went a little more hard-core with its restrictions, strictly limiting watering to two days a week and banning watering altogether on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays. Users with an address ending in an odd number get to water Tuesday and Saturday, while evens water on Wednesday and Sunday. As part of their “Spare the Water Sacramento” campaign, they also set up a hotline to report watering violations, and are offering residents up to $1,000 to ditch their lawns.

San Jose

No flashy videos, cute mascots or catchy campaigns here. This Silicon Valley hub has its eye focused squarely on the bottom line, with the San Jose Water Company offering a page of text-rich, no-frills drought information that could more or less comprise a white paper on the subject. True to form in this millionaire mecca, they’re also going straight for the pocketbook of water splurgers, instituting a mandatory water rationing plan that will result in extra fees for homes failing to achieve declines of 30% in their water usage when compared to the average water use for the entire area in 2013.


You may be surprised to learn that Fresno is the fifth-largest city in California. Not that you’ll hear people around here make a big deal about it or anything. Nope, in Fresno they get the job done and don’t go looking for a lot of attention. Likewise, the city is an old hand when it comes to water restrictions, its water conservation efforts dating back decades, and with Stage 2 water restrictions in effect since August. In short, folks in Fresno know how to handle this water shortage stuff. And it’s already showing. Under a 28% reduction mandate, Fresno achieved well beyond that in May, with a 33% reduction in water usage over the same month in 2013. “Fresno has been a leader in water conservation for over 20 years and it’s a direct result of our customers consistently responding to the ongoing challenge of this drought,” said Thomas Esqueda, the city’s public works director. “When it comes to cutting back on water use, Fresno is showing the way for the rest of the state.” Okay, so maybe they talk a little bit…