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Engaging Students in Thinking about the Drought

created Oct 15, 2014 02:50 PM

by Shelley Brooks

There is some good news on the drought front – Californians are on an upward trend for water conservation.  The State Water Board recently reported that in August the statewide water saving rate was 11.5% (based on comparison to August 2013 water usage rates), whereas July was a 7.5% increase, and June only 4%.  It appears that the seriousness of the drought has been brought home to most residents, and that they are responding accordingly.  California students are undoubtedly aware of the drought conditions, and engaged with water saving measures.  What do they know, however, about the quantities and uses of water in different communities around the state, and what does this suggest in terms of future conservation?

water production_2014 drought


The state collects information on water use from municipal water suppliers, which can be downloaded here: (toward the bottom of the page, under Additional Resources and Next Steps).  In this report, students can grapple with some real data from cities throughout the state, comparing water usage from July 2013 to July 2014 to see what sort of success each city has had in meeting Governor Brown’s January request that Californians reduce their water usage by 20%. 

Activities & Inquiries:

With this data at hand, students can explore a number of issues – why are some cities under mandatory restrictions, and others not?  Students could research what the water supply is for their city, or a chosen city – is it surface water, wells?  How does this affect their water supply? Students could also choose a city with a large monthly potable water production, and investigate who or what are its major consumers?  Is it single family residential homes, agriculture, commercial?  What industries dominate the city?  Tourism?  Manufacturing?  Is it a bedroom community for a nearby metropolitan area?  They will have to do some outside research to figure out these details, but it could be the basis for a good research project in which they become an expert on a specific city and then report back to the class.

Once students understand the breakdown of water usage within a city, they can begin to think in more depth about what the opportunities are for conservation.  Are there agricultural/irrigation practices that can be altered in order to require smaller amounts of water?  Remind students that 60% of California’s water is used in growing crops and animals for the market, a 42 billion dollar industry (California accounts for 11% of the nation’s total cash farm receipts – the highest of all states:  What conservation strategies can be employed in manufacturing for a particular industry?  And what is at stake if we don’t conserve?  What would have to go by the wayside?  Already many Californians are choosing to pull up grass and replace with landscaping that requires little or no water.  This will change the look of a community, but there are already changes in place that alter the state’s economy – such as fewer acres of crops and number of farm animals receiving water.  And California’s non-commercial animals are feeling the pinch as well, with low river levels impacting wildlife and fish. 

Making the issue relevant:

Ideally, students will understand that water is the basis for all life and productivity in the state, and they will therefore have greater insight into why water is such a contentious topic in the state. You could use this opportunity to discuss the twin tunnels project, and consider how residents in the Delta and in Southern California would view this water transport system.

Students will likely engage in a class discussion about conservation opportunities in the home – a realm where they can feel empowered to make real change.  The state’s “Save Our Water” web page gives tips and strategies for conserving water, provides a daily water use calculator for residents, and articles and other information about water in California:  The drought may seem overwhelming in size and scope, but investigations such as these will give students’ access to specific information that will make the problem more comprehensible, laying the groundwork for positive change.


Images from staff presentation to the State Water Board (at bottom of page, under Additional Resources and Next Steps:

Find additional background information in the Current Context issue "California Drought".