Frequent hand washing efforts of twenty seconds or more are both recommended and necessary for reducing COVID-19 transmission. But how does that requirement translate in a drought? Although late April rains have brought the southern half of California out of drought status, the northern portion of the state – and most especially the northwest – has suffered from a lack of significant winter storms this year, while the Sierras received only half of their normal snowpack. And it’s not likely that any major storms will change the water picture for the state before typically dry summer and autumn seasons arrive.
The last drought the state experienced was long and extreme, beginning in 2011 and not officially ending until 2017. During that time, the state acted quickly to cut water usage and then Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency. Some local water suppliers went even further, imposing stricter conservation measures than those required by the state. When the drought orders were finally lifted, Governor Brown signed two bills into law, permanently restricting water usage throughout the state.
But how does that help us now when faced with a moderate drought combined with potentially increased water usage for cleaning and hand washing? Californians have been demonstrably responsive when asked to cut water consumption under acute drought conditions, with the majority doing so voluntarily, so it is likely that this will not become a huge issue this year. Ongoing research from Stanford has resulted in new methods to help water utilities manage demand during drought as well as increase conservation efforts -- strategies that can be employed now as well as in more extreme drought years.