A dystopian drama is unfolding in Cape Town, a popular tourist destination of nearly 4 million on the coast of South Africa that in April is expected to become the modern world’s first major city to run out of water after three years of drought.
For Californians, who panted through five years of record drought before last winter and have seen a fairly dry winter so far this year, it raises the worrisome question: Could it happen here?
State officials and water experts think not, or at least that things would have to get a whole lot worse than they did in the last drought.
“I hate to say don’t fret, because who knows?” said Leon Szeptycki, executive director of Water in the West at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “But the chances of it happening in California are very, very low.”
The reason, Szeptycki said, is that most California cities draw water from a highly diversified and interconnected network of local and state reservoirs and wells, with aggressive groundwater recharge and conservation measures such as wastewater reuse stretching supplies.

Looking south, one can see the dried up Guadalupe River near Santa Clara Street in San Jose, Calif., on Friday, July 17, 2015. (Jim Gensheimer/Bay Area News Group)
The Guadalupe River dried up near Santa Clara Street in San Jose during the drought in 2015. (Jim Gensheimer/Bay Area News Group) 

“We just suffered our worst five-year drought and we didn’t run out of water,” Szeptycki said. “For a major city to run out of water, we’d have to have a drought a lot worse than one we just had.”
Which, of course, is quite possible, Szeptycki noted: “Nobody predicted that kind of drought in South Africa.”
Cape Town, a diverse city of nearly 450,000 in a metropolitan area of 3.7 million, is not unlike many coastal California cities, with a Mediterranean climate and sandy beaches that draw legions of tourists. By comparison, about 3 million live in the San Diego area.
A three-year drought has overtaxed the six reservoirs that supply Cape Town’s water. A recent spike in population, a failure to plan alternative water sources and a refusal by some 60 percent of residents to abide by water limits are also blamed for the impending crisis.
The result: Residents are girding for “Day Zero,” projected to come April 21, when Cape Town’s reservoir levels drop so low that residents will have to stand in line at 200 collection points under armed guard to be rationed just 6.6 gallons of water a day each. They are currently being asked to use no more than 23 gallons a day, a figure that will drop to 13 gallons in February.
SJM-L-CAPETOWNCA-0124-90By comparison, the average American uses 88 gallons of water a day at home, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The average Californian used 85 gallons a day in 2016 as the state eased water restrictions from the drought, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.
Cape Town officials have been scrambling to tap deeper underground aquifers and set up desalination plants. But Mayor Patricia de Lille said on Jan. 16 that due to a failure to reduce water use, Cape Town has reached a point of no return and Day Zero is inevitable.
The drama has certainly caught the attention of state water officials like Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, which oversees California’s water rights, drinking water and water quality control programs.
“We watch, and of course we don’t want to get anywhere near that,” Marcus said of the Cape Town situation. “We’re in much better shape, for a variety of reasons. In the last drought, the mandatory urban conservation wasn’t because we were going to run out of water. It was because we wanted to be safe rather than sorry, and not get anywhere near where Cape Town is now.”
California’s last drought did see some smaller rural communities that rely on shallow, private wells run out of water, most notably East Porterville, a Tulare County town of 7,300.
But California’s big cities don’t have those problems, Marcus said. What’s more, the state kicks in aggressive conservation long before water levels reach a crisis, and residents take those conservation calls seriously. That’s what got the Golden State through its worst drought on record, which ended with last year’s record rains: Gov. Jerry Brown ordered a 25 percent reduction in urban water use across California, the state’s first mandatory restrictions ever.

In this photo taken Thursday, April 16, 2015 Gov. Jerry Brown talks with reporters after a meeting about the drought at his Capitol office in Sacramento, Calif. California s Democratic state senators released a letter, Thursday, April 30, 2015, they sent to Brown, earlier in the week, urging the governor s administration to get water savings projects started in months instead of years and calling for farmers to step up conservation in the face of a relentless drought.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Gov. Jerry Brown issued the state’s first mandatory water restrictions with California in the grip of a five-year historic drought that ended after last winter’s record rains. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli) 

“The public did an incredible job, folks responded really well,” Marcus said. “We use 50 percent of our water on outdoor ornamental landscaping, so cutting back isn’t as onerous as might seem.”
State officials monitor and learn lessons from problems overseas, such as Australia’s decade-long Millennial Drought and Brazil’s drought that almost saw São Paolo — population 12 million — run dry until rains rescued it two years ago.
Part of the problem, Marcus said, is that water officials are “prisoners of the length of our experience” with weather. In Australia, Brazil and now Cape Town, officials were stunned the dry spell lasted as long as it did. California’s last drought also lasted longer than those in recorded history, Marcus said, but geologic records suggest the state has seen much longer droughts over time.
“It’s always a reminder that you can never be too prepared,” Marcus said, “because you never know how long these things will last. Our drought was the wake up call of the century, São Paulo and Cape Town remind us not to press the snooze button.”
Wire services contributed services to this report.
As originally published in The Mercury News by John Woolfolk on January 24, 2018
Original URL: https://www.mercurynews.com/2018/01/24/could-a-major-california-city-run-dry-like-drought-stricken-cape-town/