Southern California immigrants face the drought with conservation habits learned long ago

Jess Cullen, who is Australian, washes her dishes in her West L.A. apartment. She grew up on a cattle farm during Australia's years-long drought, and still uses water conservation methods she learned then.
Jess Cullen, who is Australian, washes her dishes in her West L.A. apartment. She grew up on a cattle farm during Australia's years-long drought, and still uses water conservation methods she learned then.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Jess Cullen, who is Australian, washes her dishes in her West L.A. apartment. She grew up on a cattle farm during Australia's years-long drought, and still uses water conservation methods she learned then.
Jess Cullen is an Australian-born musician living in West L.A. When she arrived last year, she couldn’t believe how much water was used in Southern California.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Jess Cullen, who is Australian, washes her dishes in her West L.A. apartment. She grew up on a cattle farm during Australia's years-long drought, and still uses water conservation methods she learned then.
Jess Cullen learned to save water in Australia by filing a quarter of her sink with water when doing dishes.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC


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It doesn't take much water to wash dishes — not in Jess Cullen's kitchen, at least.

The 28-year-old Australian arrived in Southern California last year, just ahead of the drought and the state's new mandatory water restrictions. But she was ready: Cullen grew up on a cattle farm in Queensland during Australia's historic drought, which lasted from the 1990s to 2012.

“There were pictures of dead cattle on the news, just like, starved animals, with thousands of acres of dust behind them, no grass," Cullen remembers.

Those images — and the cutbacks her own family had to make — have stuck with her.

One recent morning in her kitchen, she squirted soap into about three inches of water, rinsing the dirty dishes as the sink filled.

"Well, not full, absolutely not full," she explained. "About a quarter full."

Once the dishes were wet, she left them to soak for good scrub later.

Cullen is one of a multitude of Southern California residents who grew up in countries where water wasn't unlimited. Some have lived with drought. Others grew up with wet weather, but an unreliable water supply. All of them learned to make do — and brought those sensibilities with them when they came to the U.S.

Tina Bulchand grew up in the Philippines. Even in the city where she lived, she said, if there was a power outage, the water went off. So water was stored in advance, and used sparingly.

This applied to how she and her family showered.

"With a tabo!," she said, laughing. "It's what we call in the Philippines tabo, but it’s really a water dipper, as the rest of the world knows it. What we have in the shower is a bucket, and then the water dipper.”

Showering with a bucket and a dipper, or water scoop, is how much of the world bathes. It’s just one example that puts U.S. water habits in perspective, says Matthew Heberger, who researches water conservation for the Pacific Institute in Oakland.

“I think there is a lot that we can learn from people around the world," Heberger said. "If you look at the average California household, we are using more than 200 gallons per person per day. This is much more than they are using in a lot of other countries.”

Heberger said that in Australian cities, for example, water use is a fraction of what it is in the United States, largely because people learned to conserve. Water-saving methods are used in other developed countries, such as Israel, where crops are grown with relatively little water. And in much of the developing world, water conservation is a way of life.

“Not everyone has the benefit of the modern water distribution systems that we have, so people, a lot of times, are capturing water on their roofs, and they are using that for cooking and drinking," Heberger said.

Rainwater collection is common in parts of Central America, said Mariella Saba, who does water conservation outreach among immigrants in Los Angeles. It's necessary, in some areas, since water isn't delivered every day.

"Many times they only have water once, only on certain days in the week," said Saba, who spent time living in El Salvador.

The organization she works for, Instituto de Educacion Popular del Sur de California or IDEPSCA, receives grant funding from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to spread the conservation message to local Latinos. Saba works most closely with Central Americans. In the process, she's learned just how how deeply ingrained the idea of saving water is for some families.

"Something I see that we should take away is that respect that exists," she said, "that appreciation of seeing water as equivalent to life, and not something that can be wasted or seen as infinite.”

Some of these sensibilities fade as immigrants acclimate. When she came to the U.S. 13 years ago, Tina Bulchand still used bucket showers at first. But it's hard to resist the high-pressure shower.

“You get used to oooh, the warm water, and the steam," she said.

She eventually gave up her bucket, but she still has her water scoop.

"You know what, it’s hard to get rid of the tabo," Bulchand said. "I’m still not used to having water running, every time I have to wash anything.”

These days, she fills jugs with tap water – her own version of rationing – and fills the pint-sized water scoop as needed for chores or washing up.

Cullen said she hasn't gone American just yet. Although she's caught herself leaving the water on a few times while brushing her teeth, she said she practices water conservation daily.

This includes simple things, like shutting off the water while shampooing, or washing the car with a bucket instead of a hose. And of course, limiting toilet flushes: "It’s a pretty gnarly habit, but that’s just something we did around the house," she said.

And explaining to her American friends that a two-minute shower really works. 

“People have noticed how quick my showers are," Cullen said. "And I’m, like, well, I am clean! I just don’t hang out and waste water.”