A Fresh Perspective on the Drought in California and the Future of the Water Crisis

Drought

California’s epic drought began in July 2011 and continues to make life increasingly difficult for its residents as the flow of the water diminishes to a trickle. California has a climate that is classified as Mediterranean partially because the majority of the precipitation accumulates from October to March, when greater than 80% of the state’s rainfall occurs. After an insignificant amount of rainfall in the wet season we are now entering the state’s dry season with little hope for much needed rain. According to Brad Rippey, a meteorologist who works for the United States Dept. of Agriculture (USDA), “it’s very difficult to get significant changes in the drought picture during the warm season.” Then Rippey ominously stated that “even when it rains during the summer, evaporation due to high temperatures largely offsets any accumulation.”

This spells trouble for Californians as they head into the driest months of the year as the drought now enters its fourth year of arid constriction. Over the course of the drought Californians have been asked to make increasingly deeper sacrifices in order to save water. In early April Governor Jerry Brown was forced to announce a severe decree: Californians must cut back consumption by 25%. Although he has received an outpouring of support for his decision there is still much head-scratching about how he will implement this lofty goal and efficiently enforce these restrictions. With many Californians feeling the pinch there are many measures that are being employed to curb consumption. People are replacing their lawns with Astroturf or other plants that are more suited to arid climates. Brian Milne of Paso Robles boasts of having “the brownest lawn on the block,” something that was once a form of shame is now worn by conscientious Californians with honor, when asked about his lawn Milne says, “I’m proud of it.” Other Californians are refitting their houses with new water-saving appliances such as low flow toilets and water pumps to conserve as much as possible. For example, Catherine Trainor, a Startup Entrepreneur in Oakland, says that she bought a pump so, “that each time we take a bath we can pump that water into a hose to water the plants with.” It is clear that many in the state are struggling to make the necessary sacrifices to conserve water, but is anyone benefitting from the drought?

Who Benefits?

If California was an independent nation it would have the world’s eighth largest economy. An important facet of the state’s colossal economy is agriculture. The industry consumes 80% of the state’s water and has come under increasing scrutiny as the flow of H20 has abated. Mark Hertsgaard, who has studied climatology and written six books, including his most recent entitled: HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, asserts that “Agriculture is the heart of California’s worsening water crisis, and the stakes extend far beyond the state’s borders.” He is quick to remind readers that not only is this a high-stakes game for California residents but it is for the rest of the U.S. because the state produces many of the nation’s agricultural products. California accounts for at least half of U.S. production of such staples as nuts, veggies and fruits. Astonishingly, they produce 90% of almonds, broccoli, and strawberries. Almonds have gotten some bad press lately as a water-hogging produce. But almonds are a perfect example of an agricultural product that has a high profit margin making it attractive for farmers to produce even if it is not efficient in the larger water conservation picture. Water is imperative to the pivotal agricultural production of California but it is not being rationed in the most efficient way.

The water is subsidized by taxpayer money and it is flowing inordinately toward big agricultural companies. Besides water being relatively cheap compared to the actual value because the cost is offset by subsidies, there is another reason that large farmers are depleting the water supply. Some large farmers have actually been able to raise prices and still keep costs relatively low. As a pistachio farmer named John Dean announced at a recent conference, “I’ve been smiling all the way to the bank.” How is this possible amid so much hardship? California is the only of the dry states of the Western U.S. that doesn’t have limits on how much water can be drawn from private wells. This creates a situation where farmers are drilling deeper to find new wells in order to continue to irrigate their crops. So, they are able to pay money to have an inordinate control over water reserves deep below the surface. Drilling deep wells is obviously expensive and therefore favors the biggest farming operations with the fattest pockets.

California’s laws with regards to drawing from public wells means that self-harvesting water is a cost effective for the individual who can afford to drill down and find new aquafers. However, it is a game slated toward the wealthier inhabitants who can afford to do so. The drought continues to pose problems for many people in the state and it has caused certain portions of the population to lose their jobs.

The drought continues to drive farmers out of business. In 2014 17,000 farmers lost their livelihoods. The situation in 2015 continues to be bleak. This has many Californians looking for answers. What will the future bring for the Golden State?

The Future

The situation has Californians scrambling for ways to replenish their freshwater reserves, which some experts estimate can only hold out for a year or so more. Their search for answers has them staring out at the Mighty Pacific. There is a push to put more money and effort into desalinization as a way to produce potable water to help sustain the dwindling water supply. Carlsbad, California is home to the Western Hemisphere’s largest desalinization plant, which is a large part of where Californians are pinning their hopes for a better, wetter future. Desalinization is a complicated and expensive process that is still sorely in need of improvements in order to deliver potable water with cost-effective efficiency. The plant in Carlsbad is expected to be producing water for the people of San Diego County by the end of the year. The project, which costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 Billion, is expected to supply residents with 50 million gallons per day. This may sound like a lot of potable water, but the reality is that it will only supply a maximum of 10% of the residents with enough water to cover their daily usage. There are sixteen other desalinization plants that are proposed to line the California coast, which would produce a projected 370 million gallons per day. However, there are deep concerns over the environmental toll that the plants will take along with the high cost of desalinization. For these reasons Santa Cruz has already passed on building a plant and it remains a topic of heated debate in the state.

Additionally, there must be a reconsidering of how the states entire infrastructure for gathering, storing, preserving, and delivering water works. The hard facts are that California is entering a new climate that will be drier than anyone alive in the state has ever known. The snowpack of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, a historical indicator of the state’s water reserves and key to a healthy ecology, is at its all-time lowest levels. Part of what will make Californians successful in handling the drought will be to change their collective mindset to realize that they will not have the luxury to use water as they have in the past and the focus must be on conservation. The retooling of the state’s infrastructure is a place to start. Noah Diffenbaugh, who has studied the situation intensely as a climatologist for Stanford University located in Palo Alto, warns that the old systems and infrastructure is not prepared for the future he warns that “”Those were all built in an old climate, and the reality is, we’re in a new climate.”

References

1. “U.S. Cities Running out of Water.” USA TODAY. Accessed June 25, 2015. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/06/17/24-7-wall-st-cities-running-out-water/28790905/
2. From Portable Showers to Dying Lawns: How Californians Are Coping With the Drought.”Newsweek. Accessed June 25, 2015. http://www.newsweek.com/portable-showers-dying-lawns-how-californians-are-coping-drought-324532
3. Hertsgaard, Mark. “How Growers Gamed California’s Drought.” The Daily Beast, March 15, 2015.http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/03/30/how-growers-gamed-california-s-drought.html
4. Schiavenza, Matt. “The Economics of California’s Drought.” The Atlantic, March 21, 2015.http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/03/the-economics-of-californias-drought/388375/
5. Tia, Ghose. “What Record-Breaking Drought Means for California’s Future.” Live Science, April 8, 2015.http://www.livescience.com/50417-california-drought-future.html
6. Hertsgaard, Mark.
7. Schiavenza, Matt.
8. “California Looks to the Ocean for Water during Historic Drought | Al Jazeera America.” Accessed June 25, 2015.http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/6/22/california-looks-to-the-ocean-for-water-during-historic-drought.html
9. Tia, Ghose.

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