Why California's Drought Is the Nation's Problem

It was the worst kind of photo op. California Governor Jerry Brown and other state employees assembled in the Sierra Nevada mountain community of Phillips Station two weeks ago for the annual snow survey. Every year since 1941, April 1 has been the day of reckoning—a time to take stock of the winter’s accumulation and plan for how much spring runoff may help fill the state’s reservoirs, feed its rivers and streams, and be available for irrigated agriculture. This year was grim.

The area, at nearly 7,000 feet of elevation, usually has about five feet or more of snow at this time of year. But this year, there was no snow on the ground. Brown launched a press conference in the middle of a field of brown grass and announced mandatory drought restrictions for the state as part of an executive order that aims to restrict urban water use by 25 percent in the next year, spur the replacement of lawns with drought tolerant plants, and increase efficiency and conservation.

The order came as no surprise as California enters its fourth year of drought and recent research suggests that, thanks to warming temperatures, the drought is believed to be the most severe in more than 1,000 years. Currently the state’s snowpack is the lowest in recorded history—just 5 percent of its normal level.

With most of California engulfed in exceptional or extreme drought, the images on the drought monitor, showing large splashes of red and brown, conjure raging wildfires and parched farmland. As the dry season is set to begin, things are likely to get worse. And this means bad news for more than just Californians. The rest of the country should take notice.

Heating up

For starters, the biggest takeaway is that climate change is not coming, it’s already here.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of SciencesNoah S. DiffenbaughDaniel L. Swain and Danielle Touma write:

Analyzing historical climate observations from California, we find that precipitation deficits in California were more than twice as likely to yield drought years if they occurred when conditions were warm.

California’s problem is not just that it isn’t raining, but also that temperatures are warmer.

The lack of rain in California is being blamed on “persistently high atmospheric pressure”—nicknamed the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge—that is deflecting storms away from the area. While scientists haven’t said the RRR is caused by climate change, Diffenbaugh and colleagues did report that anthropogenic warming—climate change caused by human activity—“very likely increased the probability of such conditions.” What is certain is that, because of increased temperatures, the drought conditions are more severe than they might otherwise be. “Although a variety of opportunities exist to manage drought risk through long-term changes in water policy, management, and infrastructure,” write Diffenbaugh et al, “our results strongly suggest that global warming is already increasing the probability of conditions that have historically created high-impact drought in California.”

Food for thought

California’s drought may also hit your wallet, regardless of where you live. Agriculture in California is a $50-billion-a-year empire, and it’s global. What’s grown in California doesn’t just stay in California. Alfalfa watered with Sierra Nevada runoff fattens cattle in Japan, Salinas Valley strawberries sweeten fruit salads in New York, and Central Valley almonds end up, well, everywhere. The state supplies 80 percent of the world’s almonds and California farmers produce about half the fruits, nuts, and vegetables that grace Americans’ tables.

By some calculations, prices are already going up for food, and droughts across other Western states are driving up meat prices.

In California, agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water supply and much of the bounty is grown by irrigating the arid Central Valley. The state irrigates nearly 10 million acres of land with 34 million acre-feet of water.

This desert oasis is the result of a complicated plumbing system of reservoirs and canals managed by the state and federal governments. But in recent years, drought conditions have limited the amount of water funneled to farmers, and some water deliveries have been reduced all the way to zero.

One of the ways that farmers have tried to cope is by mining groundwater from increasingly deeper depths. But that’s created another problem.

Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has found that groundwater pumping rates in California are “excessive and unsustainable,” causing wells to run dry and land to sink a foot or more every year.

Groundwater is often referred to as a savings account—it stores water that can be used when surface water—the H2O in reservoirs, rivers and lakes—is limited. The state only just last year decided to begin the process of regulating groundwater and it will be years, possibly decades, until anything meaningful is achieved. And by then, it may be too late.

“Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing,” Famiglietti writes in The Los Angeles Times. “California has no contingency plan for a persistent drought like this one (let alone a 20-plus-year mega-drought), except, apparently, staying in emergency mode and praying for rain.”

Groundwater isn’t used for irrigation alone; it’s also drinking water. Some communities are entirely dependent on groundwater for taps of households and businesses—and on average, it provides between 40 to 60 percent of the state’s water supply.

And yet, regulation of how groundwater is accessed and used is lax. Adam Scow, the California Director for Food and Water Watch, thinks the governor and state Water Resources Control Board should manage and protect groundwater as a public resource.

“It is time for some real leadership, some real management, some real protection,” said Scow. “That would mean limits on pumping [groundwater], especially in the driest of places like the southwest side of the Central Valley where you have massive almond and pistachio production. We simply don’t have the water to support that.”

The hottest cash crop right now in California is almonds, whose cultivation has come under increased scrutiny as the drought worsens. The New York Times reports that almond orchards have doubled in size in the last 20 years in the valley and “a single almond can still require as much as a gallon of California’s precious water.”

Thirsty industry

For all the new restrictions imposed in the governor’s new executive order, the biggest water hog—the agriculture business—was largely spared, save for curtailed water deliveries. Many irrigators depend on water delivered via canals from federal and state water projects, but the federally run Central Valley Project is expected to give a zero allocation from its canals this year and California’s State Water Project will allocate only 20 percent.

In addition to the lack of rain, California’s water woes are exacerbated by poor resource accounting and management. A report from the University of California, Davis, found that water in the state is vastly over-allocated—about five times more of it is promised to water users than nature can deliver. Shortfalls are inevitable and are a source of serious contention, which in recent years have pitted some Central Valley farmers against environmentalists.

This year, attention has also turned to the oil industry (also not required to reduce consumption) and the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which is used to help coax oil out of the state’s aging oilfields.

The state's Department of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources reported that in 2014, fracking in California used 214 acre-feet of water—or about just shy of 70 million gallons. New legislation has begun tracking the sources of water used by the oil and gas industry, but the first set of data from this new law won’t be available until the end of the month.

There is also concern that the industry is polluting drinkable water in the parched Central Valley. Last year, it was discovered that oil companies had for decades been pumping their wastewater into Central Valley aquifers that had been deemed clean enough for drinking or irrigation.

But leaders in the oil and gas industry contend that they are helping farmers during the drought, as some farmers are buying water from companies like Chevron, which is selling off 21 million gallons a day of the briny wastewater that comes to the surface during oil production. Zoe Schlanger at Newsweek reported that 90 farmers are using the wastewater to irrigate citrus, nut, and grape crops. The local water district is required to test only for salt and boron—not for chemicals used during drilling or for other potentially dangerous but naturally occurring contaminants such as heavy metals, radioactive materials, or arsenic. Schlanger writes:

Little to no independent scientific research has been done on this type of water and how it interacts with crops, soil and surrounding bodies of water. Some scientists say there are too many unknowns associated with the wastewater from oilfields. If it is being used on food, and to irrigate land that lies above drinking water aquifers, we need to know more about it, they say.

Paying the price

The drought has helped to reveal some striking economic facts. When it comes to cities and towns, water use varies greatly and is often associated with income. The Pacific Institute found that per-capita water use was higher in wealthier neighborhoods. Cowan, a tony town in Orange County, averaged 281 gallons a person a day in January, the Pacific Institute reports, while the nearby and less wealthy town of Santa Ana used only 56 gallons per person a day.

It’s not just water consumption but water quality that correlates to income as well. Poor Californians in rural areas are also more likely to not have clean sources of drinking water—a startling fact in a state that generates so much money and is the seventh-largest economy in the world.

The Community Water Center reports that 1.5 million Californians have water sources with unsafe levels of contaminants. Hardest hit are some Central Valley towns whose residents are predominantly low-income farm workers.

The drought’s effect on electricity generation is also draining the pockets of everyday Californians. Less water has meant less hydroelectric power, and to compensate, the state has had to rely on more expensive and more polluting power from natural gas.

The Pacific Institute found that in the first three years of the drought, ratepayers in the state forked over an additional $1.4 billion for natural gas because hydroelectricity production had fallen. And this substitution caused an 8 percent increase in CO2 emissions.

During the last few drought years, hydro power’s total portion of electricity generation fell from 18 percent pre-drought to around 12 percent. “When these longer-term water shortfalls over the past seven years are taken into account, California’s electricity is becoming more expensive on average,” the institute’s research revealed.

Water plays a big role in our energy systems—from the generation of electricity in power plants to the production of fossil fuels like oil and gas. Decreasing energy use through efficiency or conservation, or switching from fossil fuels to renewable sources, can also help to save water.

(Dry) road ahead

By most accounts, California will have a tough road ahead in the near future and quite possibly the long term as well. Continued population growth is expected as are warmer temperatures, both of which will add more stress to a water system that is already at the breaking point.

The drought solutions needed come down to much more than taking shorter showers and praying for rain.

NASA’s Famiglietti recommends mandatory cuts not just for municipal water systems, as Brown proposed, but for agriculture and industry as well. And Famiglietti also calls for an accelerated implementation of a groundwater management plan passed last year.

Scow, of Food and Water Watch, thinks that some agricultural lands should be taken out of production and fracking banned, but that there is a lot of waste at the urban level, too. “Households can do better—some people are already doing a lot,” he says. “But beyond that, cities can do a much better job of capturing and managing storm water. There is a lot of water that runs polluted off streets into bays, oceans, lakes. We are not making good use of that rain and we need more water retentive surfaces so we are recharging our groundwater in urban areas.” Crumbling infrastructure from aging pipelines can also mean a 10 to 15 percent water loss, too, he said.

The Pacific Institute found that up 10.8 to 13.7 million acre-feet a year could be freed by focusing on “urban and agricultural water conservation and efficiency, water reuse, and stormwater capture.” And that’s just the tip of the iceberg for the changes California will have to make as it grapples with the new realities of climate change and tries to balance population growth, economic growth, and natural resource protection.

This spring, California’s drought is front-page news across the country, but the next few years will determine if the much-watched state will be lauded for finding solutions that match the scale of the crisis. So far, it appears, it is not even close.


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