Home – Deepening California Drought Poses Several Challenges

Deepening California Drought Poses Several Challenges

 After years of magical thinking about rains that rarely came, California agencies are struggling to combat the state’s prolonged drought through myriad mandates, restrictions and development of alternative sources of water. They have a long way to go.

Responding to a fourth year of drought that some scientists predict could last for decades, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) is seeking a 25 percent reduction in water use. “We’ve got to change,” he recently told hundreds of water officials at a conference in Sacramento. But Californians have been so unresponsive to Brown’s appeal that the State Water Resources Board has ordered reductions in urban water use under threat of penalties. Felicia Marcus, president of the board, said the unprecedented action was necessary because California was gripped by “the drought of our lives.”

California is not the only suffering state. The national drought map posted monthly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows severe or extreme drought covering much of Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Utah with pockets in Oklahoma and Texas. The 1,900-mile Rio Grande River that marks the U.S.-Mexico border has in some places slowed to a trickle. Even in Washington, where rainfall is abundant, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) has issued drought proclamations covering 24 of the Evergreen State’s watersheds. Similar drought orders have been issued by governors in Oregon, Nevada and Utah.

The culprit in the Washington drought is reduced snowpack caused by abnormally warm winters. Snowpack functions as a frozen reservoir, accumulating over the winter and melting during spring and summer to provide water for rivers and streams. This year’s snowpack in Washington is the lowest in 64 years. It’s even worse in the high Sierra, a primary water source for California, where the snowpack is at a historic low. When Gov. Brown announced his latest water reduction goals on April 1, he stood in a bare Sierra meadow that normally would be covered by snow.

Media attention has focused on California, much of which is experiencing “exceptional” drought, the worst category.  California is home to nearly 39 million people, more than the entire population of Canada, and boasts a $2.2 million economy that would rank seventh in the world if it were a separate nation. The Golden State last year far outpaced rival Texas in job growth and produced half of the nation’s fruits, vegetables and nuts. This output includes water-intensive and profitable crops such as almonds and alfalfa. It takes a gallon of water to grow a single almond.

Less often noted, says California Assembly Minority Leader Kristen Olsen (R), is that it takes eight gallons of water to make a single computer chip. She says that urban and rural areas have a shared stake in the drought, which Olsen calls a “crisis of opportunity” that could spur California to provide more water storage and take other actions it has long neglected while waiting for the rains.

Indeed, with the drought deepening, California seems poised for change. Until last year it was the only western state that did not inventory its ground water. In 2014 the Legislature passed legislation to provide this record. Voters at Brown’s behest then approved a $7.1 billion water bond issue that includes $2.7 billion for water storage projects, eagerly sought by farms in a state that hasn’t built a new reservoir in 35 years.

But various interest groups soon renewed old quarrels about how to spend the money. The pro-environmentalist Democratic majority in the Legislature blocked proposals to ease the permitting process for new storage facilities. Agricultural groups claim environmentalists put fish ahead of people in allocation of scarce water. Environmentalists respond that seven native species of freshwater fish have vanished in the last three decades and say that another 30 species face extinction.

Agriculture is an easy target since farms use 80 percent of California’s available water. But this oft-quoted statistic applies only to water for human use. If water used to protect the environment is included, the statewide average use is roughly 50 percent environmental, 40 percent agricultural, and 10 percent urban, according to the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). Some of the water used by each of these sectors returns to rivers and groundwater basins, and can be used again.

Farmers have fallowed 400,000 acres at the cost of $2 billion and are producing on the rest under difficult conditions. For the second consecutive year, California farms are receiving no water from the federal Central Valley Project and only 20 percent of their allocation from the State Water Project. Farmers have made up much of the loss by pumping ground water, in some places dangerously lowering the water table. The Nature Conservancy says that California has used more than 63 trillion gallons of water from underground aquifers since 2013, creating “a hole in the state’s water bucket…that needs to be fixed.”

Nonetheless, agriculture is highly valued in California, and no one is about to tell farmers what to do. “Having Sacramento or Washington tell farmers what they can grow is a really bad idea,” says Ellen Hanak, director of the PPIC’s water policy center.

Gov. Brown shares this view. “I believe farmers should grow whatever they want,” he told Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton.

Hanak, an economist, favors an improved market system for exchanging water rights, which she says would benefit farmers and urban dwellers alike. Several northern California rice and cotton farmers already sell water rights to agencies in thirsty Southern California, profiting more than they would from growing a crop.

Meanwhile, the urban areas that have been the target of conservation efforts are showing disappointing results. Only 14 of the state’s 412 largest cities and water districts have met the target of reducing water use by 25 percent. Some cities could run out of water within a year or two if the drought persists.

For water-wasteful cities, which include such plush communities as Beverly Hills, the State Water Board has ordered reductions of 36 percent in water consumption with a threat of $10,000-a-day fines for non-compliance. But even cities that have been thrifty in water use will have to cut back at least 8 percent, beginning in June. 

A significant court decision has harmed the efforts of cities to reach conservation targets. In April a California appeals court found San Juan Capistrano’s system of water pricing unconstitutional because it charged the biggest users more than the city paid for water. Such tiered systems have been effective in reducing water use. Irvine in Orange County, for instance, has a five-tier system and has cut water use by 25 percent by charging minimal water users 88 cents per unit (748 gallons) while the heaviest users pay $12.60 a unit.

Irvine officials insist their system will pass legal muster because all charges are tied to specific costs, but it’s not clear if the courts will agree. A determination could come on a pending lawsuit against the city of Glendale, which has a similar tiered system.

Meanwhile, coastal water agencies are looking to the sea. California presently has three small desalination plants in operation with another 15 on the drawing boards. The biggest desalination plant in the western hemisphere is due to open this November in Carlsbad near San Diego. This $1 billion project will daily transform 50 million gallons of seawater into drinking water for 112,000 households. In Santa Barbara, a desal plant that opened on a trial basis in 1992 and then was mothballed when so-called “March miracle” rains arrived, is likely to be restarted. In nearby Montecito, water expert Bob Hazard said recently, “There’s no need to give up on our flora and fauna when we have an inexhaustible supply of water in the Pacific Ocean just next door.”

Opponents say that desalination is wasteful of energy and destructive to sea life. It’s also expensive. As a cautionary tale, desalination opponents cite Australia’s experience in the decade-long “Millennium Drought” in which billions of dollars were spent on six massive desalination plants, four of which now stand idle. In a larger scale version of what happened in California in 1992, torrential rains drenched eastern Australia in 2010 soon after the desalination plants were commissioned.

But the Millennium Drought may not be the best model for California. Writing in the journal Science Advances, scientists from NASA, Columbia and Cornell who have examined tree rings that reveal weather data back to the year 1000 suggest that California and other parts of the West could be in the beginning phase of a 35-year mega-drought such as the one that contributed to the extinction of the ancient Pueblo peoples, or Anasazi, of the Colorado Plateau.

At a time we’re struggling to meet short-term conservation goals, a mega-drought is too much for most Californians to comprehend. Better for us to make small contributions by letting lawns go brown and recycling water from our showers. Even modest beginnings are preferable to the magical thinking of waiting for the rains.