Sunlight sparkles in a bright blue April sky in Southern California. Temperatures are in the 70s. No sign of rain. And that’s just the problem.
Even if much of the U.S. is still cold and snowy, the worst drought in 1,200 years continues in California. Since January 2014, the Golden State has been in a drought state of emergency. Earlier in April of this year, Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order making mandatory 25 percent cuts in water usage across most of the state, saving about 500 billion gallons.
Brown’s executive order was received with some controversy, however. Mostly over the order’s seemingly unbalanced attempt to put the cuts on the public and municipalities that use only 10 percent of the state’s water, while excluding the state’s gigantic agriculture industry as well as the fracking industry.
Brown defended his order in an interview with ABC News, “If you don’t want to produce any food and import it from some other place, of course you could do that,” he said. “But that would displace hundreds of thousands of people and I don’t think it’s needed.”
Farming, though only 2 percent of California’s total economy, uses as much as 80 percent of the state’s water, including groundwater. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank, Brown was right. This year alone, approximately half a million acres already went unplanted, costing about $2 billion and 17,000 full- and part-time jobs. Had farmers been blocked from buying water from other farmers or from pumping large amounts of groundwater, those losses would have been worse.
But Brown also hinted at political battles to come, calling the state’s current water buying system “archaic,” where many century-old farms are grandfathered into a system that allows them to buy water at a fraction of what many younger farms pay. A re-examination of those water systems is mentioned in the order. To make real changes however, Brown will likely incur the wrath of the state’s powerful agriculture lobby and lots of local politicians. “It will really test California’s ability to work as a state,” he said.
Now It’s Everybody’s Problem
All of this should matter to the rest of the country, because the California drought is already affecting the rest of the country. The state is the top provider of 79 different agricultural commodities, including various fruits, nuts, vegetables, cotton, and even milk. Consequently, prices to consumers across the country will be higher, especially in fruits and vegetables, for years to come. And Texas, the fourth largest money-making state in agriculture, is also suffering its own share of drought, driving up consumer prices even more.
One sliver of the agri-business community enjoying at least a temporary boost from the drought is the wine industry. Vintners in Napa and Sonoma counties say they’re bottling some of their best wine in years. The drier weather produces a smaller, more potent grape, however eventually vintners will have to worry about salty soil, so the good times and good vintages will not last.
But California’s top-selling commodities are not all the most thirsty. From the top 10 agricultural products in the state, consumers can estimate how prices might be affected based on how much water it takes to produce one ounce of each item (according to some exhaustive research by the Los Angeles Times and UNESCO):
Milk: 5.8 gallons per ounce
Almonds: Between 48.6 gallons (with the shell) and 97.2 gallons (without the shell)
Grapes: 3.12 gallons
Beef: 106.28 gallons
Strawberries: 1.24 gallons
Walnuts: 50.3 gallons (with the shell) and 94.9 gallons (without the shell)
Lettuce: 0.85 gallons
Tomatoes: 0.95 gallons
Nursery plants: n/a
Vegetarians can find some discouragement in the fact that lentils (71.28 gallons), chickpeas (76.07 gallons) and peas (44.53 gallons) require more water per ounce than pork (41.25 gallons), while mangoes (28.5 gallons), soy burgers (21.84 gallons) and asparagus (20.32 gallons) are still more than chicken (16.61 gallons). Rice and pasta required virtually the same amount of water as chicken. Adjust your wallets accordingly.
Drought is a part of California’s natural history dating back thousands of years, so blaming it solely on human influence is inaccurate. However, climate change and human thirst is arguably adding to the severity of recent droughts. Two studies in the journal Geophysical Research Letters found that a warm anomaly – nicknamed “the blob” by scientists – of Pacific Ocean water off the coast of Washington state caused by a high-pressure system that lingered over the winter of 2013-2014 calmed and warmed the water 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Just that difference is likely to have lengthened the droughts of California and the American Southwest, as well as increasing the severity of winter in the eastern U.S.
Within California, the view is people still use too much water for such a dry place, prompting some positive introspection but also a search for scapegoats. A recent UCLA study found wealthy neighborhoods use far more water than middle-class and poorer neighborhoods, likely making cities like Beverly Hills and Newport Beach easy targets for scorn. According to one study by the state’s Department of Water Resources and the Irvine Ranch Water District in Southern California, the average California single-family household uses about 360 gallons a day or 131,400 gallons a year. About 53 percent of that water went to landscaping and other outdoor uses. Inside, most of it got flushed down the toilet, literally. Meanwhile, Oregon state hydrologist Michael Campana says the fracking industry uses about 70 million gallons a year, which is less than 1 percent of the 11.3 trillion gallons used in total by the state each year. Despite some heavy criticism across the Internet – and whether you support fracking or not – they are not a major villain in this fight.
Looking Forward For Solutions
Change is hard and the changes that are facing California and ultimately much of the American Southwest, will be unquestionably hard and could get ugly even in a state that is used to droughts. But some solutions are already here, others are on their way.
Obviously, this is already happening with Brown’s executive order and more are on their way. This will soon affect how much water costs for everyone, what price we pay for some meat and produce and how many public fountains, swimming pools and lush, tropical front yards in the Southwest get turned into something else. It will be the hardest change, but it could also spur great innovation.
Sailors have used some form of desalinization since about 1600, but the first commercial plant was built in Malta in 1881. Since then, turning salty ocean water into fresh, drinkable water has been used around the planet and especially in the Middle East where water has always been at a premium. Israel, in fact, gets about 40 percent of their water from desalinization.
In California, it’s been used successfully in places like Catalina Island since the 1990s. Other efforts have met with controversy. The reason is desalinization plants are expensive. It takes a lot of energy – and consequently a lot of money – to make ocean water drinkable, and there are also potential environmental hazards to sucking water off the ocean floor without sucking up a lot of small sea life as well.
Many homes across the Southwest already have low-flow toilets and they are readily available at home improvement stores. Low-flow showerheads and faucets are commonplace and most new washing machines are far more water-efficient than a generation ago. Composting toilets are the next step for those who really want to go green.
Greywater recycling, or systems that re-use dishwater, washing machine water, sink and shower water in a house for use in toilets and landscape irrigation are about to get more attention. It’s expensive to install new plumbing in a house and homeowners should be careful how the water is used outside, but these systems will likely get more popular as water prices go up. However, it’s possible new homes in the future might be required to have them.
Some water districts are promoting more native and low-water plant landscaping and drip irrigation or micro-emitter systems, even to the point of ripping out thirsty lawns altogether and replacing them with low-water plants or synthetic lawns. Homeowners in many older cities in California and across the Southwest will likely have greater flexibility and incentive to do this where homeowner associations don’t exist and can’t enforce high levels of landscape uniformity.
There are certainly more answers to water conservation, but they remain the least popular or the most elusive because they are only in the early stages of development or not even on the drawing board.
Population control or mandatory limits to housing development and agri-business growth are the most Draconian and will certainly meet major political and public resistance. But effective ways homes, businesses, public spaces and government buildings can capture and use rainwater (when it comes) could be a game-changer for the Southwest.
Until then, these warm, sunny skies will remain a mixed blessing.