Fantasizing About California, or Already Here: 5 Shocking Drought Facts to Make You Rethink the Golden State

February 17, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedThere are likely a lot of East Coasters wishing they lived in sunny, dry (and comparatively warm) California right now. But Californians know their weather is anything but a blessing these days with a drought that’s being called “unprecedented.”

The situation has even sparked a trip from President Obama, who visited the epicenter of California’s massive agriculture industry, the Central Valley, on Friday and announced $100 million in livestock disaster assistance, $5 million in targeted assistance for hard-hit areas, $5 million for watershed protection programs, $60 million for food banks and 600 new sites for a summer meals program, $3 million in emergency water assistance for rural communities, and a commitment from the federal government to reduce water use and focus nation-wide on climate resilience.

While the funding and programs may be welcome for immediate assistance, solving California’s water crisis will require more than a big checkbook. Water in the West, California included, is contentious and politically wrought. Here are five key things to know if you want to truly understand the impact of California’s drought.

1. We may be facing a mega-drought

California’s Governor Brown declared a drought state of emergency on January 17 when it became clear that 2013 closed out the driest year ever recorded for many parts of the state and the 2014 water year, which began October 1, had thus far been the driest in 90 years.

Droughts aren’t new to California, there have been about nine in the last hundred years and it turns out that last century may have actually been one of the wettest in the last 7,000 years. Unfortunately that time frame is also when we decided how we would divvy up the region’s water resources among all its various consumers. If you think of water like money (and in the west it basically is), then we took a bunch of years of record profit and based those figures on how much payout different stakeholders get each year. But increasingly there is less and less in the bank to start with and the balance sheets are coming out in the red. There is water promised that simply cannot be delivered. We’ve written a check that nature can’t cash. And that situation is likely to get a lot worse.

Right now the state is in the third year of a deepening drought, but it may be part of a much longer trend, one that could last decades, even centuries according to paleoclimatologist B. Lynn Ingram at the University of California at Berkeley. Part of that may have to do with human-induced climate change and part of it, she says, is caused by natural fluctuations that occur with changes in surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. The combination is a double whammy for California and much of the West.

2. We do have to conserve

A few days of rain in early February haven’t been enough yet to make a dent in California’s water shortage. There are still a few more months left in the “rainy” season but the chances that the state will emerge unscathed are practically zilch.

While the governor declared a state of emergency there are so far no statewide mandatory water restrictions (though there are some local ones). On average Californians use 196 gallons of water per day, though use varies across the state.

As Paul Rogers and Nicholas St. Fleur reported for the San Jose Mercury News, not surprisingly cooler coastal areas tend to use less water, like Santa Cruz, which averages 113 gallons person a day and Crescent City, which uses 97 gallons per person a day. But in hotter, drier areas like the the Central Valley and desert areas of Southern California use can hit 591 gallons of water per person a day in Riverside County and 736 in Palm Springs. Although the worst is Vernon in Los Angeles County which only has 112 residents but a per capita daily water use of more than 94,000 gallons thanks to “dozen factories, meatpacking plants and other water-guzzling industries within its city limits,” wrote Rogers and Fleur.

Some parts of the state, including areas of Sacramento and the Central Valley still don’t have water meters — although they are now mandated by 2025. At the municipal level, tiered rate structures where rates increase greater the more you use (and of course water meters) are instrumental in reducing water consumption.

There are also lots that individuals can do by restricting watering for outdoor plants and lawns or replacing lawns entirely with drought-tolerant plants (some local water agencies offer incentives for turf removal), checking plumbing for leaks, using low-flow fixtures and toilets, not washing cars, using rain barrels to collect water for outside use, and taking shorter showers.

These are all well and good but in the big picture, asking someone to turn off the faucet while they brush their teeth to help the drought is akin to Al Gore telling you to change your light bulb to combat climate change. Let’s be clear, you should change your lightbulbs … and use less water, but California’s water issues are more complicated than that. We haven’t even begun to scrape the surface of what we can do at the municipal level (like reuse of graywater, not flushing our toilets with drinking water, and collecting storm water) for a more long-term vision of how to be smarter about our water use. But even that doesn’t get to the heart of the state’s political dysfunction around water.

3. Big Ag has a big thirst

The elephant in the room when it comes to water in California is agriculture, which uses around 80 percent of the state’s developed water supply. Ag in California is king — the state has more than 80,000 farms and an annual revenue of $45 billion a year. The California department of Food and Agriculture reports that 400 commodities are grown in the state and almost half of all the fruits, vegetables and nuts produced in the US come from California. The biggest money maker is milk at $6.9 billion a year, followed by grapes, almonds, nursery plants, cattle, strawberries, lettuce, walnuts, hay and tomatoes.

However large swathes of the state’s agricultural areas, like the Central Valley, are only farmable because of subsidized water coming through a network of canals and pumps that send water from the wetter north to more arid lands further south via the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project (parts of Southern California also get an allotment of the Colorado River).

Of course we need food, but are we growing the right food in the right places and with the best technology possible to reduce water use? In some places yes, but across the board, definitely not.

California produces 80 percent of the world’s almonds and areas like the Westlands Water District have made the switch from cotton to almonds to cash in on high demand. “But growing almonds in an arid climate requires lots of water,” writes Joaquin Palomino of the East Bay Express. “In fact, Westlands’ almond orchards suck up nearly 100 billion gallons of water a year. Cotton, by contrast, needs 40 percent less water per acre, and tomatoes require about half as much water as almonds. Also, unlike cotton and tomatoes, almonds are a ‘permanent’ crop, meaning the land they’re grown on can’t lie fallow when water is scarce.”

Almonds aren’t the only thirsty crop. The one that’s getting the most water in California is alfalfa and not all of it will be feeding the state’s dairy and meat industries, a lot of it is shipped overseas. Ag web reports that, “Exports of U.S. hay grew to more than 3.7 million tons in 2012, up sharply from 2.5 million in 2008.”

Container ships that arrive from Asia with electronics and other consumer goods are loaded for the return trip with compressed bales of hay grown in the Western U.S. in some of the driest states in the country — Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington. “In specific regions, particularly the Imperial Valley of California, and the Columbia basin of Washington-Oregon, the percentage of alfalfa and grassy hays exported may be over 50% of production,” reported the UC Cooperative Extension’s Alfalfa and Forage News.

Some farms have done much to cut down on water usage, but the industry as a whole could do more, including rethinking what crops are grown in the first place and whether the land that’s used for agriculture in some areas is really still suitable for farming.

4. Groundwater levels dropping quickly

If you look at the amount of precipitation that California has gotten, things are pretty scary. The state’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) reported that as of January 21 precipitation was at 20 percent of average, snow water equivalent was at 15 percent of average and water storage in reservoirs at 65 percent of average. Some reservoirs are at less than 20 percent capacity and there are 17 communities and water districts (see a list here) that could run dry in the next 100 days, if not before.

But the situation looks even worse when you hear about groundwater. Currently about 85 percent of Californians get some of their drinking water from groundwater and some areas, like Fresno, rely on it entirely, as well as many rural areas outside of municipal water systems. It’s also often used as back up supply and can be used by the oil and gas industry for water-intensive operations like hydraulic fracturing and flood injections. Compared to agriculture, the industry’s use is much less, but it operates in areas, like the Central Valley, that are already water stressed.

Jay Famiglietti a hydrologist and a professor of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine, wrote recently in National Geographic about a new report he helped produce that used the GRACE satellite program to monitor groundwater in California. Their research found that during the 2006 to 2010 drought, surface water deliveries were curtailed, which meant that farmers were forced to use more groundwater.

“The resulting volume of depleted groundwater was so great that it was registered by a satellite ‘scale’ that orbits about 400 km above Earth’s surface,” he wrote. Because of that they found that “the combined Sacramento and San Joaquin River Basins have already lost 10 cubic kilometers of freshwater each year in 2012 and 2013,” wrote Famiglietti. “To put that number in perspective, it is roughly the amount of water used by the entire population of California, for household, municipal, and industrial use (that is, for nearly everything else besides agriculture and environment). It is also the steepest decline in total water availability that our team has witnessed in the 12 years that we have been monitoring California water resources with the GRACE mission.”

If that weren’t bad enough, the long-term trends are not promising either and it reveals a long history of overuse of groundwater in the Central Valley. “What do we see? A little up, a lot down, a little increase, a big plunge,” he wrote. “The downs are way bigger than the ups, which means that groundwater levels are on a one-way journey to the very bottom of the Central Valley.”

As 2014 progresses and more water is cut to farmers with thirsty crops, and municipal users, industry, and businesses that means more unsustainable groundwater use, more dangerous subsidence, and less water available for back up sources.

5. It’s the politics, stupid

It wouldn’t be a drought in California without political fingerpointing. If you drive through the farm-friendly Central Valley you’ll see signs blaming Obama or Congress for creating the “dust bowl.” The Big Ag lobby is a massive political force with friends in high places who’ve created a false narrative for years that farmers aren’t getting enough water allotments via the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project because of concern about a small (and endangered fish) called the Delta smelt. The fish versus farmers story is out of date and woefully incomplete but it hasn’t kept Republican legislators from introducing a bill to serve Central Valley farmers.

Water that is pumped south passes through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, an ecosystem that helps support numerous important fisheries (including salmon and steelhead). When there’s not enough water coming through the delta and in the rivers above, then it’s bad news for fish, the fishing industry, the entire ecosystem and whole lot of other folks.

“The GOP House passed a bill sponsored by Republicans from California’s Central Valley that would reallocate water toward agriculture and away from sustaining flows in the delta,” a Washington Post editorial explained. “In reality, says California Natural Resources Agency official Richard Stapler, the GOP plan would hinder state efforts to ensure its 60-year-old water management system will continue operating well enough to provide water to many of those, not just fish, with legitimate needs. Things are so bad that saltwater could intrude into the system if there is not enough fresh water flowing through the delta, making things worse.”

Water allocations are indeed a tricky business and even though Central Valley farmers are crying foul, they aren’t the only ones — only the loudest. Anglers and others concerned with the Delta ecosystem believe too much water was released from Northern California reservoirs last summer and now fish populations are at risk, while Southern California is enjoying a bounty. As Dan Bacher writes on AlterNet:

“Last summer, high water releases down the Sacramento, Feather and American rivers left Shasta, Oroville and Folsom reservoirs at dangerously low levels. Shasta is at 36 percent of capacity and 53 percent of average; Oroville, 36 percent of capacity and 54 percent of average; and Folsom, 17 percent of capacity and 32 percent of average

“Yet Pyramid Lake in Southern California is at 96 percent of capacity and 101 percent of average, while Castaic Reservoir is 86 percent of capacity and 102 percent of average.

“The state and federal water agencies exported massive quantities of water to agribusiness interests and Southern California water agencies, endangering local water supplies and fish populations as the ecosystem continues to collapse.”

Things have gotten so bad that the East Bay Express is writing about a coming “salmon drought,” since water levels have fallen dangerously far to support fish populations. One scheme to save Chinook salmon involves taking salmon from Northern California hatcheries in Redding and trucking them past the delta, releasing them right into San Francisco Bay where they can swim to the ocean.

“Trucking the salmon would move them safely past the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where powerful irrigation pumps kill countless small fish every year,” wroteAlastair Bland.

The idea of salmon having to hitch a ride to the ocean is a perfect image to conjure the sad state of California’s water woes.

Drought faucet image via shutterstock. Reproduced on with permission.

Tara Lohan

Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.

Tags: California drought, climate change, climate change policy, water management policy