California Dreamin’ About Enough Water

Serious drought. Help save water. That’s a message you’ll see everywhere in California, including the Amber Alert signs on highways that normally are used for emergencies.

California is in one of its worst droughts ever. More than 80% of the state is in “extreme” drought according to the National Weather Service, and 58% is in what’s called “exceptional” drought -- the most severe of the five drought classifications implying outright water emergencies. State rainfall has been 40% - 75% of normal levels since 2011, and the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which normally provides three quarters of the state’s fresh water, is down to 20% its average level. In East Porterville, the most extreme of cases, the water has stopped coming out of the faucet altogether and forced residents to rely on bottled donations.

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In July, the state made it illegal to wash down driveways and sidewalks, water landscapes that cause runoff, wash cars with a hose without a shutoff nozzle, or use drinkable water in a decorative fountain unless it’s re-circulated. Anyone who violates these rules could be fined $500 a day. And state regulators now can fine urban water agencies $10,000 a day if they fail to implement appropriate conservation measures locally, like limiting days for outdoor watering.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is offering $2 per square foot of lawn that you rip out and replace with drought-tolerant landscaping, up to a total of $4,000. Long Beach is offering $3 per square foot up to $3,000. Some restaurants have stopped serving customers water unless asked so that they minimize what’s poured down the drain. And many households (including mine) are taking drought showers. That’s using a bucket and saving what’s left over for other purposes.

But regardless of how people cope in urban areas, agriculture is the big issue. As much as 80% of California’s water goes to farms. With surface water scarce, farmers have been relying on groundwater by drilling into aquifers in a big water grab. Unfortunately, so much water has been pumped out that the land has sunk by a foot in some areas and caused serious infrastructure damage to roads and pipelines. Plus, groundwater won’t last forever. 

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With farmers ripping out their less profitable plants or just watching things die, estimates are that $2.2 billion in farming revenue and 17,000 jobs will be lost this year. Out of staters will feel it too. California grows 70% of the nation’s top 25 fruits, nuts, and vegetables, and that’s a lot of produce. Take almonds for instance. California produces 82% of the world’s entire supply. High demand from places like China has kept incentives for production high, but almonds take a lot of water -- 1.1 gallons for just a single kernel.  If that water were redirected, it would be enough to provide for 75% of California’s population.

This is a big crisis. If there’s any positive at all, it’s that more attention is being paid to the need for better water rights management and water-focused innovation.  The Silicon Valley Business Journal recently decried that Silicon Valley – a place that prides itself as an innovation capital— pays so little attention to water issues. Hey Silicon Valley, the cover article chided, if you’re tired of making billions from social media, why not focus on a really big problem like water?  It went on to highlight a handful of small companies working on things like smart water meters, a soil additive to maximize crop output with minimal water, and software to better track soil conditions. But it also said that there just weren’t enough companies doing this. Places with chronic water shortages like Israel, Spain, and Australia have been much more innovative. The problem here is that sporadic problems, even if they’re devastating, don’t offer a high enough return on investment to attract innovators and investors. But now perhaps, it’s time for all that to change.