The global ramifications of persistent drought in California

Sensemaking / The global ramifications of persistent drought in California

Water security demands smart, concerted action involving government, business, science and communities

By Jacob Park / 27 May 2016

This article was first published in The Long View 2016 chapter Crisis Catalyst. Please share your thoughts here and join the conversation on social media with #longview2016.

California's shrinking snowpack is raising concerns for yet another year of drought. While this would be the fifth year, it was only in 2015 that the broader ramifications became a heated topic of conversation among people both inside and outside the state.

What happens in California is of great significance for the rest of the county, and for countries beyond the US. The state’s economy is the eighth largest in the world,and California’s Central Valley is where most of the fruit, nuts and vegetables in the US are produced. Over 90% of all the country’s almonds, walnuts, pistachios,plums, broccoli, celery, garlic, strawberries, grapes, tomatoes and lettuce are grown in California.

A number of things seem to have prompted expanded awareness of the water crisis in California this past year: Governor Brown standing in a normally snow-filled meadow in the Sierra Nevada mountains on April 1, which was snowless for the first time in 75 years. A paper published in Nature Climate Change estimating that the Sierra Nevada snowpack was at its lowest level in more than 500 years. An executive order requiring a 25% cut in urban water usage and stringent restrictions on lawn watering. Research by Jay Famiglietti of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory finding that it would take 11 trillion gallons of water to replenish California’s drought losses. And, stoking particularly virulent reactions, a whole series of articles about the water footprint of food grown in California.

The public was bombarded with statistics such as that it takes one gallon of water to grow an almond, that almonds account for 10% of California’s agricultural water usage, and that two-thirds of the nuts are exported. Others pointed out that dairy and beef are far more water-intensive than almonds. And still others reminded us that California exports more than 100 billion gallons per year in the form of alfalfa hay that is used to feed cattle beef in China.

Responsible consumers wanted to know how much water was embedded in their diets. And soon the debate grew more heated. First, it brought to the fore that a meat-heavy diet is considerably more water-intensive than a vegetarian one, stoking new animosity on both sides of that issue. It also exposed certain perverse economic aspects of the present situation, for example that farmers actually rushed to plant more nut trees as their price went up. Instead of the market sending a signal that less-water-intensive crops were needed, just the opposite was happening. And the export of water-intensive crops abroad, to countries like China, prompted some to suggest that US crops should only be grown for US consumers.

The crisis also exposed other rifts – between cities, agriculture and consumers. Given the perverse nature of California’s archaic water rights regulations, such as the ‘use it or lose it’ provision, farmers with seniority had an incentive to use (or even waste)as much water as possible. Indeed, farmers have responded by planning even more water-hungry crops, trying to take advantage of increased prices for those crops. Ironically, California farmers posted record-breaking crop revenues in 2013 and 2014.

Elsewhere in the state, city residents fumed as suburban golf courses and lawns continued to guzzle water. Why should somebody in San Francisco take a shorter shower when Palm Springs was dowsing a golf course in precious water?

Meanwhile, frackers from Texas set up shop in the Central Valley, offering to help farmers drill ever deeper for elusive groundwater. Much of California’s water comes from underground aquifers, and farmers have been racing to hire drilling rigs, many of them from Texas, to siphon out the water from deeper and deeper aquifers. Not infrequently, this ends up taking water from underneath a neighbour’s land, which has started a sort of arms race to drill deeper and faster before one’s neighbour can. Unfortunately, in the process of doing so, aquifers are being sucked dry. When this happens, the aquifer may literally collapse. Not only does this cause the ground above it to sink – land subsidence – but it means that the aquifer has been closed off forever and can never hold water again, no matter how much rain might fall. There is a similar issue with riparian rights. Many Californian farmers have embraced these short-term and short-sighted ‘solutions’ in a way that enables them to keep growing crops today but mortgages the future of the state’s water and their own livelihoods.

Water in California has become an exemplary tragedy of the commons. It has also made clear the global interconnectedness of the system, in which pig farmers in Beijing are drawing their share of this resource as surely as somebody eating pistachios in Brooklyn or washing their car in Los Angeles. When there’s no longer enough water to share, there’s more than enough blame to go around.

There have arguably been some salutary effects of the crisis. It has provided yet more tangible evidence that climate change is already having an immediate impact on our lives, and has underlined the need for immediate action to mitigate carbon emissions. It has also made the public much more aware of how much water is embedded in crops, as well as in other consumer products. Discussing the water footprint of meat naturally paves the way for a discussion about the water footprint of cotton. Finally, it has also spurred some energy around new collaborations to address the water crisis.

One such collaboration is Connect the Drops, organised by Ceres' first attempt to mobilise a cross-sector collaboration among the California business community to ‘connect the drops’, as Ceres puts it, between sustainable water supplies and the economic health of California, through solutions such as conservation,reuse and storm water capture. The campaign also seeks to involve participants in new collaborative initiatives and to connect them with policy-makers, water utilities and other stakeholders to promote collaborative solutions. Participants include companies such as Levi Strauss, Coca Cola and General Mills.

Ellen Silva from General Mills said, “Coming together on solutions that work for all sectors is good for the state, and, we admit, for our facilities and the farmers that raise the many crops we source from California. We’d like the California Government to hear the message that we are supportive of science-based policy that enables the innovation we need to find these win-win solutions.”

General Mills has engaged with others in the state through CA Water Action Collaborative and international food and beverage industry in improving water security in California for people, business, agriculture and nature.

At the time of writing, the conversation in California seems to be shifting yet again. An unusually strong El Niño system is bringing rain – and, more importantly,snow – to the area. And with it, public concern about the drought is starting to fade. This is nearly as misguided as thinking that a cold snap belies the reality of global warming. It would take an enormous amount of rain to truly replenish California's groundwater. Furthermore, the ground is so parched that it simply cannot absorb rain. In conditions like this, rather than recharging aquifers, a heavy rainfall risks causing devastating erosion and landslides. Rather than hoping that a rainy year or two will reverse the damage that is already being done, California needs to aggressively roll out solutions to ensure that the water it does have is not squandered.

Looking to the future, we can expect that the sort of water crisis that has plagued California will become more prevalent – both inside and outside the US. Solutions do exist but they will require stakeholders to work together to change our whole system of water management while there’s still time. It is crucial, therefore, that we keep our eye on the ball and not let the momentum for change get swept away by anew big rains. California remains on the brink of a precipice, and only smart, concerted action that brings together government, business, science and communities will be able to create a new way of managing this essential resource.

Image credit: D Ramey Logan

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