Maybe California Actually Does Have Enough Water
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s hard to know how much to panic over California’s dwindling water supplies. The state has never really had enough water, after all, yet lawns in Beverly Hills somehow remain perpetually green. Earlier this month, however, came a sign that life might soon be getting more uncomfortable for more Californians.
On Aug. 3, the State Water Resources Control Board voted 5 to 0 to issue an “emergency curtailment” order for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed. Last week the order was submitted to the state’s Office of Administrative Law, which is likely to approve it.
The watershed covers about 40% of the state, stretching roughly from Fresno to Oregon, and is California’s largest source of surface water. About 5,700 holders of water rights, largely in agriculture and business, will be affected by the reduction in water access. Although many farms have already drawn most of the water they need for the season, the board’s move was a sign that ancestral water rights won’t be a guarantee of actual water if drought persists.
America’s most populous state, home to many of the nation’s richest home-grown industries as well as its most lucrative agriculture, needs a lot of water to keep the miracles fresh. Movie and television productions, like the technology industry and the powerhouse universities that fuel it, don’t technically run on water. But they won’t run without it, either. And many of California’s high-value crops, including almonds and, increasingly, cannabis, are water hogs.
On the other hand: When a state has successfully defied nature and geography for so long, it seems unwise to presume the end is near.
Three quarters of California’s rain and snow falls north of Sacramento — though in recent years not much has fallen there, either — yet about 80% of water demand originates in the southern two-thirds of the state.
Water may flow downhill elsewhere. In California it arrives where nature never intended it after working its way through a series of dams, reservoirs, power plants, pumping stations and aqueducts managed by various federal, state and local authorities. At one point on a journey south, water is pumped 1,926 feet upward over the mountains, a vertical lift unequaled anywhere in the world. Some 20% of electricity used in California, according to the public journalism site CalMatters.org, and 30% of the natural gas, is dedicated to moving water around.
Yet to pump water, there must be water to pump, and supplies are unquestionably running low. Most of the state is currently under a drought emergency declaration, and Governor Gavin Newsom has asked consumers to reduce usage by 15%.
Over the past two decades, there have been three dry years for each wet one. The past decade has produced a combination of grinding “mega-drought” accompanied by terrifying “mega-fire.” Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada has been alarmingly thin, with this year’s reduced runoff producing a deficit of almost 800,000 acre-feet of water, an annual supply for more than one million households. Reservoirs are low, rivers are depleted and aquifers have been drained and not replenished as Californians try to extract from below ground what they cannot obtain above.
Wells have run dry. Lake Oroville’s record-low water forced the shutdown of its hydroelectric plant. When it does rain, a baked landscape and record-breaking high temperatures cause much of the water to disappear before it can do any good. (For a detailed look at water despair, read my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Tim O’Brien on the parched Southwest.)
In one of the damned-if-you-do constructs that drought imposes, even saving water can be a hazard. Using drip-line irrigation, for example, or lined irrigation canals, reduces agricultural water loss. But limiting loss reduces the amount of water flowing back into the ground, increasing the pressure on collapsing groundwater reserves. Likewise, if too little water escapes via river to the sea, saltwater can push against the reduced flow, into the delta, threatening ecosystems.
Some businesses have reached the existential-crisis phase of drought. Dry pastureland is already causing farmers to cull cows that they can’t afford to feed, and some wonder if it’s time to pack up the farm. A vintner in Sonoma County, where this month the state curtailed access to water from the diminished Russian River, emailed to say that some local wineries probably won’t make it if wine country combusts in another devastating fire season. Given how dry the region is, and how voracious northern California’s Dixie wildfire has proved to be, no one is confident that Napa and Sonoma will make it to the winter without a full-scale emergency.
Fire isn’t just a byproduct of the water problem — it’s a contributor to it. According to a Sierra Club report, “after a fire, ash changes the land’s ability to self-regulate, burned forests tend to landslide, and scorched soil doesn’t hold moisture, which causes runoff and erosion. Contaminants, carcinogens, and burned material run off downstream instead of being filtered out through the soil. Nutrients’ balance in the soil gets out of whack. Downstream debris chokes up riverbeds, reservoirs, and water treatment plants.”
It’s a measure of how tops-turvy the water situation is that Greater Los Angeles — a place that, water-wise, has no business even existing — is sitting relatively pretty. In the past three decades, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has increased its water storage capacity many times over. During the wet seasons of 2017 and 2019, the district stashed liquid supplies across the region, and it’s drawing on them now. In addition, Los Angeles has made significant gains in reducing per-capita water consumption, and plans are underway to do more.
It may seem perverse that Los Angeles has water while Mendocino, in the north of the state, is running dry. But Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California at Davis, has a different perspective. Lund is nowhere close to pushing the panic button on California. On the contrary, he argues — paradoxically and pretty convincingly — that things aren’t going so badly.
“How much water does most of the economy in the West need?” Lund asks. “Most of the economy in the West is urban. Half of the water use in most of the urban areas, at least in California, is for irrigating landscapes. Our per-capita water use in California is maybe 150 gallons per capita per day. If you go to other prosperous, dry parts of the world, such as Spain or Israel, their per-capita water use in urban areas is on the order of a hundred liters per capita per day. So we have a tremendous amount of water conservation potential in the urban sector, which is more than 95% of the economy — it employs more than 95% of the people — before we really start to take a big hit. It’ll be inconvenient. It’ll not be what we’re used to. But it doesn’t fundamentally threaten prosperity.”
There are poor towns in the Central Valley where the wells are dry or toxic or both, and water is trucked in. But as Lund points out, California on the whole is both very affluent and technologically sophisticated. With enough money and science, even under chronic drought conditions, a lot of water problems can be mitigated. Some might even be solved.
Costly, high-profile, projects such as recycling waste water into potable water, as Orange County successfully does, are one route to water salvation. Others are more mundane. In 2014, then Governor Jerry Brown signed a far-reaching groundwater law, which is intended to manage supplies, and quality, in most places by about 2040.
Given that the majority of the state’s water goes to agriculture, perhaps the most obvious path is simply paying farmers not to grow crops, and then commandeering their water allotment. California’s water system is, in many ways, already a vast liquid souk where deal-making and trades determine who has water and how much. Water rights acquired prior to 1914 are the coin of the realm — but other currencies, and hedges, are accepted. On the website of the California Resources Control Board, the Frequently Asked Questions page on water rights runs to almost four dozen questions and more than 8,600 words. (For less common queries, consult a water-rights lawyer. There are plenty of them.)
But this heavily regulated market mostly works. The Metropolitan Water District, for example, pays farmers in the Bard Water District, in California’s southeastern corner, not to grow crops. Under a seven-year deal, Metropolitan captures as much as 6,000 acre-feet of Bard’s water from the Colorado River. It’s a modest amount of Southern California’s needs. But it’s easy to see how the template can be applied to agricultural districts throughout the state.
The tradeoffs between high-value and low-value crops, and the relative amounts of water they consume, are getting increased attention. Most California agriculture ends up in the national or global marketplace. Californians aren’t going to starve if a percentage of their farms exchange water for cash and leave the fields fallow.
California’s urban districts, Lund says, are increasingly striking water purchase agreements like the one Metropolitan has with Bard. “During dry years, you move some water out of lower-value agriculture for cities and, for that matter, from lower-value agriculture into higher-value agriculture,” he says.
That has ramifications for employment, but not necessarily straightforward ones. “The farmers will make money because they’re going to get paid not to grow,” Lund points out. Farm laborers are likely to suffer, but overall employment is fortified by channeling water from agricultural regions to urban areas. “It turns out that the water that you find from agriculture goes largely into urban landscape,” Lund says. “And the number of people employed in urban landscaping is actually higher than the number of people employed in most of the crops that you’re fallowing.”
Conflict over water is a staple of California politics. The state has reduced the supply of water to the city of Napa, for example, which, in turn, is limiting supplies to residents outside city limits. The cost, and stress, that those residents shoulder produces resentment. If drought continues, there will be more angry people, and more to be resentful about, in more places. Even Lund acknowledges that, in some California locales, water scarcity constitutes a genuine crisis.
Lund doesn’t want to minimize the suffering caused by drought, he says, but water risks are inherently part of life in this long, coastal sliver of a warming planet. Like supplies of other resources — oil, water’s dirty cousin, comes to mind — water in the West is finite, at least year to year. And there is no law that it must be cheap or readily accessible. But California has the capacity, and wealth, to manage geographic- and climate-induced scarcity.
Current conditions, he says, are a crucible — a “test of our understanding of what we actually want, and what we can actually sustain, in this environment.” By forcing the state to adapt, in other words, drought is also forcing it to build the resilience it needs for the future.
It’s a technocratic proposition as much as a philosophical one, at a moment when technocrats are under concerted assault. Ultimately, the success of hydrology in California depends on public policy as much as on snowpack and aquifer levels, which will likely continue to fall short of the state’s goals. And public policy is muddling forward in the right direction.
“Because we don’t just panic about these problems, because we are mostly organized about them, we make reasonable progress,” Lund says. In a land where the ground is cracked and the sky is on fire, that counts as optimism.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Wilkinson writes about U.S. politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously executive editor of the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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