|California before the drought|
California’s climate is dominated by the Pacific storm track. The mountain ranges cause precipitation to fall mostly on the western slopes. During a wet winter, these storms also leave tremendous accumulations of snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Californians obsessively track the snow pack and rainfall because they live on the edge of running out of water. It has not been a wet winter for several years; the high pressure front that delivered snow and cold to the rest of the United States has prevented rains and snow from falling in California. The Sierra Snowpack the source of much of the spring runoff is at 19% of normal with no rain or snow in the immediate forecast. When the rain comes it falls primarily in the northwestern part of California and the State and uses water transportation and storage to deliver water where it’s used.
California has the largest water storage and transportation system in the world. With 1,200 miles of canals and nearly 50 reservoirs, in an “average” year the system captures enough water to irrigate about four million acres and provide water to 30 million people. Without this extensive management system that moves water from the north to the south and delivers water from the Colorado and Klamath Rivers, California’s limited rainfall and diminishing groundwater reserves could not meet as much of the demand for water. However, without rain and snow in the Sierra mountains there is simply not enough water.
Irrigated agricultural consumes over 75% of the delivered water in California, which produces about half of U.S. grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables. As farmers have shifted to higher value horticultural and orchard crops, they have adopted more efficient irrigation technologies to stretch their water allocations, but there is still some progress that can be made in net water use. In California they have used the various complicated and hidden subsidies within the various water rights and subsidy programs to complicate and obscure the true costs agriculture and prevent the complete and rational implementation of drip irrigation and other water saving technologies. The basic laws and regulations governing water and water rights have not been updated to account for today’s water realities, and groups fight to maintain the status quo.
Californians pride themselves on being environmentally conscious and mindful of conserving natural resources. California local water agencies have invested in water recycling, conservation, groundwater storage and other strategies to stretch supplies. Nonetheless, water demand within the state has never been greater and the available water resources have not changed and may be decreasing as our climate changes. Year round agriculture has been made possible by water used for irrigation. California produces nearly half of the nation's fruits, nuts and vegetables. Fruit and nut trees must be watered all year they cannot lie dormant for several years during a drought. The limit to California’s agricultural bounty is water availability. Water available is a combination of surface water diversions and groundwater pumping. In 2006 before the beginning of the last drought, California used almost 31 billion gallons of water a day for irrigation. This is 351 gallons of water a day for each agricultural dollar earned each year.
California water problems fundamentally result from having a vibrant economy and society in an arid climate. The demand for cheap water exceeds supply and the current drought, the worst since the 1970’s has once more brought water to the forefront. There is simply not enough water to go around. Almost all of the water in California comes from precipitation in the northern portion of the state and inflows from the Colorado and Klamath Rivers and no amount of political influence, legislation and wishful thinking is going to increase the water available to the state as a whole.
In terms of national agricultural output, California accounted for 17.6 % of U. S. crops, and 7 % of the U.S. revenue for livestock and livestock products. Not only does California produce about half of U.S. grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables, but several of these crops are currently produced only in California. In the central valley of California where three crops a year can be grown and crop production is only limited by the amount of water delivered for irrigation, the groundwater is used to increase irrigation waters making up an estimated of 30% of water for irrigation from an aquifer that is predominately non-renewable. So much water has been pumped that the land above the aquifer has subsided and can never recover. The water level in these aquifers has fallen hundreds of feet in the past few generations.
To change the fundamental water equation in the state the Pacific Institute recommends that of 1.3 million acres of impaired lands in the Central Valley be removed from irrigation and agricultural use. This land represents less than 5% of the agricultural land in California, but would save 3.9 million acre-feet of water per year, while also reducing polluted surface water runoff and impacts to groundwater. This water savings represents 9% of the water used in California and is equal to two thirds of the total water used for urban residential use. This could solve the water issues for decades, but California has so far refused to face water reality and the hard choices that go with it. Taking away water rights and land use rights even with compensation is very difficult- seemingly impossible in California. Instead, Californians engage in magical thinking that some political action or state construction project will create more water. Maybe this drought will be different.