The Truth About the California Water Crisis

This article originally appeared in Counterpunch.


By Joshua Frank

“Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.”
– Mark Twain

It doesn’t take too long once you’ve left the greater Los Angeles area, away from all the lush lawns, water features, green parkways, and manicured foliage to see that California is in the midsts of a very real, potentially deadly water crisis. Acres and acres of abandoned farms, dry lake beds, empty reservoirs—the water is simply no longer there and likely won’t ever be back.

What’s happening here in California is far more than a ‘severe drought’ as the media labels the situation. The word ‘drought’ gives the impression that this is all short-lived, an inconvenience we have to deal with for a little while. But the lack of water isn’t temporary, it’s becoming the new norm. California’s ecology as some 39.5 million residents know it is forever changing—and climate change is the culprit. At least that’s the prognosis a few well-respected climatologists have been saying for the last two decades, and their predictions have not only been accurate, but they’ve been conservative in their estimates.

UC Santa Cruz Professor Lisa Sloan co-authored a 2004 report in which she and her colleague Jacob Sewall predicted the melting of the Arctic ice shelf would cause a decrease in precipitation in California and hence a severe drought. The Arctic melting, they claimed, would warp the offshore jet stream in the Pacific Ocean. Not only have their models proved correct, Prof. Sloan told Joe Romm of ThinkProgress she believes “the actual situation in the next few decades could be even more dire” than their study suggested.

As they anticipated fifteen years ago, the jet stream has shifted drastically, essentially pushing winter storms up north and out of California and the Northwest. As a result, snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas, which feeds water to most of Southern California and the agricultural operators of the Central Valley, has all but disappeared. Winters are drier and springs are no longer wet, which means when the warm summer months roll around there’s no water to be cultivated.

The Los Angeles basin is a region that has long relied on snowmelt from mountains hundreds of miles away to feed its insatiable appetite for sprawling development, but that resource is rapidly evaporating. It is, perhaps, a just irony for the water thieves in Southern California that their wells are finally running dry. Prudence and restraint in water usage will soon be forced upon those who value the extravagant over the practical. It’s the new way across the West as climate change’s many impacts come to fruition.

Not that you’d notice much of this new reality as you travel along L.A.’s bustling boulevards. Pools in the San Fernando Valley remain full, while sun-baked Californians wash their prized vehicles in the streets and soak their green lawns in the evenings. A $500 fine can be handed out to residents who don’t abide by the outdoor watering restrictions now in place, but I’ve yet to see any water cops patrolling neighborhoods for water wasters. In fact, in Long Beach, where I live, water managers have actually admitted they aren’t planning to write any tickets. “We don’t really intend to issue any fines, at least right now,” said Matthew Veeh of the Long Beach Water Department.

Meanwhile in 2013, Gov. Jerry Brown called on all those living in the state to reduce their water use by 20 percent. That’s almost one percentage point for every California community that is at risk of running out of water by the end of the year. Gov. Brown’s efforts to conserve water have fallen on deaf ears. A report issued in July by state regulators shows a one percent increase in water consumption across the state over the past 12 months, with the biggest increase occurring in Southern California’s coastal communities.

“Not everybody in California understands how bad this drought is…and how bad it could be,” said State Water Resources Water Control Board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus when the report was first released.  “There are communities in danger of running out of water all over the state.”

Perhaps there is a reason why people don’t understand how bad the water crisis really is—their daily lives have yet to be severely impacted. Unless the winter and spring bring drenching rains, California only has 12-18 months of reserves left. Even the most optimistic of forecasts show a rapid decline in water resevoirs in the state in the decades to come. To put it in perspective, California hasn’t seen this drastic of a decline in rainfall since the mid-1500s.

“This is a real emergency that requires a real emergency response,” argues Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “If Southern California does not step up and conserve its water, and if the drought continues on its epic course, there is nothing more that our water managers can do for us. Water availability in Southern California would be drastically reduced. With those reductions, we should expect skyrocketing water, food and energy prices, as well as the demise of agriculture.”

While it’s clear that the decline in the state’s water reserves will have a very real economic and day-to-day impact on Californians in the near future, it’s also having an inexorable and devastating effect on the environment.

The distinctive, twisted trees of Joshua Tree National Park are dying. The high desert is becoming even hotter and drier than normal, dropping nearly 2 inches from its average of just over 4.5 inches of annual rainfall. The result: younger Joshua trees, which grow at a snail’s pace of around 3 inches per year, are perishing before they reach a foot in height. Their vanishing is a strong indicator that the peculiar trees of this great Park will not be replenished once they grow old and die.

After analyzing national climate data The Desert Sun reported, “[In] places from Palm Springs to Tucson, [we] found that average monthly temperatures were 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit hotter during the past 20 years as compared to the average before 1960.”

This increase in temperatures and the decrease in yearly rainfall are transforming the landscape and vegetation of California. Sadly, Joshua trees aren’t the only native plants having a rough time surviving the changing climate. Pinyon pines, junipers, and other species are being killed by beetle infestations as winters become milder. Writes Ian James in The Desert Sun, “Researchers have confirmed that many species of trees and shrubs are gradually moving uphill in the Santa Rosa Mountains, and in Death Valley, photographs taken decades apart have captured a stunning shift as the endangered dune grass has been vanishing, leaving bare wind rippled sand dunes.”

Plants aren’t the only living organisms being dealt a losing hand. “[California’s] Native fishes and the ecosystems that support them are incredibly vulnerable to drought,” Peter Moyle, a professor at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, noted at a drought summit in Sacramento last fall. “There are currently 37 species of fish on the endangered species list in California—and there is every sign that that number will increase.”

Of those species, some eighty percent won’t survive if the trend continues. Scientists have also attributed the decline in tricolored blackbirds to the drought, which are also imperiled by development and pesticide use.

Salmon runs, however, may be taking the brunt of this human-inflicted mega-drought. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, coho salmon may go extinct south of the Golden Gate straight in San Francisco if the rains don’t come quickly. As environmental group Defenders of Wildlife notes, “All of the creeks between the Golden Gate and Monterey Bay are blocked by sandbars because of lack of rain, making it impossible for salmon to get to their native streams and breed. If critically endangered salmon do not get to their range to spawn this year, they could go extinct. This possible collapse of the salmon fishery is bad news for salmon fishermen and North Coast communities. California’s salmon industry is valued at $1.4 billion in economic activity annually and about half that much in economic activity and jobs in Oregon. The industry employs tens of thousands of people from Santa Barbara to northern Oregon.”

And it’s not just the salmon fisheries that may dry up, so too may the real economic backbone of California: agriculture.

If you purchased a bundle of fresh fruits or vegetables in the U.S. recently, there’s nearly a 50 percent chance they were grown in California. And while we’ve become accustomed to paying very little for such goods compared to other Western countries, that is likely to change in the years ahead.

A study released in by the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California reported the ag industry in California in the first six months of 2014 lost $2.2 billion and nearly 4% of all farm jobs—some 17,000 workers. As we’re only three years into what many believe is just the beginning of the crisis, those numbers are sure to increase.

“California’s agricultural economy overall is doing remarkably well, thanks mostly to groundwater reserves,” said Jay Lund, who co-authored the study and directs the Center for Watershed Sciences. “But we expect substantial local and regional economic and employment impacts. We need to treat that groundwater well so it will be there for future droughts.”

The pumping of groundwater, which is being treated as an endless and bountiful resource, may be making up for recent water loss, but for how long remains to be seen. Until 2014, when the state passed The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, California was the only state in the country that did not have a framework for groundwater management. For decades farmers sucked the desert’s groundwater supply dry, so much so, that the entire sections of California ag country sunk by 60 centimeters.

“We have to do a better job of managing groundwater basins to secure the future of agriculture in California,” said Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. “That’s why we’ve developed the California Water Action Plan and a proposal for local, sustainable groundwater management.”

Nonetheless, without significant rainfall, groundwater will not be replenished, the state’s agribusiness and the nation’s consumers will most certainly be hit with the consequences. Rigid conservation and appropriate resource management may act as a bandaid for California’s imminent water crisis, but if climate models remain accurate, the melting of Arctic ice will continue to have a severe impact on the Pacific jet stream, weakening winter storm activity across the state.

It’s a precarious situation, not only for millions of people and the nation’s largest state economy—but it could be the death knell for much of California’s remaining wildlife and iconic beauty as well.


JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book, co-authored with Jeffrey St. Clair, is Big Heat: Earth on the Brink. He can be reached at joshua@counterpunch.org. You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank.

5 thoughts on “The Truth About the California Water Crisis”

  1. About all you need to know regarding climate change is that the predicted high temperature for Portland, Oregon this Sunday is 110°F. Yes, that’s Portland — not Las Vegas (though the forecast there is about the same).

    If those so-called “water managers” were at all serious, the cattle and almond industries in California would be ordered out of business under a state of emergency. Both are utterly frivolous industries, based on nothing but the greed of producers and arrogance of consumers. Nobody ever died from a lack of beef or almonds, and the vast majority of both are sold outside California.

    Agriculture uses at least 1/3 of water supplies, livestock eat 1/3 of the world’s grain, and almond orchards require vast areas of arid land to be an inch deep in standing water during the hottest months of the year.

    I’m getting tired of saying it, but a visitor from another world would take one look at human activity (agriculture, transportation, energy, urbanization and suburbanization, mining, etc.) and conclude that we’re trying to use up the planet as fast as possible.

    As for aquifer management, the situation is MUCH worse than this article portrays it to be. According to a hydrologist interviewed for NHK World’s “Hunger Pandemic: The Catastrophic Cost of Excess” (free online), the Ogalala aquifer — which supplies most of the water for the Great Plains (and most of America’s grain production) is more than 70% depleted, with the remaining hundred feet of water being depleted at a rate of ten feet per year. That means wheat, corn, and soy rationing by 2030.

    Meanwhile, the aquifer in southern Arizona and northern Mexico is on a similar trajectory — largely to provide grain and alfalfa to Saudi Arabia, which drained its own aquifer by similarly criminal mismanagement, a few years ago.

    And all this is happening because our idiot species values today’s profits more than it values survival, ten years out.

    1. One correction Mark: agriculture uses about 80% of the water in California, not 1/3. And the alfalfa grown for cattle uses far more water than the almond crops, though neither should be grown here.

    2. Exactly. Frivolous nuts (no pun intended) that gorge ground water are shipped to Europe to the tune of $5billion in profits for a handful of people in the state.

  2. The worst megadrought we know of in California started in the year 850, lasted for 240 years, took 50 years off, then ran for another 180 years. And unless that drought was caused by climate change due to humans killing trees (possible, but I’ve never seen it discussed and I think it’s unlikely), these droughts and megadroughts here are totally natural. To be clear, the current drought or megadrought (we don’t know yet) seems very clearly to be caused by anthropogenic climate change, but the point is that megadroughts happen here occasionally and it’s totally natural, but people live as if they don’t exist.

    What no one is discussing is that there were only around 15,000 people at most living in California 1,000 years ago, and they didn’t do anything unnatural to water systems like building dams or pumping ground or other water. Now there are 40 million people in California, and we unnaturally suck water out of everywhere, plus have destroyed all major rivers except one (the Smith River) with dams. So if this turns out to be a megadrought, the repercussions will be far worse to humans than they were 1,000 years ago. People are total fools for, among many other reasons, grossly overpopulating an arid area like the western U.S., and they’re going to pay the steep price for doing so eventually.

  3. Correction noted, Jeff. I meant to say that TWO-thirds of all water use is by agriculture, globally.

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