California is in the middle of a serious drought, and many media outlets and state residents are finally taking notice. The state has been in a drought for years, but it hasn’t been until recently that residents have seen an influx of articles citing statements from scientists and the promotion of water conservation efforts.
Only recently have the voices claiming “It’s time to get serious” started to become stronger; in the meantime, those who have watched the reports of California’s drying reservoirs and land sinking at a rate of a foot per year say, with a hint of exasperation, “The time to get serious was years ago.”
Though the drought is serious, some reports have been misinterpreted or blown out of proportion. A recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times by Jay Famiglietti generated heavy discussion after its headline — “California has about one year of water stored. Will you ration now?” — caused many to believe that the state was going to run out of water completely. The author returned to clarify that he was referring to the amount of water left in the state’s reservoirs, not in total, but the damage was already done, and the misconception spread quickly.
So sure, California’s drought is serious. But finding viable solutions is a challenge, especially given the incredibly lax water restrictions the state has imposed over the last few years. Recent attempts at restrictions have included mandating that restaurants not bring patrons water unless it is requested and limitations on how many days residents can water their lawns. This is all part of a $1 billion drought relief package, one that doesn’t have much teeth. Even where restrictions are already in place, enforcement has been sorely lacking.
At this point, California will be forced to start working on damage control, not relief, and it will take something much more serious than this.
But California is a massive state with plenty of resources the rest of the country needs. According to The Atlantic, “California is the world’s fifth-largest supplier of food,” and supplies the entire country’s vast majority of crops like artichokes, pistachios, and lemons. In total, agriculture alone uses roughly 40 percent of the state’s water per year. That’s not something that can be altered so easily.
Still, the subject of refining California’s agriculture in the face of the drought has come to the table, with many questioning if it’s really absolutely necessary for California to grow water-intensive crops like almonds and rice. It’s also a good place to start if the state is interested in making a big impact. Cutting down on lawn watering is good — really, any attempt at saving water is a good thing — but urban water use is only a quarter of agriculture’s water use.
The search for other sources of water has brought many to look at the coast and many proposed desalination plants. Desalination plants have a slew of problems, primarily cost: it takes a great amount of energy to filter the water, and this cost is almost certainly passed on to residents. There are also environmental concerns, such as plants’ impact on ocean-dwelling creatures, as well as pollution.
But conservation will only get California so far. Famiglietti touched on this in his op-ed, along with multiple suggestions of his own.
“California has no contingency plan for a persistent drought like this one (let alone a 20-plus-year mega-drought), except, apparently, staying in emergency mode and praying for rain.”
With that in mind, maybe this is a good time to start looking at long-term sources of water for the entire state. As the drought worsens, desalination plants are becoming more appealing by the day; Santa Barbara is considering firing up a desalination plant that has been idle for 24 years. There are 15 proposed plants along the coast, though they face many legal hurdles before they can get approval. And then there’s the construction to consider. Even if every project was approved tonight, relief wouldn’t come very soon.
The best thing Californians can do right now is start taking the drought seriously. The state has been a little slow on the uptake, and serious conservation can no longer be put off until later. However, there must also be serious efforts made towards long-term solutions, and it’s going to take more dedicated efforts by the state to make that happen.
[Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]