How California Should Save Its Water in the Face of a Drier Future
In 1846, California declared its independence from Mexico, inheriting a system of water use that gave fixed amounts of water to landholders based upon their title. However, the 19th and 20th centuries have been some of the wettest in the last 2 millenia of California history, so the allotments of water exceed the water supply in normal and dry years. As California becomes more and more populous, and global warming makes california drier and drier (a drought from 2012-2016 was the worst in the historical record), the state has to resort to pumping groundwater even in wet years to fulfill its water contracts. In a drier and more populous California, effective and widespread reductions in water usage must happen.
See my interest video here.
Growing up in California, the first raindrop of fall was always a sacred moment after the endless sun of summer. One of my favorite pastimes was to walk in the rain (first or last of the season). Later, I read The Rise and Fall of California’s Great Central Valley by Phillip Garone, a book describing the story of California’s wetlands. In the process, the book details many of the battles of California water history. I was immediately drawn to the intractable slew of potable, irrigation, grey, waste, and environmental water, along with the morass of opposing groups that use the water.
Some Historical Context
California has a naturally extremely variable climate; in ancient times, very dry periods may have lasted a millenia, only to be followed by a 50 flood years. In comparison, during the recorded history of California, starting in the 16th century C.E, California’s climate has been fairly wet, and very moderate. As a result, when California sold rights to water along with land, they gave out water rights based on percipitation above the historical average.
As the agriculture industry and population of California grew, California had to create an aqueduct to supply arid Southern California. The aqueduct took water from the Sacremento River near its mouth at the San Francisco Bay Delta. As Southern Californi’s population grew, it needed more water from the Delta. However, the Delta was also the aquifer for many surrounding communities, and needed to be fresh rather than saline. Temporary water usage restrictions during dry years prevented Southern California from going dry, and the Delta from becoming saline.
What You Need To Know
Groundwater that some depend on as a last resource is not always drinkable or usable for irrigation. The recent drought from 2011-2017 (or 2012-2016 if using water years) has highlighted the shortage of water in California. While reservoir capacity dropped throughout the state (California), groundwater pumping increased to compensate for the reduced storage (Cagle). In some areas, wells that were only 50 feet deep needed to be drilled as much as 1000 ft deep to yield any water, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars and straining the resources of a state dealing with severe water shortage (James).
As of 2016 the water level or depth of over 20% of California’s groundwater basins (or aquifers) is worryingly low, while an additional 4% are critically low (Farrell and Bardini). The depletion of subsurface aquifers (groundwater) has widespread impacts on both humans and the environment. For starters, some areas of California’s Central Valley have sunk by as much as 40 feet over the last century, and continue to sink by as much as 2 inches a month (James, Halverson).
On an Individual Scale
Repurposing gardens to drought. Many contemporary gardens are full of plants that require heavy watering, such as “normal” grass, vegetables, and small fruit trees (Alexander). Replacing them with native or desert vegetation would eliminate the need to water the garden (native grasses, cacti, other native plants depending on the place), saving significant amounts of water and reducing your water bill as well (Alexander). Many Californians have already converted their gardens to drought tolerant plants during the 2011-17 drought, and it has saved some as much as ⅔ of their water (Alexander).
Lobbying local, state, and federal government. Lobbying is an effective form of political activism, bringing pressure to bear upon elected leaders who need the support of their constituents. Groups like the Food and Water Watch, the National Audubon Society, the National Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club are all powerful and efficient lobbying groups that fight for these causes.
Educating yourself and raising awareness. One of the most important tools to combat any problem is knowledge. Educating yourself by reading up on the issues of water shortage is critical. Reading up some history will leave you in a much better place to understand the problem, and then to explain to others what to do about it.
On a Societal Scale
Reimpose mandatory water conservation targets. In 2014, California successfully implemented water conservation measures that required a sudden reduction of water usage (Alexander, James). The targets of these measures were even exceeded in many areas, allowing the state to continue supplying water to all its customers (Alexander, James). However, in a warmer and dryer future, wider and more stringent measures are needed: a target of perhaps a 30% percent reduction in water use for all customers over 5-10 years, and a 10% tax on sales of water to those who fail to meet the targets, would be a good start towards ensuring a sustainable water supply for California.
Give farmers subsidies to move to low-water crops. Many farmers in the arid Central Valley grow almonds and rice, some of the most water intensive crops (Woody, “National Agriculture in the Classroom”). Switching to crops like wheat and pistachios, which are much less water intensive, could save farmers more than 50% of their water (“Water Footprint of Seeds vs Nuts.”, Grossi).
View a detailed discussion of water conservation here
Repair and modernize existing water infrastructure. Modernizing water infrastructure would reduce leaks, which can be as much as a third of supply in some cases, while enabling better leak detection and reducing energy costs. While this would be pretty expensive, the long term benefit of a more efficient system would be enormous.
Here are some recent developements on water infrastructure.
Reuse grey water. Grey water, or used water from kitchen appliances, could be used several times before it is too dirty (Bakajin Interview). One possible progression would be to use sink grey water for showers, shower grey water for dishwashers, dishwasher grey water for washing machines, and washing machine grey water for toilet flushing. By reusing the water several times, the supply would effectively multiply, or the usage of domestic users would be cut to a fraction Although this method would have few environmental impacts, and wouldn’t generate additional waste, it would be very expensive, as a complete overhaul of urban piping would be required to pipe different levels of grey water (Bakajin Interview).
Read about some grey water reuse here.
Treating wastewater. Orange County is a state of the art model for wastewater treatment and potable reuse (“Purification Process.”). They first limit the things that can be dumped into sewers, to reduce the overall toxicity of sewage wastewater (“Purification Process.”). They then put the sewage through a multistep treatment and filtration system, including reverse osmosis and an oxidation reaction, it is potable (“Purification Process.”). Orange County’s treatment plant creates as much as 100 million gallons per day of potable water, sufficient to serve 850,000 residents (“Purification Process.”).
Here is Orange County’s innovative and state of the art wastewater management programm.