If you drink water– if you cook with it, bathe with it, grow food with it; if your dog drinks it– there’s something you should know about what is happening in California. Because while it’s happening here now, sooner or later the entire nation will feel its effects.
You know about the catastrophic drought. You may know that this was the driest January in state history, following the third-driest year ever. Here’s what you may not know.
In January 2014, three years into the drought, Governor Jerry Brown asked Californians to voluntarily cut their water consumption by 20 percent. Various locally imposed restrictions on sprinklers and other uses slowly took effect across the state over the ensuing months as a means to execute the reduction. Yet in the following February-to-April quarter, San Francisco brought in only an 8-percent cutback, and San Jose, the state’s third-largest city, used more water than in the previous quarter.
In July 2014, the call for conservation was stepped up to include mandatory restrictions and citations, but utilities were given no strict authority to enforce or apply fines. As of the beginning of 2015, Californians used only 8.8 percent less water than the same time in 2013, and the Bay Area a paltry 3.7 percent less.
And here’s the thing. With all this talk about municipal and domestic water conservation as the grand strategy to pull the state through, one might think most of the state’s water is poured onto townhome lawns. Not so. Rather, it’s estimated that 80 percent of water is used for agriculture in California. That important number is a rough guess because landowners with private wells are not required to report or even monitor their pumping or use, even though the water comes from the same aquifer supplying their neighbors and towns.
Normally, farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, who produce about 25 percent of the food in the United States on only 1 percent of the nation’s farmland, irrigate their crops with surface water, which runs through rivers and canals and is recharged largely from winter snowpack in the Sierra Nevada. But for a second consecutive year, with snowpack at a multi-decade low, the federal surface water allotment is zero percent.
In response, valley farmers are clamoring for groundwater as fast as they can get permits. By halfway through 2014, agricultural powerhouse Tulare County had issued 874 well drilling permits— 44 more than in all of 2013, which had set its own towering record. This merely exemplifies record-breaking numbers in counties across the valley. Some farmers are splurging for their own drilling rigs because drilling companies have jobs backed up more than a year out, even though they’re working around the clock. Out-of-state drillers are flocking in to meet the demand.
And just as the wells are exploding in numbers, they’re plunging in depth, from hundreds of feet to thousands in order to reach the water supply as the aquifer levels drop. While experimental recharge has been explored in recent years– essentially pumping water back in to the underground store– depleted aquifers crumble down into the space left by water pumped out, often permanently damaging their holding capacity. Which is where subsidence comes in.
The U.S. Geological Survey calls the San Joaquin Valley— the lower half of what’s known as California’s Central Valley– the “largest human alteration of the Earth’s surface.” Because as groundwater is removed, the land sinks down into its place, in some places at a rate of more than a foot a year. This settling causes damage to infrastructure, such as roads, waterways, and railways, and it puts already low, flat regions at increased risk of flood damage when the rain does eventually come.
But even as the alarm is sounded about the unfolding man-made disaster, local and state government claim their hands are tied. No law exists in California to manage its most important resource. Rather, with disregard for scientific progress and understanding of the geology of aquifers, 19th-century laws still in place promise landowners unlimited rights to the water beneath their property– even, in some cases, for sale should they choose.
The solution? Legislation signed last fall requires agencies in regions with fast-depleting aquifers to begin forming sustainability plans. The plans do not need to be completed for another five to seven years. They will not need to be enacted until 2040.
Yet if it weren’t for the empty canals and plummeting land, you might not know the crisis that water supply is central in. The world’s appetite for almonds, recently heralded as a superfood and trending dairy-alternative, has driven the demand and price up, and valley farmers are eager to get their piece of the economic pie. Just as California’s drought was being declared a natural disaster, its farmers were racing to get 8.33 million young almond trees in the ground. And almond trees have to be watered, drought or no, whether January or July, for decades. Behind every single almond produced is more than a gallon of water.
Farmers are also free to apply water to their crops however and whenever they choose. At the height of afternoon sun– and evaporation rates– rain bird sprinklers are sending spray into the wind over valley fields throughout the summer. Orchards are drenched with flood irrigation. While some farmers are opting for more efficient drip irrigation, it can be expensive to install.
Water, on the other hand, is free.