What You Should Know About California’s Water Problem

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.


The Weight of Things

In the end, our move will have taken almost half a year– one trip at a time, one trailer-load at a time, one month at a time. But now the essentials and most of the furniture is there, so we’ve reached the point of packaging all the little things we plan to take, and setting aside the things we don’t.

There’s an added weight to an out-of-state move over many hundreds of miles, more so now even than I remember from our move down here. We did it so lightly before, just the two of us, freshly married and exploring new possibilities. Now, we know what we’re leaving behind and mostly what lays ahead– and we recognize the void of what we don’t know.

Going through and touching each thing that makes up the tangible parts of our lives brings to mind the many miles we’ve come. It’s a unique opportunity to really see the things that surround us.

We’re trying pointedly to cut back on material “stuff.” On principle, I’m committed to that effort, but item for item I struggle to let go. Going through my daughter’s baby clothes, her Bumbo seat, her swing– we’ll need it all for the next baby, I say.

But there is a lot. Some of the clothes were barely worn. Sometimes I liked them so much that I didn’t want them to get ruined– so I rarely dressed her in them. How absurd, I recognize now. How irrational to not use something we like when she fit into it for such a fleeting time. I look at the piles of baby clothes and I can hardly believe how fast the time went, or how long the time seemed then.

The days are long but the years are short, wrote Gretchen Rubin. There are no truer words for parenthood.

I took apart my favorite piece of decor and nostalgia– old wooden cubbyholes originally mounted in my grandfather’s office, where I now work. It holds found things of all sorts, tiny pieces of art, stones and shells, the boutonnières my bridesmaids and mom and her friends all made for our wedding, the pie-topper bride and groom that I made with trimmings from my actual wedding dress, which I also made.

But I didn’t keep everything. Some little rocks and knickknacks had lost their value, their memories, and I let them go. In fact, I collected them in a bowl and let my husband scatter the natural ones outside, something he surely long wanted to do. He doesn’t store emotion in physical things, and I envy him that.

One freeing aspect of a many-phased move is that each round of selecting and packing, the things I leave don’t have to be immediately thrown out or gotten rid of. I can tell myself that they’re just not coming yet. And maybe by the end, I’ll have picked out all the things I know I want and let my husband come in and take the rest while I look the other way.

Waning Winter

The first of the buds opened in January. Like a kaleidoscope of butterflies clinging to the silvery bare branch of the almond and plum trees, the blossoms arrived as a harbinger of the imminent spring.

It’s been warm here– unseasonably warm. Alarmingly warm. But at times, in the evenings while my husband throws the ball for the dogs and my daughter and I forage for salad greens, it’s hard not to enjoy.

On February 14th, a regular Saturday for us, we drove out to the local winery adjacent to a sprawling almond orchard, just for fun. Sipping glasses of pinot while our daughter toddled across the bare dirt, we walked out beneath the bejeweled branches. With each tiny wisp of breeze, showers of snowy petals rained down over us.

I was especially grateful that we don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day, because that afternoon became, with no expectation or urging, a celebration not of a calendar holiday but rather of a unique landscape and a season of our lives. February won’t look quite like this next year, but I know it too will be breathtaking in its own way.

Rain Means Puddles (And Happy Toddlers and Waddlers)


In nearly four years, we’ve had few enough real rainy days that I can count them on my ten fingers. The drought has been aggressive and draining. But when it does rain here, the episodes are torrential. The clouds grow dark as they turn and flex. Then they open up abruptly and dump cascades onto the arid, tightlipped Earth.

California rain differs from Oregon rain. My hometown in coastal northern California accrues nearly as much annual rainfall as Eugene, Oregon, but in fits and spates relatively rare to the Pacific Northwest. The misty drizzle of so many days in Oregon is foreign to its southern neighbor. It’s that perpetual cooling dampness that draws the verdant abundance of the land, feeds the fantastic fungi, and soothes my soul. It also makes spring sunshine a worthy celebration.

The Things I’ll Miss: Valley Skies

The flat, featureless Valley boasts hulking skies that make the Earth feel just as tiny as it is. The stars are few, thanks to city lights, but the blanket of smog alights each dawn and dusk in spectacular displays. Storms churn enormously and clouds paint pictures and tell tales overhead.

(A series.) It’s easier as we prepare to move to value the positives of this place, where we’ve existed as foreigners for the past few years. Our differences with the people here, with the land, with the weather, are great. But we’ve found common ground in places, and I will spend the months leading up to our final departure examining it, and attempt to make peace.

Among the things I know I’ll miss when we finally depart from this home are the Home Place, Autumn lemon blossoms, tomatoes in November, the back gate, and spectacular Yosemite.

Tule Fog

It was an apt enough morning to awaken with a sore throat. The tule fog lingers heavily over the grass, and light was slow to spread into the day. We all stayed in pajamas and socks. The aroma of chicken stock for soul-soothing, cure-all spicy garlic broth will soon fill the air.

Staying Warm

As we listened to stories of kayakers in Healdsburg’s parking lots and highway closures in San Francisco, as my mom complained that she thought her windows might shatter behind the wind and rain in Sonoma County, and as local people scrambled in the path of the anticipated “megastorm,” we went to bed last night under a gentle drizzle.

We had prepared to cook by candlelight, perhaps in the fireplace with the Dutch oven. We’d gathered flashlights and moved the penned goat to a stall in the barn. And when it appeared nothing would materialize, we were disappointed if not surprised.

In a place, and a time, where even clouds are a rarity, I’ve come to use my imagination to enjoy a cozy winter hunkering-down. Even on warm days if the clouds roll in I turn on lamps and keep a pot of chili or stew simmering on the stove. Just to enjoy the feeling of warmth, of desiring warmth.

So yesterday, excited but skeptical, I bundled up and donned a hat and scarf for my drive to work.

My drawer of handmade winter accessories have hardly been touched since we left Oregon and I miss them. Making new ones was my way of welcoming the fall. I’ve kept my husband and me in more hats than there are chilly days for, and my daughter’s supply is growing. Soon enough, they’ll once again be essential.

This morning at 4:30 I got up to make coffee and noticed lights glimmering off the front field as if it were a lake.

It’s still too dark to tell the extent of the flooding, but on the flat, drought-hardened valley floor, rain backs up quickly. The old, old house groans overhead, and I’m enormously grateful that we managed to remove the dead trees from our backyard earlier in the week. Today will be a first, and likely a last before we leave the Valley for good.