Is California really in danger of running out of water in one year?
A heat wave of concern envelope California last week as the media reported that NASA scientist James S. Famiglietti came out with a startling revelation: California would run out of water in about one year. We all knew that we’d been in a perpetual draught for the last four years, but to hear the news that the state would completely be tapped out in such a short time was downright frightening.
Whipped into a panic, people responded as they often do: politicians orated a flotsam and jetsam of rhetoric, climate change advocates pointed fingers, industries that consume water (i.e., Nestle) tried to put their finger in the dam of negative public sentiment, and residents of the Bay area even started stealing water from their neighbors.
But before we continue the discussion, there are two facts to clarify:
1) California is not going to run out of water in one year’s time, and
2) Despite the good news, we are still in a critical situation that demands immediate action when it comes to our state’s water resources.
It turns out, the media actually misquoted Famiglietti, In fact, in a follow up interview that was vastly under-reported, the senior water scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a professor at UC Irvine explained that the state’s reservoirs have only about a year’s worth of water left, but those reservoirs are only a portion of the water used by Californians and usually only hold a few years worth of water.
"We are way worse off this year than last year,” Famiglietti said. "But we're not going to run out of water in 2016 because decades worth of groundwater remain.”
However, Californians should take small comfort in that fact that the one-year statistic is untrue. What no one will argue is that we’re facing quite possibly the worst draught in state history, at a time when population growth and water use has us opening the taps like never before. The data Famiglietti and other NASA scientists compiled shows precipitous declines in water levels since 2011, as a paltry snowpack and rainfall have left rivers, streams, aquifers, and reservoirs thirsty.
Whether we have enough for 365 days, three years, or a decade until we run out, something needs to be done to slow the rate of use in California. In response, Governor Jerry Brown along with a bipartisan group of lawmakers just announced a one billion dollar package to address the water shortage. However, $660 of that emergency aid money is for flood prevention, and it’s unspecified how the rest will really help. But other, more tangible measures have also been instituted, like limiting watering lawns and gardens to two days a week and mandating that restaurants can only serve tap water at patrons request.
Will that really do the trick? Hardly. And as we start to see water become just as valuable a commodity as oil in the Golden State, homeowners and residents will feel the strain.
Many communities have seen their water bills rise substantially over the last couple years, higher costs are expected. In parts of Sacramento, it’s anticipated that water bills will rise 30% in the next six months, and possibly triple over the next year.
The EPA estimates that the average American household uses 320 gallons of water a day, with about 30-60% of that in dry climates devoted to outdoor irrigation. Limits on washing cars and urging homeowners and landlords to install environmentally friendly low-flush toilets and low-volume showerheads will help. But when we add up all residential water usage, more than half is dedicated to watering lawns. Furthermore, up to 60% of that amount is wasted by over-watering, inefficient methods, and waste. So residents are already urged to cut back and convert their water-wasting lawns into “zero-scapes” that use native shrubs, trees, plants, and rocks that require little or no watering. 10 Water-saving ways to replace your lawn (and still have the nicest yard on the block.)
But the largest user of water in the state is bay far the agricultural industry, which currently accounts for a remarkable 80% of our total water usage. Almond farms, alone, use enough water regularly to supply 75 percent of the state’s residential population.
So we may not be out of water in a year, and homeowners and residents should cut back and conserve as much as possible, but real solutions to the problem also need to come from politicians, the agricultural industry, and big business, as well.