I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of pounding rain on the roof. In the midst of California’s worst drought since 1850, the downpour was music to my ears. Maybe, just maybe, I thought, mother-nature will spare Californians the worst consequences of our failure to anticipate and prepare… for another year.
If you think this is just a California problem, you are wrong. Since the Civil War, California has been a key supplier in the nation’s and the world’s food supply. Climate, soil, rail transport to the urban centers of the east, and water to irrigate fields made this possible. Crops like citrus, apples, summer fruits, vegetables and related row crops, almonds, walnuts and cotton don’t grow without ample water. Today California farmers supply more than 40 percent of the nation’s fresh fruits and vegetables irrigated by federal and state water projects. California, alone, is equal to the 5th largest food exporting nation in the world. Drought in California will lead to higher food prices and less supply across the country.
Drought is a cyclical natural event. Despite our best efforts, mankind has not been able to master “mother-nature”. The adverse effects of rain and snow, wind, earthquakes are not preventable – all we can do is try to mitigate the impacts. The statewide water crisis is man-made and it has many owners – politicians, agricultural interests, land developers and, most important, we-the-people. What makes this truly alarming is the willful suspension of reality that has driven California water policy for at least the last half century.
The Urban Desert
Geologists describe California as semi-arid. About 2/3 of the state is actually a desert. The approximately 200,000 Native Americans who lived here before the arrival of Spanish, Mexican, European and American settlers inhabited the coastal and inter-coastal valleys – watered by ocean fog, rivers, and streams.
The first generations of settlers followed the Indians’ habitation patterns, but the long dry summers led to the development of irrigation systems to water fields to support food production. Water storage and transport has been a part of the “California story” since the Franciscan fathers established 20 + mission churches and rancheros in the 18th century (1769-1833).
It is true that California’s farmers were too slow to adapt to shifting allocations of water toward California’s cities (40%/20%). But urban Californians are wrong when they point to agricultural as the cause for our water crisis – an expendable casualty of progress.
Droughts ranging from 5 to 7 years are relatively common in the history of the State of California. A longer look back at the geologic history of California reveals two medieval droughts — each lasted over 100 years. Ominously, scientists have concluded that the scarcity of rainfall in 2013 has not been matched in California since 1580.
Delivery System Fails to Match Population Growth
In the 1960s, California had a population of approximately 16 million when the current septuagenarian Governor Brown’s father, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, broke ground on the California Water Project. The 700 mile project of dams, lakes, canals and pipes carries snow melt from the lightly populated northern part of the state through the Great Central Valley (agriculture) to Los Angeles (Castaic Lake). The project was completed during the 1970s. By then the state population had risen to 20 million.
40 years later, buffeted by California’s urban boom/bust economic cycles, California’s population has grown to almost 40 million but the water system has not been expanded. Even without a drought, there isn’t enough water available to satisfy all the conflicting interests of state water users – and still maintain the natural eco-system (40%)!
Do the Math
Californians had a population of approximately 29 million in 1990 – when drought resulted in 20% mandatory rationing for a single summer. In 2014 the same amount of water supports 25% more people.
And who is to blame. Ladies and gentlemen of California – let’s begin by looking in the mirror. It is fair to blame government for allowing development to outpace our natural resources. You’ve chosen to live in a desert but still claim the right to a manicured lawn in front of every home and swimming pools in too many backyards?
Blame politicians who indulged you by approving urban development they knew would run out of water someday. They’ve just hoped that it wouldn’t occur during their tenure.
This is not a zero sum-game between urban and agricultural interests. Software engineers got to eat, too!
Water is a finite resource. Water conservation cannot be treated as a periodic inconvenience. It’s got to become the California way-of-life.
Photo Credit: State of California/Dept of Water Resources
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