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More People, Same Water Does Not Add Up In California

I have to confess that I have forgotten how to write a complex mathematical equation but I am pretty good at practical arithmetic. I am also a pretty good cook and hostess. I know that if I bake an 8-inch cake and 8 people show up to the party, everyone is going to get a generous piece of cake. If 16 people appear, I can make the necessarily smaller slices appear more generous by adding a scoop of ice cream to each plate. But if 32 people show up, I am going to have to offer a choice of cake or ice cream – there are only a finite number of portions possible from an 8-inch cake.

California is facing a similar situation with water.

Not Enough Cake

Current drought conditions merely underscore the urgency to address the longer-term reality. In any year there is a finite amount of fresh water available.

President Obama’s recent visit to California reminds us all this is not a choice between California farms and California cities. The nation’s food supply depends on California’s farms – the national economy on California’s centers of innovation.

Conserving 20 Percent Per Capita

California farmers can do more to conserve water by adopting new methods of production and eliminating some crops. But most of the elasticity in California’s water usage is in its urban centers. In 2009 the legislature set an urban water conservation target of 20 percent per capita by 2020. The goal can be met, but it’s not enough to solve the water problem. In the same 10 year period, the state’s population is predicted to rise to 47 million.

Here’s a chart that illustrates the math.

Even if Californians meet the stricter 99-gallon per capita conservation standard, demand for water will be 28 percent greater than the existing supply.

What’s worse – some climate scientists have predicted that warmer temperatures caused by atmospheric pollution (climate change) may result in a decrease of as much as 40 percent in the annual snow pack over the next 40 years. If these scientists are correct, the gap between California’s fresh water supply and water demand could be more than 50 percent by mid-century.

Water to Match Population Growth

If California’s leaders heed the warning, the current drought is a blessing in disguise. It is an early window into an uncertain future. Before politicians propose a November election bond issue to authorize more spending on the same water infrastructure – they need to ask what if.

  • What if the drought ends this spring or next winter?
  • What if drought continues into 2015 or 2016 or 2018?
  • More challenging still, what if both climate scientists and demographers are correct?

Even if the drought, now in its third year, runs its course by Fall 2014 politicians and water managers can’t celebrate. It will take several years of average rainfall to refill our man-made lakes and smaller water reservoirs – above and below ground. Water conservation will need to be continued and strengthened.


Any model for a quality life in mid-21st century California must close the gap between available fresh water and growing population.  Even if we assume that rain and snow fall will decrease only half as much as climate scientists predict, there will be a baseline 28 percent shortage of water by 2064. The large coastal urban areas will need to find new, nearby sources of fresh water. The two most obvious alternatives are to desalinate sea water or treat and recycle waste water.

The technology to do either or both already exists. While both are considered costly, today, the law of supply/demand and technology price curve will intersect to bring these two water sources into the mainstream of water delivery in California.

San Diego has been building a desalinization facility since 2010, but it is not due to go online until 2016. Until then residents will continue to rely on Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District. If the current drought persists, will residents continue to have an adequate fresh water supply during the next four years?

Technology may develop other less expensive or more environmentally benign new sources of fresh water by mid-century but planners and water managers cannot wait for the perfect solution. Expanding efforts already underway to build the necessary facilities to implement good-enough fresh water technology must be started now.


California politicians have to make the hard decisions to address the water what ifs now. Mother Nature has given them a potent political argument to persuade reluctant voters to approve bond measures. If they don’t seize the opportunity, then we need different politicians willing to work with the private sector to pioneer and extend new approaches to meeting our water challenges.

Oh, did I forget to mention that 2014 is an election year?

Photo Credit: Grace Wyler/Business Insider

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2021-02-01T16:28:09+00:00February 19th, 2014|Comments Off on More People, Same Water Does Not Add Up In California

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