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Got Water? California’s Drought

In response to worsening drought conditions, California’s State Water Resources Control Board voted this week to impose mandatory reductions in urban residents’ water use. The move is designed to cut cities’ water use by an average of 25 percent in order to meet the goals set by Governor Jerry Brown’s April 1 executive order, and it’s the first time in the state’s history the Board has felt the need to take this step.

Geologists say this certainly isn’t the first time drought has hit the state though, and that this drought wasn’t primarily caused by residents’ use of water.

“We know for the past three years that we have been below average in terms of precipitation in the state, as well as the snowpack in Sierra Nevada,” said Dr. Amalie Orme, a geology professor at Cal State Northridge. “What makes this a little bit different this time, is that it’s impacting an area which has a much larger population than what we’ve experienced in the past.”

“Of course there have been droughts before,” said Dr. Helen Cox, Director of the Institute for Sustainability at CSUN. “But we’re so reliant upon [water] now, in terms of our infrastructure, in terms of our agriculture, in terms of our economy in California, that [drought] has a much much bigger impact now than it might have done in the past.”

Climate change has likely made the drought conditions in California worse. Geologists say droughts are determined by the rate of evaporation compared to the rate of water replenishment.

“In a warmer climate you’re going to have more evaporation,” Cox said, “so therefore, there is going to be less water available. The conditions that are occurring now, that are causing this drought, are a persistent high pressure sitting out in the Pacific Ocean.”

That high pressure system, caused by earth’s changing climate conditions, continuously diverts storms and humid weather away from California.

Some, including recently-announced GOP candidate Carly Fiorina, say the drought is partially man-made, in the sense that liberal environmental policies have prevented the state from building the necessary dams and reservoirs.

“In a sense, [that’s] looking at this upside down,” Orme said, “because people do not cause drought. Droughts are meteorological, hydrological and agricultural. In the bigger picture, this a physical phenomenon that we’re experiencing.”

“It would be very difficult to store the kinds of quantities of water that one would need to store to make up for this kind of event,” Cox said. “We’re looking at a snowpack which is six percent of normal.”

Still most do agree that people will have to contribute to the solution, by drastically cutting their water use. One controversy is over who should sacrifice the most, and many urban residents question the amount of water used in agriculture, which reportedly consumes some 80 percent of California’s water.

California researchers report that the amount of water used to grow various crops is tremendous. For example, one often-quoted report suggested that harvesting one single almond takes 1.1 gallons of water. But some farmers have refuted these claims. They claim the way they use water isn’t the problem, it’s the amount they are allowed to use.

“The farmers are not so much fixated in terms of the precipitation that we get,” said Blake Sanden, a farm advisor and irrigation expert with the University of California Cooperative Extension. “They’re looking at an overall water budget.”

Farmers are certainly feeling the pain of the drought. A UC Davis study showed California is directly losing more than $1.5 billion a year from the drought. These costs included water pumps, livestock, and fields that are going unplanted.

“Basically a farmer is going to define drought by looking at the condition of his crops,” Sanden said.

Environmentalists argue that farmers should get rid of flood irrigation methods to properly conserve water. But other methods of getting water to crops, such as micro irrigation and drip-irrigation, may deny crops their nutrients.

“The problem … is that [drip irrigation] ignores salinity management,” Sanden said. “When we irrigate we bring in as much as a ton and a half of salts per-acre-foot.”

Another alternative is the use of so-called grey water. Grey water is water filtered from things such as washing machines, and recycled for agricultural use.

“With grey water, one has to be quite careful about what is going into the ground,” Cox said. “If there’s any kind of chemicals, soaps, or detergents, any of that can ultimately affect your soils.”

The state has been encouraging residents to conserve water, keeping in mind the possible state of emergency that would arrive if California’s supplies are emptied.

“There have been mega-droughts [lasting 25 years] in the past,” Cox said.  “It’s not clear right now exactly how long this will last. It could be a kind of a one-in-a-thousand year drought, if it’s a really really severe drought.”

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