The unprecedented drought in California will affect the entire U.S.. It is an enormous and urgent problem so I thought I'd repost an excellent well-researched essay on its various aspects. It was originally a Facebook post by Kirk Bays, a concerned citizen and high-energy physicist at CalTech. (Due to his privacy settings his post is inaccessible but with his permission I have copied his essay in its entirety below. I did however add the photos and some commentary.)
"All right Californians. Time to talk about the water crisis. We've had a drought for a few years now and it isn't getting better. Most of us don't think about it much, it is just business as usual. But it is actually really, really bad and poised to affect us all a lot.
The drought is due to many factors. It is just hard to have 38 million people living in a state that is naturally mostly desert, and the population is growing. We get our water from the mountains in the north in one of the most insane engineering feats in the country. Climate change is partly responsible for what is happening now, and that will get worse. Some is natural climate cycles. The biggest problem is just that we are using all the available water all the time, so when we have a drought it really hurts.
50% of the state's water is used to maintain the environment. You know, like keeping water in lakes so all the fish don't die. Of the remaining half, only 10% is municipal, and the other 40% is agricultural.
California produces almost half of the nation's fruits, vegetables and nuts. This includes more than 99% of: almonds, artichokes, dates, figs, grapes, kiwi, olives, pistachios, and walnuts. The top things by gross are milk, almonds, grapes, and cattle.
Here's what most people don't know: a gallon of milk takes a thousand gallons of water to produce. A single almond requires a gallon of water! A pound of hamburger meat: between 1.5 and 4 thousand gallons. THIS is where most of our water is going.
The amount of water used to make almonds in California is enough to supply water needs for 75% of the people living here. California produces 80% of almonds worldwide, and they are popular overseas, so demand is up, and many farmers are prioritizing water intensive almonds over less water greedy vegetables that are less profitable. California allocates free water to farmers (an outdated and controversial policy that has historical causes, but has allowed farmers to choose crops without consideration of water management issues), and is now allocating less water due to the drought, so many farms are taking it upon themselves to drill deep wells and suck out water themselves. California has been one of the only states that does NOT regulate groundwater, and it is had consequences. Much of the water being sucked out of the ground comes from deep aquifers, which are like the fossil fuel of water - they took millions of years to form, and when they are gone they are gone forever. We don't know when exactly they will run out, but they are the only thing keeping California going right now, and when they are empty we'll really be screwed. We're already seeing many areas where private wells are empty and people have no water coming out of their taps. Of course, farmers are just taking advantage of what they need to in order to keep their crops from dying, they are now trapped between a history of water subsidies that have trained them to farm a certain way and the new harsh realities of scarcity.
We are all urged to do what we can to help conserve water. There are now $500 fines for over-watering lawns (not that you're likely to get caught), and we're urged to take shorter showers and wash our cars less. Of course, everything we can do helps. But, focusing on only these things misses some more important points. In truth, most car wash businesses use recycled water. A long shower can take up to 40 gallons of water; reduce that to 20 gallons a day, and it still takes three months to 'save' the amount of water it took to produce 1 lb of beef. It doesn't help that our top products of milk, almonds and beef are possibly the worst offenders for water inefficiency per calorie.
[Note, I'd like to offer a different perspective here. While I agree with Kirk that focusing solely on reducing resident water usage is not the way to go forward I think it is essential that we not fall prey to the "small effects don't make a difference" syndrome. Even if municipal water use is only 10% of where the water goes, it is still a fantastic place to start! Unlike changing policy and changing leadership, changing behavior can be instant. 38 million people can start saving millions of gallons of water TODAY. So it is by far the lowest hanging fruit, even if it is not the biggest one! And while 10% might not sound like a lot, because millions of people use water every day even a small change in behavior results in millions of water saved. In his example above, if everyone in CA reduces their shower water use we'd be saving 760 million gallons of water PER DAY. That is a lot of water. The infographic below suggests other ways you can make a difference. ]
Avoiding these products can help in the long run by reducing demand, but supply and demand economics can be surprisingly complicated, and many California crops are sold to consumers in other states or overseas, so there is no guarantee that avoiding products will really 'save' that water. Ultimately, any real solution is going to involve legislation, new infrastructure and possibly new technologies. While conservation and careful consumption are important, it is also important to stay aware of the issue and help spread information. This isn't a problem that is going to just go away. Populations will increase, climate change will get worse, aquifer reserves will diminish, and water shortages will become more common as the years go on. Staying informed is critical to know how to vote and what organizations to support.
For example, did you know this just happened? It's a critical new bill to regulate groundwater, though it takes a while to go into effect. Do you know where you stand on the ongoing political struggle between farmers and environmentalists on water issues, like this? The delta is a key water supplier for a large fraction of California's farms, and drawing more water for farms was denied by courts due to an endangered fish that would be at risk (although the plan was opposed by environmentalists for more reasons than the fish). Is that right? Maybe you should research it and decide. How about the issue of fracking in California, which uses large amounts of water and can in some cases leak chemicals into precious reservoirs of fresh water? Maybe you should know what you think about that too.
Almost certainly, having a model that is viable long term will require significant agricultural reform, including possibly charging farms for water use, regulations on water use efficiency, as well as new water sources like recycling waste water. The model of subsidies should probably change too, so that foods that require more water actually cost more. Can you imagine how different things would be if the price of beef had doubled the past few years to reflect the increasing water cost? In N Out might suffer, but demand would drop and people would be a lot more aware of what beef really means for water, and maybe we need that. New technologies could be used to bring in new water sources too - advances in desalination are possible contenders, but may have an environmental cost. What solutions would you prefer? Some of them may hurt, but changes are required. And while I favor agricultural subsidy reform, there are always other perspectives.
It is frustrating how there is so little an average citizen CAN do in this matter. There are lots of policy ideas out there, but there is a lack of easy to sign up petitions, organizations or charities that look ready to really make a difference. Without a clear way to act on the important matters, all we CAN do is further basic conservation efforts, avoid the worst foods, and remain educated on the important points so we can be ready to affect things for the better, whether through voting or supporting yet to come organizations. And, if you have a clear opinion on important policy needs, reach out to your lawmakers. You can bet the agriculture lobby is. So, this post is a nudge to help others (you) educate themselves, and maybe convince them (you) to nudge someone else.