Surviving drought in the Golden State as it lacks its most precious commodity

Surviving with growing populations and shrinking water supplies is the new normal in parts of the US

In April, the governor of California Jerry Brown imposed the state's first obligatory water restrictions. The world's fifth-largest economy is experiencing the worst drought in its history.

How did things get so bad? With a Mediterranean-style climate, it rarely rains between April and September, California and much of the western United States is dependent on the melting of winter snowpack to resupply its lakes and streams. There has been a severe lack of winter storms for the third year in a row coupled with some of the highest summer temperatures ever recorded.

One report suggests the 2014 snowpack is 5 per cent of what was hoped for. The previous low was 25 per cent, which occurred in 1977 (the last time there was a severe drought in California). Things are not good.

Water shortage is the new reality here, but that doesn’t stop residents and businesses alike using huge amounts to keep their elaborate lawns and landscaped gardens looking green and healthy. Nor has it made any difference to the quantity of agricultural produce being exported from the state every day. Mother nature notwithstanding, who or what is to blame for the shortage depends on where you’re coming from.

"Naturally there has been a lot of finger-pointing going on," says Kurt Schwabe, associate professor of environmental economics and policy at the University of California. "Originally people blamed agriculture, then for a while people were blaming Starbucks. Even the Kardashians, and Beverly Hills people generally, came under fire. The reality is we're all a little guilty."

Level of culpability While agriculture is the largest consumer of water in the state, its level of culpability is dependent on where the accusation is coming from.

In a recent article, New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof lays the blame with the modern industrial agricultural machine. "While we associate extravagant water use with swimming pools and verdant lawns, the biggest consumer, by far, is agriculture," he says.

“In California, 80 per cent of water used by humans goes to farming and ranching – a single egg takes 53 gallons of water to produce, a pound of chicken, 468 gallons, a gallon of milk, 880 gallons and a pound of beef, 1,800 gallons of water. The central challenge can’t be solved by a good rain because the larger problem is an irrational industrial food system.”

However, Schwabe is reluctant to blame one group or another. "There's a game being played," he says. "When certain people want to identify agriculture, they can manipulate the stats to suit their agenda."

The narrative is moving from finger-pointing to finding solutions as the only thing Californians have even less of than water is time.

For Schwabe, the answer may lie with reducing demand. “There are two things the state could do. For the residential sector, we need to price water differently. Make it more expensive for outdoor use, especially if you don’t irrigate efficiently. I do believe water should be made more expensive in general terms, but we don’t want to risk pricing some people out of the market.

“So the state needs to come up with a very effective, yet well thought out, tiered rate system, which allows people to buy necessary water for indoor use while also giving them some outdoor water at a higher price. If they waste water beyond that, let them compete for it with farmers, bottled water companies, microchip manufacturers, etc.

“In terms of agriculture, we need to develop more well-functioning and transparent water markets. Some growers might be purchasing water at, say, $20 per acre-foot and using it to grow crops for export outside the country and they might be making $500 per acre doing that.

“But there are cashew and watermelon growers down the road who would love to buy that same water. So if you had a well-functioning market, a farmer could choose to use that $20 water to produce rice to be sold abroad or take that water and sell it locally at $700 per acre foot.

"That's what they do in Australia. In times of drought, rather than growing low-value crops, they sell water to people prepared to pay for it."

Increasing supply is another option. Given the vast coastline Californians enjoy, desalination has been attempted in the past but, for various reasons, hasn’t worked.

It has been successful elsewhere, such as in Israel where in the last decade they have significantly increased desalination of Mediterranean seawater, coupled with recycling wastewater. Now 50 per cent of water used by Israeli agriculture, industry and households is artificially produced.

But “desal” is expensive and can have environmental impacts.

"There are challenges," says environmental and resource economist Michael Hanemann. "You have to dispose of the salt, often along the coast where it can be harmful to marine life. The operational costs are also significantly higher than supplying water from conventional sources."

There is an alternative being suggested by Hanemann and others: “brackish” desalination. This refers to treating inland groundwater that contains dissolved solids, like saline, in the same way seawater does, but at much smaller quantities.

“Brackish ‘desal’ can be carried out at a much lower cost, plus the brine removed can be safely disposed of in aquifers,” says Hanemann.

Important option Brackish desal has become an increasingly important option for the Texas Water Development Board. A four-year drought has only just been relieved in the Lone Star state after rain fell at record levels in April and May, leading to massive floods, particularly in Houston where a number of fatalities were reported.

Water-shortage experts in Texas often cite the danger associated with post-flood lethargy. "The tendency is to take your foot off the gas," explains Prof Bridget Scanlon from the bureau of economic geology at the University of Texas in Austin.

“What we need is more storage,” she adds. “We haven’t built any new reservoirs in Texas since the 1970s. Neither has California. In fact, there’s been a 40 per cent reduction in per capita reservoirs storage since the 1970s.

“So when you have too much rainfall, like Texas has just experienced, you can store. Dallas is now at 100 per cent. Their reservoirs are full. So what happens to any excess water? People here are now talking about storing excess waters in depleted underground aquifers.”

The Texas Water Development Board has not taken its foot off the gas. Its 50-year drought-avoidance strategy doesn’t rule out any options available to it, even a novel process known as evaporation suppression.

Despite many Texan reservoirs being fuller than they have been for years, water evaporation becomes a challenge affecting levels the moment the rain stops pouring. So, a reservoir in Wichita Falls was recently used to test an evaporation suppression measure.

"We basically used a thin molecular layer of fatty acids applied to the surface of the water," says Ruben S Solis, director of the surface water resources division at the water development board.

“We covered the entire lake with it and could say with 87 per cent confidence that the evaporation was reduced. We weren’t entirely satisfied with the test, however, mainly because of the impact of wind. We found the wind blew the thin layer off to the sides, reducing its success.”

Long-term solutions for regions such as Texas and California require a diversified portfolio.

Avoiding drought, according to Prof Scanlon, is a bit like surviving an economic recession: in order to do so you make sure you are not over-reliant on any one area of the market.

“The way to avoid droughts is to have a number of different things in your portfolio – increased storage, reduced demand, evaporation suppression, desalination plants, water trading options etc. We can’t rely on being able to predict. We have to be ready, because once it starts raining everybody forgets about any planning. But if you have a variety of approaches, you will reduce your vulnerability.”

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