Where We Are For The California Drought

News of the California drought crisis has been circulating around the Internet recently, fueled, at least in part, by the release of a study by NASA. The study estimates that the most populous state in the union has a year of groundwater remaining at current rates of consumption. This wouldn’t be that problematic were it not for a few other coinciding factors. For one, California is aptly called the “breadbasket of the nation” since it supports an agricultural industry worth over $21 billion and produces nearly half of the nation’s fruits, vegetables and nuts. For another, California has been suffering from a sustained shortage of precipitation for four years running, with some projections predicting no increase in rainfall anytime in the near future.

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To curtail the issue (at least partially), Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the first-ever statewide mandatory water reduction bill. Unfortunately, such actions may come too little, too late. Some research even suggests that the state may suffer from exacerbated drought conditions in the future as unabated global warming results in serious climate change repercussions, birthing “megadroughts” by the end of the century. If the current drought seems bad — a paltry four years — future conditions may seem downright apocalyptic, since “megadroughts” can persist for 35 years or more.

Future conditions may seem downright apocalyptic, since “megadroughts” can persist for 35 years or more.

This raises an interesting, albeit bleak, consideration — what does happen if a state “runs out of water?” To begin with, it is highly doubtful that the state will ever truly be fully depleted of water. There will always be some form of runoff from rainwater that gathers in the mountains and runs towards the oceans, or percolates into underground aquifers. However, if the drought were to continue into the near future, it is possible that the state may lack the amount of resources necessary to maintain its irrigation-intensive agricultural industry, and many municipal areas in the southern two-thirds of the state (including San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego) will likely suffer heavily as well. Already, over five percent of agricultural land has been abandoned in the face of falling water reserves, while fountains run dry and lawns turn yellow in cities across the state (as part of a concentrated effort to reduced water use by 25 percent).

Some optimists point to the state’s historic three-year drought cycles as evidence that the recent crisis may be over soon. But other more pessimistic researchers used tree rings to show that, through the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, California has sporadically experienced periods of drought lasting for decades — and they fear that such patterns may be recurring in the modern day. Of course, back in the 1800s, the state did not contain the sprawling metropolises or vast central-valley farms that it does today, so a drought of that magnitude now would be much more disastrous. Since agriculture currently accounts for 80 percent of water use in California, should the drought persist and worsen, it is likely that more and more water will be diverted for use in the cities. As a result, food prices nationwide would rise as production falls. However, this transition would be a slow one. The state has enough water to make it to the winter, and springtime is usually when recent snowmelt replenishes depleted reservoirs. Moreover, though they are replenished slowly (compared to above-ground aquifers), groundwater stores could also potentially be restored if given the opportunity — as long as withdrawals are done sustainably. Thus, it is unlikely that the state will ever become a barren, parched wasteland reminiscent of some scene out of an end-of-the-world movie. However, if the citizens of California do not change their profligate water consumption habits, the state will, sooner or later, face severe repercussions from water mismanagement.

About The Author

Jason Choe
Business Lead

I have an identical twin brother attending UC Berkeley who researches diabetes at UCSF, but doesn't work as part of the science magazine there. Basically the opposite of me! Otherwise, I'm from SoCal but I never learned to surf, I'm 100% Korean but I've only ever been to Korea once, and I once ran into a shark off the coast of Hawaii.