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Troubling View From the Oasis: California's Abundance May Be a Mirage 

Wednesday, Mar 5 2014
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If the 20th century was indeed wetter than usual, then California's foundation was laid with a sense of false abundance. Myopia 150 years ago led to a civilization that kept growing as though all of it — its green lawns and golf courses, its fields of lettuce and strawberries, its olive and almond trees, its grazing pastures and ranches, its cities — was built on credit. California has been borrowing on a future that might not look like the present.

The Absolute Worst-Case Scenario

Say the recent rainstorms were the last of the free water that will fall from the sky for years to come. The drought lasts a decade and everyone keeps using the same amount of water, hoping that the rain will come back. Water experts say farms without access to groundwater go out of business first. Those that can pump water from underground aquifers do so increasingly more, causing the water table to drop precipitously. Wells go dry. The water that is left is so salty that it's useless.

The first hint of things beyond the months of news reports is a change of prices in the grocery store, in California and across the nation, as farmers try to make up for their losses. The rains refuse to come for another season. The drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles along the 5 becomes even drearier than normal without the green of the orchards. Small, family-owned farms that can't afford to pay for water anymore begin to fold. The bigger ones eventually follow. California's agriculture industry collapses. Local food becomes a luxury of the past; "California cuisine" seems as extravagant and wasteful as a medieval feast. The nation eventually finds other places to grow olives, dates, pistachios, artichokes, and other crops exclusive to the state, or imports them from other countries. Bottles of Napa and Sonoma wine sell for millions at auction.

San Francisco would be okay for a while, but eventually the water supply would get low and the city would need to start conserving. It would start with the relatively easy stuff: more water recycling, trading with other municipalities, changing the water pricing structure. Eventually, easy and cheap solutions would run out; the city would start looking elsewhere for water. A pipeline from the damp Pacific Northwest, maybe, or ocean water made usable by expensive desalination plants dotting the coast. The whole myth of California as the abundant, blooming Eden, the "breadbasket of the nation," would dry up and blow away.

And everyone will look back with amazement to the years they flushed their toilets with some of the most pristine water in the world.

The Probably- More-Likely Scenario

As dumb and shortsighted as modern civilization can seem sometimes, it's not suicidal. The drought has ensured that policymakers and experts are aware of the fact that water management will be one of the biggest issues of the 21st century. Smart water management is a question of figuring out where we need the resources and then allocating them, says Jay Famiglietti, director of the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling and an Earth System Science professor at UC Irvine.

Society mostly uses water to grow food, sustain the environment, provide for human use, and produce energy. So we all need to decide what's the most important for us, he says, and make hard choices if we can't do everything. He and others like to talk about the example set by Australia, which recently went through a decade-long drought and had to completely reassess its water use. Other societies have either faced water crisis and worked to solve it (like Israel) or are on the brink of one (like Las Vegas). There are lessons in both.

One thing that's clear is that voluntary conservation only goes so far — much of the change will need to come from policy. Experts stress the importance of groundwater regulation, to make sure that the natural aquifers underneath California don't irrevocably dry up. (Unlike many of its Western siblings, the state has no regulations for how many straws can be drawing from these sources, and how much they can take out.) Then there's treated wastewater, proven to be safe and purer in some cases than generic bottled water, but the mental barriers might be insurmountable. It can still be used to flush the toilet. And then there are economic incentives and regulations for things like landscaping with native plants instead of green laws — commonsense changes that can be made after accepting the reality that California is more desert than not.

On a more traditional level, Governor Brown recently proposed a controversial and ambitious $25 billion plan for an engineering project on a par with those of the 20th century. He wants to build two tunnels underneath the failing wetlands of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to support the state's water needs while preserving the ecosystem there. It's not popular with area farmers, who are worried about the encroachment of the San Francisco Bay's salty waters onto their fields, or many in Southern California, who are worried that it wouldn't generate as much water for its use. But then, all of California's water history has been a question of tough choices and compromises.

The drought has put some smaller conservation methods out of reach for some farmers. Nigel Walker at Eatwell Farms knows what he wants to do to conserve: Install a more precise timed sprinkler system so he can irrigate his crops at night, when there's less evaporation. He estimates that it will cost $2,000 an acre for his farm's 102 acres, and it will take five, maybe 10 years to get the capital together to make such an investment.

"If I can't grow the crops because there's no water than I can't get the money to buy things that will save water," he says. This paradox is common to farmers across the state.

About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Bio:
Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.

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