In a recent op-ed for the LA Times, NASA senior water scientist Jay Famiglietti warned that California’s ongoing drought has left it with only a year’s supply of stored water.
For Californians, the news can hardly be a shock. 2014 turned out to be the hottest year in the state’s history and the third year of the worst drought ever recorded by the U.S. Drought Monitor. Thus far the drought has been so intense that it has literally moved mountains, and the lack of rain has forced farmers to pump groundwater at such a prodigious rate that some areas of the Central Valley have sunk by more than a foot.
California did get some rain during its “winter,” but it was equivalent to spitting into a very dry bucket. For the first time in history, San Francisco received no rain at all in the entire month of January.
According to Famiglietti, California’s total water supply has been dropping by 12 million acre-feet per year since 2011. This past year, the Sacramento and San Joaquin River basins were 34 million acre-feet below normal, and much of that loss is due to farmers trying to supplement their lack of surface water with their private wells. For many farmers seeing 80 to 100 percent less rainfall than normal, the situation can’t be helped, but this state is absolutely unsustainable, says Famiglietti.
California has no emergency plan in place to deal with zero water in its reservoirs, which could happen by 2017. The fact that there is an extremely high probability that the American Southwest will experience a 35-year “megadrought” before this century is over, according to a recent peer-reviewed study, only makes California’s situation that much more desperate.
Not all water monitors agree with Famiglietti’s assessment, however. Jeffrey Kightlinger, the general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, told Wired that the NASA scientist’s assessment is “a glib generalization,” and that his district, which serves about 50 percent of the state, has enough water stored to last three years if distributed conservatively.
So, best case scenario, California has three years of water left.
In either case, Famiglietti has urged the state to take the following steps: Impose immediate, mandatory water rationing for the domestic, municipal, agricultural and industrial sectors; speed up the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014, a law that will create regional groundwater agencies to monitor the supply; and “lay the groundwork for long-term water management strategies.”
Finally, Famiglietti writes, “the public must take ownership of this issue. This crisis belongs to all of us — not just to a handful of decision-makers. Water is our most important, commonly owned resource, but the public remains detached from discussions and decisions. […] Call me old-fashioned, but I’d like to live in a state that has a paddle so that it might also still have a creek.”
And the scientist knows whereof he speaks. In October, Famiglietti published his latest research paper in the journal Nature Climate Change that shows groundwater is in jeopardy throughout the world. Unfortunately, he told a TED audience back in 2013, the crisis is too big and too complex to avoid at this point, but it can be managed if governments and communities work together.
This may take the form of price rationing the water supply, as Australia did in the midst of its severe drought a decade ago. As Kightlinger told Wired, the tactic works when it impacts consumers’ bank accounts. “Those penalties usually drive people to push their water use down because they realize they can cut their bill in half,” he said. “That’s when you see people going from seven-minute showers to two-minute showers.”
But even that may not be enough. California’s farmers use a whopping 80 percent of the state’s water supply to support its more than $20 billion agricultural industry. The drought has already cost California $2.2 billion in lost crop revenues, and that figure will rise as the water level falls.