Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The California water crisis

As the representative Californian in my department at NCAR, I get asked a lot of questions about the drought in California. The back story is long. The science is complex. I have had a massive headache since my return to altitude. My energy is reserved for work- and remodeling-related stuff.

I'm going to send you to my favorite independent and accurate resources on the web for California water topics:
Pay special attention to the stories about groundwater pumping.  The farmers in the central valley and the golf course developments in southern California have been robbing the rest of the state (including non-human inhabitants) of water at a breathtaking pace.  In fact, in the past ~20 years, they will have stolen all of the underground water that California 'banked' in the past 100,000 to 1,000,000 years.

For this, they paid nada.  Not only that, the 200+ golf courses of the Coachella valley and other areas lobbied against even having to report to local authorities how much water they are pumping out of local and shared aquifers.  They cited privacy concerns.

I think that the 200+ golf course operators of the Coachella valley have to explain why the are more important than the survival of the endangered Desert Pupfish, who live in spring-fed pools in the same valley.

If groundwater was treated like surface water,  the Pupfishes would have senior water rights and the golf courses would never have been built in the first place.  Right now, it's the wild, wild west.  Whoever drills deepest gets everything so the short-term opportunists are grabbing all of the groundwater before someone else does.  The graphic in this Maven article explains how groundwater feeds natural desert springs.

Desert Pupfish are so cute, but future generations won't know them.
In 2006, I took Iris to see one of the last remaining habitats of the Desert Pupfish.  I wrote then:
We lured Iris to walk the entire boardwalk loop with the admonishment, "Hurry up and see the pupfish before they go extinct!"
My photo doesn't do Pupfishes justice. To see them is to love them. I really wish I was wrong about extinction.

The central valley farmers also lobbied against controls on how much groundwater they can pump.  Sensing a lost battle, they changed tactics and successfully lobbied for time to 'implement' controls.  Local governments have 5 years to form agencies to administer controls and then another 2 years to come up with a plan.  In 7 years, the underground aquifers in California might not have any water left.

A farmer said, “Nobody’s fault but God’s.” I beg to differ. It is the farmers' fault for planting hundreds of thousands of acres of water-thirsty nut groves (even in the midst of this drought!) and irrigating wastefully.

In this video, I launched a weather balloon in a lot adjacent to a nut grove near Fresno.  I did this in a couple of different places--once at night, once during the day.  In a desert, in the middle of the summer, the farmers were saturating the air with their sprinklers fed by underground aquifers.  The radiosondes registered saturated or near saturated air well above the groves.

They were using groundwater irresponsibly and unsustainably well before the drought.  Do you believe this is "nobody's fault'?

BTW, the estimate that California has just one year of water left is based upon surface water supplies only.  If the farmers and golf courses had been behaving responsibly, the underground aquifers could have held us over (with some conservation efforts).  Instead, we are in a crisis situation.

If only a few people benefited from using up California's natural 'water bank', why should everyone else pay for their folly?  The central valley is sinking at the rate of about a foot per year due to excessive groundwater pumping.  Are they paying to fix the roads and other infrastructure destroyed by that sinking?

Enough hyperventilating.  I give you some pictures of cool water in the Sierra high country in happier times.

Iris with potable water and Sierra snowmelt.
Saying, 'hi' from the creek at Lair.
Perhaps I should write about the slow-motion train wreck that is the intersection of global warming and the Sierra snowpack, our above ground 'water bank'.  But let's think cool thoughts and ignore the Pacific inter-Decadal Oscillation until I calm down.

I'm going to meditate with some soft yarn in a pretty color now.


  1. Anonymous00:16

    I'm hyperventilating along with you. This is terrifying. Nevertheless, thanks for keeping us informed.
    Vancouver Barbara

  2. Is there anything we can actually do? Lobby specific politicians, stage sit-ins? Golf Courses are an absolute atrocity, wherever they are. There's a reason I associate them in my head with Donald Trump. I love / hate California - mostly for the exact attitudes you outline above.

    1. Occupy water? That's an idea.

      When you are in a hole, it's important to stop digging. I don't know how to solve the political situation, but I do control my personal behavior.

      In my water series, I discussed how much water is embedded in meat, energy and consumer products. (Cotton is a very water-intensive crop.) But, really, the amount of embedded water in 3 pounds of beef (raised in the conventional manner in the US) could fill the average sized residential swimming pool.

      Now I have given up eating tree nuts grown in deserts.

  3. Thanks for writing this, and your other water pieces. We're doing what we can in our own choices- and are trying to do more. But I really think we need some policy changes with respect to how the farmers get and pay for their water, and with respect to how groundwater is handled. We are not on a sustainable path, and asking the residents of California to make this balance when the majority of our water goes to farmers, who grow food that is eaten by the entire country... well, that doesn't seem right. Or likely to succeed. I hope we can recognize this and start making better policy decisions before it is too late and we have a crash in our food supplies.

    1. The problem is even worse than that. Most of the nuts are exported. Much of the animal feed also goes to feed Asia's new appetite for meat.

      In effect, the farmers have exported our water piggy bank.

    2. I would love to hear your opinion about desalinization plants and sustainable irrigation requirements. Somehow Isreal manages to grow a tremendous amount of food in the desert-- why can't we adopt some of their policies.
      Also, I agree with Cloud-- our association just ripped out ~30k in landscaping to replace with water saving plants because of water saving hysteria when our area is not the responsible party...

    3. Israel grows so much food because they are using 80-83% of the occupied West Bank's water.

      That is not the kind of behavior I wish to emulate.

    4. Anonymous17:38

      Do we not already emulate that kind of behavior?

  4. Readers may be interested in my favorite water blog,

    There's plenty to read about our almond crop and a contrarian view around nearly every corner.

    1. You are so right. I was writing/ranting in a brain fog. I've added OTPR to the list.


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