We need to talk about California

It’s the worst drought California has had in 1,200 years. The drought is getting all the attention in the headlines, but don’t believe everything you read. Most blame almonds for the lack of water, but those little nuts aren’t the bad guys here. The “almond fear mongering campaign” has pit almonds against humans (“California faces ‘almonds v people’ dilemma”) and dubbed them water-hungry nuts (“Since California’s Drought Started, Water-Hungry Almonds Planted on 150,000 More Acres”). While it’s easy to denounce the almond for its water-usage, the California drought is not so simple.

Progression_of_the_2012-2014_historic_California_drought,_from_December_2013_to_July_2014
Found on Creative Commons

A simple reality is we are using water faster than it can replenish. We all know 71% of earth’s surface is water, but very little of that water is drinkable. In fact, 96% of it is too saline for the seven billion of us on earth to drink. The water we can drink must be taken from underground, glaciers, rivers, or lakes.

Eventually our unsustainable practices are going to catch up with us, it just caught up with California first. The state has recently reached a pinnacle in a four year-long drought, some water tables have dropped the equivalent of five stories over the years. The ramifications are evident: rich green lawns starkly contrast the parched environment, land is sinking, canals are changing directions, farmers are without water. Any attempt by the state to gauze its water turmoil behind the glow and glamour trademark of the Californian lifestyle is futile. It’s time to get serious about what to do.

There needs to be more than cutting back. Gov. Jerry Brown has passed an executive order to cut 25% of use by water agencies that supply most of the state. This is it’s too little too late. Urban water usage takes up 10% of the state’s surface water. The real culprit of extreme water use is the large farms, which have recently agreed to a similar 25% cut. But cuts only serve as a short term solution. Instead of giving speeches to residences about the bygone era of green lawns and vibrant golf courses, federal legislators need to overcome partisan opinions about revamping the agricultural methods and invest in them for a long term solution.

Almonds aren’t the only thirsty crop. While most news sources cite almonds as the bane of California’s water usage, it is far from the real culprit. Alfalfa used 1.4 million acre-feet more water that almonds and pistachios in 2010. The hay isn’t even being used nationally. Most of the hay is exported, especially to Japan and other Pacific nations. There needs to be more media and local awareness about what’s being watered, and where those crops are going.

Critics argue that these thirsty crops support the agro-oriented Californian economy, the seventh largest in the world. In order to keep these crops, local government needs to look to invest in conserving water while irrigating crops. Farmers need to be supported in changing conventional sprinkler methods which waste water, and look to water these crops with target specific methods like drip irrigation. Though costly, the dollar per acreage for thirsty crops seems large enough to support more spending on irrigation methods.

California needs to get organized. Detailed information on California’s agriculture water-usage is disappointingly poor. Data, if collected, is accumulated by individual districts, counties, or agencies which all use different tools and measures. Usage is rarely based on actual observation or reporting, but model estimates. In order for legislators to make the right executive choice, data needs to be available.

You should care. College campuses in California are small towns in themselves, and use an insane amount of water. In order to avoid scrutiny, college campuses are going into action. USC has invested upward of 150 million dollars to conserve water and fund sustainability projects. If you begin to wonder where your tuition money is going, it may be there. Besides the question of finances, it’s time to start caring. It is estimated by 2025 two thirds of the global population could experience water shortages. That statistic isn’t limited to the sub-saharan nations who seem to be the stock photos in representing water scarcity, but extends to our neighborhoods.

We can point fingers at the celebrities who groom their lawns with excess amounts of water, or lean into desperation and paint our lawns green. But that is just brushing our mistakes under the rug. Water is a finite resource: the one percent available to us is unevenly distributed, polluted, or hard to access. Like other finite resources, namely coal or oil, scarcity breeds conflict.

The Pacific institute has documented hundreds of conflicts driven by water shortage, namely between Kenyan tribes and in South Africa. A conflict in 2000 was the most recent which took place in Sudan. The chances of these conflicts staying isolated within remote or poverty stricken areas is slim as richer areas like California experience similar shortages. The argument that there would be a dividing difference that would prevent citizens of one nation reacting similarly as another is invalid. There is nothing more primitive than our need to hydrate. There is nothing more pressing than protecting and preserving our ability to do so.

47 years ago American ecologist Garrett Hardin coined the term “tragedy of the commons.” His concept centers around the idea that individuals act independently and in self-interest at the expense of everyone else by depleting a common resource. Never has Hardin’s notion been so applicable than in our modern era. Water as a public resource has been drained and taken for granted. It’s time for a reality check, this is our problem now.

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