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3 Reasons Drought Is California's Biggest Problem

Nathaniel Haas |
February 5, 2014 | 3:04 p.m. PST



“There are flood and drought over the eyes and in the mouth, dead water and dead sand contending for the upper hand. The parched eviscerate soil gapes at the vanity of toil, laughs without mirth. This is the death of the earth.”

-TS Elliot

If there were enough water left in this state to make one, California’s drought would be just the tip of the iceberg. (Jaclyn Wu, Neon Tommy)
If there were enough water left in this state to make one, California’s drought would be just the tip of the iceberg. (Jaclyn Wu, Neon Tommy)
California is in the midst of its third dry winter in a row. A report by the Christian Science Monitor pegged this year’s drought as the worst in California’s 163-year existence, and Governor Jerry Brown referred to the drought in his State of the State address as “a stark warning of things to come.” The state reservoir will close for the first time in 54 years, its storage facilities locking up to conserve water for as long as possible, leaving 25 million people to get their drinking water from another source.

It is so bad that, to reach precipitation consistent with average annual levels, California would have to experience rain once every two days until May.

The casual observer would expect to find California residents in a state of panic, and the casual observer would, shockingly, be very wrong. A poll of 1700 adults conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California revealed what one article optimistically dubbed a “record high” percentage of Californians who believe water and the drought should be the State Legislature’s top priority. The magic number? Seven percent.

SEE ALSO: Drought Forces Los Angeles To Rely On Water Reserves

Seven percent is a record high because a drought of this scale has never happened. That number, however, is not a cause for celebration; in fact, it is a cause for horror. If California detached from the continental United States and began floating towards China, people would mock a poll reporting that a “record” seven percent of voters thought it was the most important issue facing the state.

In fact, if you are anything like me, and by that I mean a California resident who has taken a shower and flushed a toilet in the last 24 hours, you should be appalled that only seven out of every 100 California residents find the drought of greatest concern. The drought is the most serious issue facing California not only this year, but this decade, and for a variety of reasons. Here are the top three:

1. Agriculture

Seventy-five percent of the states water supply supports agriculture in the Central Valley. The shutdown of the state’s vast reservoir system not only means the end of drinking water for 25 million people, but also for 1 million acres of farmland. As other sources are tapped to compensate for the shutdown, they too will run dry. Agriculture is the backbone of the state economy, which makes all the more dubious the choice of poll respondents to place the economy or the state budget at a higher priority level.

In addition, the reader who is both drought savvy and a T.S. Elliot scholar would know that the quote that begins this piece is not about drought, but rather about famine. I do not have to tell you what happens to food prices when California’s agriculture sector, deemed to be one of the top ten producers in the world, experiences a massive supply shock.

2. It’s Your Money

A plausible explanation for the low polling rates mentioned above could be that may residents consider the drought to be the top priority for the state, but few consider it to be the top priority for the legislature. Such an approach is possible, but ignores that the drought has reinvigorated debate over the water bond proposals that are scheduled to appear on the November ballot. The proposals, which could force the High Speed Rail project to be abandoned, range from around five billion to 11 billion dollars in funding size. In order to properly combat the drought, lawmakers will have to agree on a water bond that minimizes pork projects, the environmental impact of moving water south, and fiscal impact—and they’ll be doing it with your tax money.

3. Climate Change

If there were enough water left in this state to make one, California’s drought would be just the tip of the iceberg. It is no secret that the worst drought on record also comes at a time when an overwhelming majority of scientists agree that the Earth’s climate is warming, and likely due to human action. The drought is proof that climate change is no longer a distant theory, but one that is beginning to effect the wellbeing of millions. One thing climate scientists and skeptics alike can agree upon is that dry things burn – and lack of summer runoff from the Sierra Nevada Mountain range (currently at 12% of average snowpack) will cause a lot of dry wood to go up in flames come the summer time.

SEE ALSO: U.N. Blames Climate Change On Humanity

To make matters worse, the fire season has expanded by two months, and states like California already saw a record number of devastating fires last summer. Unfortunately, that will not remain an anomaly, and the state will have to prepare for an onslaught of deadly fires as a result, which will cause loss of life and property damage in the millions of dollars.

The most immediate combatant in the war on the drought is conservation by you and I, which is why it is so concerning that only seven percent of residents find the drought to be California’s top priority. Let’s start conserving water before the price forces us to: if folks watered their lawn less and turned the tap off sooner, the difference would be significant. In fact, if Californians stopped using water for outdoor landscaping entirely, water consumption would be cut by 60 percent.

Serious conservation efforts starts with caring – and people need real, tangible reasons to care. If food, money and the environment aren’t three of the most persuasive, our hopes at combatting the drought might as well be flushed down the toilet—but in just a few months, even that won’t be possible.


"State Of The Golden State" is a biweekly column on California state politics that runs every other Wednesday. Reach Columnist Nathaniel Haas here; follow him here.



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