Down and Drought in California

“As our “wet” season draws to a close, it is clear that the paltry rain and snowfall have done almost nothing to alleviate epic drought conditions. January was the driest in California since recordkeeping began in 1895. Groundwater and snowpack levels are at all-time lows. We’re not just up a creek without a paddle in California, we’re losing the creek too.” – Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

I’m speaking in generalities here, but the scientists at NASA are pretty smart. They put robots on Mars, they make pens that writes in zero gravity, and now they’re telling us that California has one year of water left (in our reservoirs). The headline is alarming, but not, for those of us living in California now, all that new. The drought – and its accompanying pictures – have been in and out of the front pages for the last several years, and attention-grabbing headlines are failing to turn us to action.

Hoping to spur us to change, Governor Jerry Brown announced this week that California is imposing its first mandatory restrictions to deal with the drought. Given that our rainy season (read: that weekend it was overcast and we didn’t dare venture outside) has given way to record heatwaves (the Los Angeles Marathon had cooling buses along the route in March) and a record-low snowpack in the mountains, we are now set up a long dry season.

While water restrictions and cutbacks will affect governments and private companies alike, not everyone is despairing. Lemor Abrams writes that whitewater rafting companies expect business to boom even in California’s drought because of a “new federal license where utility companies are allowed to open up the dams at the top,” creating more “raftable” rapids. If that doesn’t slake your entrepreneurial thirst, perhaps consider that this barber-turned-entrepreneur is cashing in on the California drought by painting dead grass green.

It’s not just individuals who are taking the drought into their own hands: small cities and local governments like Santa Monica and Long Beach are seeking water independence, and hoping to achieve it by 2020. Their efforts include cleaning up their groundwater supply and rewarding individual homes for collecting and conserving rainwater.

That communal effort can be scaled up as we design new buildings – and retrofit old ones – so that our cities can soak up and store water for future use. Adele Peters describes that and four other actionable plans in 5 Things California Can Do to Survive a Mega-Drought. The silver lining to a mega-drought (one lasting two decades or longer) is that we will still get regular rain – we just have to be smarter about capturing it. We can also take the water readily available to us as seawater and desalinate it, but that is a traditionally energy-intensive process.

Michael Webber writes about the interconnectedness of energy, water and food in A Puzzle for the Planet (paywall). As he says it, “about 80 percent of the water we consume is for agriculture – our food. Nearly 13 percent of energy production is used to fetch, clean, deliver, heat, chill and dispose of our water” and we “compound the problems with policy, oversight and funding decisions made by separate agencies.” Rather than treating the drought as a problem merely about a lack of water, and thinking of a solution that solves just that problem, we must treat it in the context of our energy and food needs. Given California’s status as one of the produce capitals of the world, that mindset is especially valuable.

Fortunately, there are companies working now to address multiple points in that triangle. A new project off the coast of Australia may soon make wave power a reality, with the tantalizing byproduct of desalinated water to boot. Carnegie Wave Energy has created a series of buoys that generate energy just under the surface of the ocean, which is especially interesting considering that unlike most sources of renewable energy, there aren’t marked lulls in production (like solar and wind power), and these buoys wouldn’t be affected by storms.

Though the practicality of renewable energy is debatable, there is proof in the pudding: Costa Rica is now running completely on renewable energy. Their oil-independence is due in part to heavy rainfalls, but they aren’t resting on their well-deserved laurels. With the understanding that a drought of any length would force them back to relying on more finite sources of energy, the Costa Rican government, along with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency and European Investment Bank, has committed nearly $1 billion to a geothermal project near the Rincón de la Vieja volcano. The country continues to be proactive in seeking out solutions to a future where energy is in question.

In California, we have been slow to react to the drought. After all, the only thing better than long showers are great lawns and fresh almonds, right? With Governor Brown’s announcement, and the move from the lackadaisical language of past years to a mandatory reduction of water use, we are taking steps in a new direction. Let us treat the drought not as a temporary problem to be lawn-painted over but as a substantial obstacle to our future that must be overcome by action and ingenuity.

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