The blame game in California's drought

As concerns over California’s drought intensify, a lot of finger pointing is going around. Some of it is justified, and some is not. We need to get past some of the hyperbole so we can concentrate on the real issues.

To get a sense of how much water is used for various purposes, it is important to use a common measuring stick. People are most familiar with a gallon as a unit of measure. But for most purposes when addressing water use on a statewide scale, the common unit of measure is an acre-foot - the amount of water used to cover an acre of land one foot deep. An acre-foot is about 325,000 gallons.

In very broad terms, total water use of "developed" water in California is about 40,000,000 acre-feet. About one fifth of the total, or 8,000,000 acre-feet, is used in the urban sector for homes, businesses, city parks etc. About 4/5 of the total is used in agriculture. Some people will point out that the environment uses another 40,000,000 acre-feet of water - more on that below.

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First let's look at few water uses that have been targeted in recent weeks but are not consequential - at least from a statewide perspective.

  • Nestle Corporation is withdrawing up to 80,000,000 gallons of water annually from aquifers near Sacramento so they can bottle and sell it. 80,000,000 gallons sounds like a lot, but it is only 246 acre-feet, or less than 1/1000 of 1% of statewide water use. There are other reasons to question the use of bottled water, and Nestlé is a giant corporation with a record of controversial business practices. But the amount of water they are withdrawing is minimal by state standards.
  • Fracking is controversial for many reasons. Consumption of fossil fuels contributes to global warming. In some areas, fracking has polluted groundwater and destroyed landscapes. But California's Department of Conservation estimates that fracking used only 214 acre-feet statewide last year. Again, a veritable drop in the bucket.
  • Marijuana cultivation requires water, no doubt. On March 30, Time Magazine's business section included the provocative headline "Pot Is Making California's Epic Drought Worse". The article itself was less incendiary and made it clear that the concern was about the effect of water extraction on fisheries along the Eel River and other streams in northern California where much marijuana has been grown for decades. There, the problem does seem significant, but it is largely irrelevant to statewide issues related to the drought. I'll hazard a guess that both proponents for and opponents to marijuana legalization will be using this "news" to argue their point of view.

We need to get beyond distractions such as Nestle, fracking, and marijuana to get into the real issues. For decades, California has been struggling with the conflict of how we should divide our limited water supply between cities, farms and the natural environment. We are now collectively realizing that we have been minimizing these conflicts by overdrafting our groundwater basins by millions of acre-feet - even in normal years. In dry years the overdraft is much worse. UC Irvine Professor Jay Famiglietti makes this point rather well on a recent episode of the Bill Maher show.

California's new legal framework for groundwater, designed to manage rather than "mine" our aquifers and to include incentives for recharge in wet years is a step in the right direction. But it does not mandate "sustainability" until 2040. Can we afford to wait so long?

With our groundwater disappearing, it seems difficult to imagine that agriculture in California will continue to use 32,000,000 acre-feet of water year after year - even if the drought ends soon. Critics note that it takes a gallon of water to grow a single almond, and that many of California's almonds are exported overseas. But it takes 100 gallons of water to produce a steak. Over time, consumers may come to realize that one's water "footprint" usually depends far more on whether you eat beef, chicken or soybeans (decreasing order in terms of water use) than how long you stay in the shower.

The idea of any government role in determining what a person should eat or what a farmer should grow is highly contentious at best. In theory, the price for water as a limited resource should drive the behavior of both farmers and consumers. But as long as water is pumped out of the ground for only the cost of the energy to do so, price signals will have limited effect.

Cities have more options than farmers for several reasons. Cities use less water. Cities can afford to pay more. And cities can recycle wastewater that is now dumped into the ocean after treatment. There may be rationing and increased bills ahead for California's cities, but the outlook is less serious than it is for California agriculture.

Many have opined that we stopped buildings large dams on California's rivers as our state has continued to grow in population. Victor Davis Hanson, Stanford Professor and Central Valley farmer, blames it on a "small is beautiful" ideology during Governor Brown's first administration from 1974-1982. Hanson is right when he notes that California agriculture does, to a large degree, feed the nation, and that Apple, Google and Facebook - while they may be highly profitable - deliver products that are less essential to our survival than food. Hanson has a right to his opinion that the Delta's fisheries do not warrant protection - but it is a minority opinion.

Hanson's view that we should not have stopped building large dams, however, does not pass Econ 101 for the most part. All Sierra rivers have at least one large dam already and building additional surface storage requires going to a more remote and/or expensive location and deriving less yield. New dams in the Sierra would provide very little water and dams on the wetter north coast rivers would require very expensive conveyance, making the 40,000,000 acre-feet of environmental water very costly to develop. (I am a card carrying environmentalist, so if you don't believe me ask an economist). The most cost effective way to develop new water storage is to recharge our depleted aquifers. In many areas, the geology and technology to do so are available, but the institutional willingness to cooperate over who owns the water is not yet present.

Our severe drought will continue to have consequences for the natural environment, especially in the Bay-Delta. Even as we hear that Delta smelt are teetering on the edge of extinction, California water officials may have no choice but to relax environmental standards in the Delta and install barriers to reroute water flows.

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Compared to these huge challenges, our goal of restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley seems to be a rather modest endeavor. We are not asking for any water supply to be redirected from one use to another - we are only asking that Yosemite National Park not be used as a storage tank. The one challenge that restoration of Hetch Hetchy does share with broader statewide water issues, however, is the need for communities and water agencies throughout California to work more cooperatively as we manage our limited supply.