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California Sleepwalks into Water Crisis

When California’s Governor Jerry Brown ordered mandatory reductions in water use last week, it came as no surprise in a state that’s experienced an extended and unprecedented drought. Now in its fourth year, the drought has fueled groundwater pumping by farmers, lowering water tables, driving land subsidence, and damaging roads, bridges and other infrastructure. Snow-capped mountain ranges no longer have snow. Citizens in some smaller communities worry they’ll loss access to water altogether. And banks and corporations are beginning to ask if they’re now exposed to potential risks and losses.

Against this backdrop, the governor’s 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and last week’s water-use cuts appear to many water experts to be too little too late.

So what can California do to shore up its dwindling water supply?

A Complex Water System

As WRI noted last year, about two-thirds of California’s irrigated agriculture faces extremely high levels of water stress.

The state has developed a complex web of dams, aqueducts and pipelines to move water from relatively water-rich areas to relatively water-scarce agricultural and urban areas. Even in “average” years, this highly engineered solution is precarious. In drought years, the arrangement begins to crumble.

3 Steps for a More Water-Secure Future

In order to confront the current water crisis and potential future ones, California can take three immediate steps:

1) Integrate water supply and demand data and link them to regulatory actions.

California lacks a state-wide integrated assessment of water supply, mostly because groundwater availability remains such a large unknown. There is also relatively little integration of water supply and water-demand data. Without such data, California is “flying blind” on water management: Decision-makers lack information on baseline water resource conditions, so they cannot determine sustainable water usage or recommend effective courses of action. It is also crucial that such data be explicitly linked to regulations that permit the state to step in and order cuts in water usage when demand begins to outstrip supply.

2) Increase drought resilience.

Is the current drought due to climate change? Will such droughts become more prevalent in the future? We cannot fully answer these questions yet. What makes sense right now, however, is to make California more “drought-proof.” The Netherlands – which is vulnerable to flooding from rivers and from the sea – has put in place a number of “flood-proofing” measures that protect it against low-probability, high-impact flood events (floods that are expected to occur once every 1,250 years). It’s time for California to develop a package of drought-proofing measures that protect it against low-probability, but high-impact droughts.

The $7.5 billion bond measure passed by California voters last November to help the state cope with drought (by, for example, promoting water conservation and constructing more water-storage facilities) is a good start. What‘s really needed, though, is an effort that models what a 1-in-1,000-year drought would look like in California, and then implements a cohesive strategy – including contingency measures – that would allow the state and its citizens to successfully weather such a crisis.

3) Determine the role of agriculture in its future.

Through its agriculture, California helps feed itself and the rest of the world. Yet agriculture – which accounts for 80 percent of California’s total water demand – is also the crux of the problem. Part of the solution to this problem lies in cultivating less thirsty crops, and part of it lies in using more water-efficient technologies and practices. A recent study by the Pacific Institute found that a combination of agricultural technology—such as shifts from flood irrigation to sprinkler- and drip-irrigation systems—and management scenarios could together reduce agricultural water use in the state by 17 percent. Should these efforts come up short, however, Californians may decide to decrease the role of agriculture in the state’s economy (agriculture only comprises about 2 percent of California’s economy, so its value in purely economic terms is low). If California and other similarly water-stressed parts of the world all decided to decrease agricultural production, however, there would be huge repercussions for global food prices and food security.

The water problem in California has entered crisis stage, and the old order may be poised for a fall. What happens in California will be – as is often the case – closely watched around the world as a harbinger of things to come.


As a veteran hydro geologist since 1960, I may have some ideas which may help in meeting California's water crisis.

1: we should locate the domains or fields where water is mostly used. Item no 3 of the above article mentioned that some 80 % of the water is used for irrigation. I believe that a law should be issued to make farmers decrease the land area irrigated by 25%.In case a farmer is irrigating 10 hectares, he should not be allowed to irrigate more than 7.5 hectares. In this case, we will gain 25% of the total water volume used for irrigation, and instead of having 80%, it will be come 60%.

2: Avoiding flood irrigation is a priority. Farmers who remain using this method for irrigation, should not be allowed to irrigate more than 50% of the land to be irrigated. This will enhance all such framer s to use drip or sprinkler irrigation.

3: There are aquifer which has started to be depleted and the water table is dropping in a fast rate. All well owners using such aquifers should be asked not to pump more than 50% of the water they used to pump. This will help in keeping such aquifers last for a longer period.

4: I believe that during flood season, or winter season, there are river or streams whose water flow unused to the sea,. Immediate measures should be made to carry out hydro geological studies to all river basins to locate the most suitable spot where water will be injected underground to feed the aquifer which is being depleted. This is a fast measure that can be made and within few months, we will have a number of wells drilled close the rivers or streams where the water will be diverted to such well after during winter season after making sure that all solid particle will be removed and that the water will be treated or chlorinated in order that it will not pollute the ground water aquifer.

You will be surprised to know how big will the water volume that will be sinked in each well. In Lebanon, we have a spring called the Yammouneh Springs whose average winter flow is some 30 million cubic meter. This water volume sinks underground through one sinkhole to feed Al Assi or the Orontes River. Can you imagine that some 5 million cubic meters are being seeping underground through one hole, or some 165,000 cubic meters a day or some 2 cubic meters per second are sinking underground to replenish another ground water aquifer.

I believe that artificial recharge is the most expensive and short time needed to make use of large water volumes not used during winter to recharge ground water aquifers whose water will be used during summer season.

I believe if those two measures were applied, the water crisis will be less harmful .

Best Regards

Fathi Chatila
Hydro Geologist

I particularly like artificial recharge, which is being pursued at large scale in Orange County. We should not allow treated wastewater to be wasted by discharging it into the ocean.

Thank you, Madam, for sharing your expertise.

I was spellbound by one solution that is not what we would call a "takeaway"; that of pumping unused water from a river down to the aquifer. While we would like to see voluntary reductions; the painful reality is we have no real concept of "voluntary" anything...

When we complain about "... too much government..." intervention, I will blow the whistle and yell back: "Too little (or none) voluntary sacrifice leads public representatives to take the initiative!"

Your comment is well received; greetings from Southern California where the new "trendy" saying is now: "Brown is green!"

How do you want to offset that 25% of food state and nation wide. The irrigation that you are talking about feeds the country. And the world. Also, it isn't that easy, they have water rights that have been fought over for generations. Because the water comes from the north we have to pay in the central valley three times to get our water. We pay the people in the north who own the water by owning the headwaters of the river, we pay the central california areas it flows through and then we pay our municipal water districts, and in many places up north water has been 20$ per acre foot and 600$ an acre foot here.

In a nut shell.
Do you like strawberries?
stone fruit
or any number of other vegetables and fruits that we grow in the valley? Then we need water.

I like your great ideas. Too bad our state wasn't working for solutions a long time ago. I especially like the idea of forcing farmers to convert to drip irrigation systems.
As a homeowner in San Jose, I do not mind cutting my water use or letting my grass die if necessary. What aggravates me is continuous new building of high density apartments in the city. If we need those apartments during this drought, then the builder should have to pay some kind of "water use fee" on every single unit. We may need to do some building in the future but for now, there should be a moratorium on building until the water shortage improves. Also, Governor Brown should call a statewide moratorium on "fracking" which wastes millions of gallons of water (and should be banned anyway). "Fracking" is terrible for our environment and agriculture should not have to compete with large oil companies for water to irrigate crops.

Thank you for sharing your ideas. Our congressmen need to act on the pending crisis immediately instead of waiting to see if it will rain.

Eileen M Parker
CA Resident

The Hwy 99 corridor has a lot of food and beverage and other big industries that consume large volumes of natural gas.
In every 1 million Btu's of combusted natural gas is 5 gallons of distilled Water. This water is very useable.
In order to get at this water the heat energy has to be removed. This recovered heat energy can be used in the building or facility where it was combusted, or used for another purpose.
Last year California's commercial buildings and industry and electricity producing power plants consumed 1,908,000 cu.ft of natural gas. There is a LOT of water that can be recovered and utilized.
Increased natural gas energy efficiency = Reduced utility bills = Profit
Increased natural gas energy efficiency = Reduced CO2 emissions
The DOE states that for every 1 million Btu's of heat energy recovered from these combusted exhaust gases and this recovered heat energy is utilized, 117 lbs of CO2 will Not be put into the atmosphere.
California has to battle all 3 items of Climate Change to Win this one (1) Reduce Global Warming (2) Reduce CO2 Emissions (3) Conserve Water

Yes, we need to tackle water, energy, and climate challenges in an integrated fashion.

The pacific ocean is there for your solution. Water from that source can be cleaned and used as any of the previous sources. It can be cleaned with a new method that purifies water sources as fast as it can be pumped.

Also, proper use of microencapsulated humectants can provide rain sources via cloud-seeding.

I see desalination as a last resort. For one, it is expensive. Second, it uses a lot of energy and thus wastes resources and worsens the problem of climate change.

Governor Brown' water bond project should spend millions of dollars on the construction of desalination plants. A water pipeline from Western Washington needs to be built to bring some of their water down here and employ thousands of people.

Underground water has to be managed on a sustainable basis and not left as a free resource to be accessed by one and all without volume restrictions. This is a classic tragedy of the commons problem and that it exists still in California is evidence of the failure to manage this fragile water source for all Californians.

Agree 100%!

Innovations of the built environment play a role. Innovative sustainable and viable seawater desalination facilities and infrastructure can provide reliable source of supply while advance water purification and "sewer-mining" facilities and infrastructure help get more value and re-use from "wastewater".

I like treating and re-using wastewater better than desalination.

How about reducing animal agriculture? Very easy. Very humane.

Meat-oriented diets are much more water-intensive than vegetarian diets!

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