Time to Get Moving:
Questions and Answers
About the California Drought
AS WE ENTER OUR FOURTH YEAR OF DROUGHT in California (more, if
By Earle Hartling
you count the drought of 2006-09), a number of questions continue to be
raised. The first, I believe, should have been more than adequately answered by
now: “Are we really in a drought?” For almost everyone in the state, the answer is “yes,”
and it is really, REALLY bad. But now that we’ve finally acknowledged this fact that has
been slamming us in the face, a number of other questions have arisen.
QUESTION: Is the drought the product of anthropogenic carbon
emissions that have increased global warming and precipitated
climate change? Or is it simply a manifestation of the region’s
variable historic climate that naturally includes long-term periods
of drought that can last decades rather than years? Or maybe a
combination of the two?
ANSWER: When it comes to the immediate adverse effects on the
environment, agriculture, urban areas, etc., and our near-term re-sponse
to these effects, Does it really matter? Academically and for
long-term planning, it could be important to make the distinction,
but right here and right now, it makes very little difference when it
comes to responding to the looming catastrophe.
QUESTION: Who’s to blame for excessive water usage?
ANSWER: There’s no shortage of finger-pointing when it comes
to assigning blame. Water-guzzling almond crops, water-dependent
industry and power generation, non-native urban lawns and swim-ming
pools, those selfish Delta smelt—all candidates. The answer
is, “All of the above.”
Every one of us who uses water in the state has a vested interest
in the importance and validity of our own needs. People have to
eat, so we need the water to grow our crops. People need jobs, so
our business can’t cut back on its water consumption. Our property
values and quality of life will plummet if our landscaping dies. The
Delta is the heart and lungs of our environment so maintaining flow
is critical to maintaining its health. They’re all important, but I doubt
we’ll ever see a consensus on the ranking of importance among
these competing uses.
And there is another question that hasn’t been broached, “What
happens when the state’s water supply isn’t just shrinking any-more,
but gone completely?” As bad as it is right now, the State
Department of Water Resources still has sufficient water in storage
for the coming year. But it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that a
day of reckoning is not far off, when we reach a point where all of
the competing water interests cumulatively don’t have what they
need to continue at their past water consumption levels. Yet, out of
necessity, we’ll have to get along with less water when there just
isn’t any. Non-essential (and probably some essential) crops will
not be grown and prices for these will rise. Businesses may have
to curtail operations, and jobs will be lost. Residential lawns will
28 SOURCE summer 2015
pass from existence. And some Delta species may go extinct. What
will we do then?
QUESTION: So what needs to be done by whom and when?
ANSWER: Everything possible by everyone involved and right
now. Every single water application in the state (and the West)
has to be reexamined and modified to use the least amount of
water possible. Eliminate the irrigation of surplus crops, partic-ularly
non-food crops? Yes.
Replace spray with drip irrigation for both agriculture and ur-ban
Switch out lawns for low-water using native landscaping?
Water-saving retrofits in businesses and homes? Okay.
Waterless urinals? Yup. There shouldn’t be a single, high-traf-fic
building in the state (sports arenas, movie multiplexes, office
buildings, schools, etc.) that has a flushable urinal.
Water recycling? Of course. We spend a lot of money getting
water from one place to another, so it makes sense to use it more
than once, especially when we have to clean it up to such a high
degree just to throw it away. And most of what we use water for
doesn’t require drinking water quality.
Gray water capture? Possibly. And while it may not save a lot
of water overall, it may help homeowners and some businesses
save their landscaping and the money they invested in it.
Ocean desalination? This may very well be the end-point for
water supply in California, but with its high energy demand and
potential harmful impacts on the ocean environment, this may
need to be fine-tuned before it’s ready for prime time. Besides,
using the same treatment process on the billions of gallons of
wastewater discharged to the ocean on a daily basis up and
down the coast will take a lot less energy without the environ-mental
The time for half-measures and non-painful choices is slip-ping
away quickly. We’re not going to get through this by not
hosing down our driveways or not serving glasses of water at
restaurants. Even if it rained and snowed tomorrow, we should
be doing all the things outlined above anyway. And while we
may not get everything done in time to mitigate the effects of
this drought, history has shown us as recently as 1977 and 1991
that there will invariably be another one around the corner. S