Climate Action

Reforms Proposed Amid California’s Dangerous Drought

Empty lakes. Snowless ski resorts. Brown, fallow fields and dead vegetation. The scenes coming out of this California this winter have been striking as California goes through its fourth consecutive dry winter. And rather than hoping it will be better next year, many are wondering if this is a sign of climate change introducing a dangerous new norm. As the producer of nearly half of America’s food, including fruits (grapes), nuts and vegetables, California’s agricultural welfare is essential for the health of the nation, and possibly the whole world. However, while urban development has depleted nonrenewable aquifers below, the rivers which typically feed on mountain snowmelt from above have been starved as the lack of rain and snow has left mountain tops bare and turned what once were large lakes and rivers into thin streams snaking around newly formed sand dunes. The constant droughts have put California in a consistent state of crisis. As such, the state has had to finally address long-running issues related to urban and industrial consumption of water, in order to protect communities and water supplies. Last Thursday, the California government introduced legislation that would provide extra drought relief and emergency resources. The Governor’s office stated that the bill would provide key funding for infrastructure projects that could make the state “more resilient to extreme weather events.”  Unfortunately, the measures failed to effectively target and limit water use from some of the biggest offenders, including corporate agribusinesses and oil companies. Several organizations, including the national Food and Water Watch, criticized the lack of focus on mitigating tactics. California’s almond growers, in particular—many of whom are based in the currently parched San Joaquin Valley—were singled out as guzzlers, taking away water from more essential needs to grow what is becoming more of an export product. While the emergency package is important in the short-term to protect the welfare of the impoverished state and its communities, California’s bread basket (grape basket?) has long been tapped as a potential casualty of climate-change induced drought, and the state itself has engaged in some dubious water management practices in the past. Los Angeles’ consumption of water has involved siphoning water from inland reservoirs for some time now, at various times endangering the water ecosystems in places like Mono Lake in the eastern portion of the state. Films, including the classic 1975 thriller “Chinatown”, have focused on ‘water wars’ between cities and farmers in California. In addition, Pacific states’ water resources are often needed for water-scarce metro areas such as Phoenix and Las Vegas who no longer have a natural, local water source of their own (or never did). More creative solutions may have to be employed by governments and communities in order to ensure the state’s vitality going forward. In other parts of the world with coastal cities in an otherwise water-scarce area (the Middle East and Africa), desalination plants have been employed. However, it will be difficult under further drought conditions to keep the cost of water low, and available in large enough quantities to continue to supply agricultural fields and vital ecosystems. Aaron Dorman, Intern