This is Drought

The long view of water shortage in California

by Paige Parsons

Illustration by Sophia Meng

published February 2, 2018

In the Kitchen

Green vines grow up my backyard fence beyond my kitchen window, looking down over my neighbor’s fresh green lawn. My mom buys bottled water labeled “Arrowhead,” a lake an hour northeast from home, in the middle of the San Bernardino National Forest. She drinks it everywhere while cups sit in the pantry: on the couch, in the kitchen next to a cabinet of cups, on her nightstand. It comes in mega-cases from Costco Wholesale, the 36 bottles trumping your average case of 24.

Southern California has seemed dry ever since Euro-american settlement imposed the flora and water-consumption habits of more temperate climates onto its desert. Between 2012 and 2016, the state suffered the largest sustained decrease in water levels in over a millennium. Still, many Californians live in groves, water pumped in and shipped in cases to sustain the sprawl of construction, agriculture, and human life. In 2013 we hit the lowest annual record of precipitation in over a century. The state claims an average rainfall of around 23 inches. Twice the average amount of rainfall would be needed in one season for the landscape to recover from the deficit in rainfall over four years. October 2015 El Niño storms brought relief, but the state continued to struggle. By April of 2017, the governor had declared that the drought was officially over.

Back when national news headlines reported California’s “State of Emergency,” sometimes people here on the East Coast would ask me how the drought affects my life there. I couldn’t really answer, because where I’m from we don’t feel it or talk about it. The drought was barely more than the punchline of a few jokes at my high school, where we ate lunch outdoors beside manicured school greens. In Orange County, nobody is rushing to replace their grass with rock gardens. In fact, I think such landscaping is banned in the bylaws of the homeowner’s association in my community. In LA, people began painting their lawns with ecologically friendly spray paint, and a whole sub-industry has grown out of drought landscaping: cosmetics for the green patch next to your sloped driveway and shiny cars. You wouldn’t want your neighbors to know about the drought.

The water district that bills our home water consumption sends us a newsletter informing us of an upcoming “water awareness festival.” I’m interested even if it seems mundane, but my mother is disinterested because the bill reads that we are well within our allotted water usage for the month. By some fluke, our five-person household is registered as a four-person household with the district, and even then our consumption is not over the restricted, drought-sized allotment. Our lawn is an exuberant shade of green, paint-free. Are other people taking hour-long showers, watering acres of lawns?

In the River

In the summer, when the air is driest, I drive inland with my family to swim and ride around in boats in the Colorado River. My dog Charlie and I run off the hot sunbaked sand into the water. The two of us paddle to deeper waters and coast with the current, which takes us south, in the direction of home. Up beyond us, the concrete blocks of the dam hold back the water of the artificially created Lake Havasu. Massive pipes look like water slides, sloping into the river from the canyon's edge. Engineers sit in the towers above and make decisions every day about how much water to release. Some days, they release so much that when we paddle upstream, we stay in one place, like we're on a water treadmill. Other days, the water level recedes, and we can swim far upstream with ease.

Thirty percent of southern California's drinking water flows from the Colorado River.  By car, I take the Palm Desert road home, cutting through the Coachella Valley and Riverside, the gems of the Inland Empire. I drive 75 through vast open dirt and shrubbery, with long undulations in the road creating mirages in the distance. It looks like glistening water, but as I approach it, I see it's just a depression in the asphalt. I used to think mirages only came up in dehydrated imaginations, but now the sun creates these images as I sip bottled water in an air-conditioned car. I feel above the destitution of the desert. Comfortable with cruise control on, guided through the landscape like an automaton.

When water travels from the Colorado River to my house, it takes a more circuitous route, up farther north to a sanitation plant near Los Angeles. From there it heads down south, to flow out of my sink as potable water. Some of it keeps flowing down to San Diego, and the circuit stop about two hours south of me, where Mexico begins. A friend who lives in San Diego tells me about how the city is testing out domestic use of recycled water. This purification method is very expensive, but it is also drought-resistant and, unlike outsourced supply, faces less risk of collapse by natural disaster. Proponents say water recycling is returning our water use to "how nature works." Affluent communities are protesting it, calling it "toilet to sink" water. Nonetheless, the water district found a way to get the recycled water into people's faucets. Heavily discounted recycled water created guinea pigs out of low income communities. "These people are basically getting water for free!" a municipal politician remarked at a press conference.

This stigma of “dirtiness” attached to purified, recycled water is a challenge, but the prospect of wider usage of water recycling has great potential for increasing the abilities of southern California districts to decrease reliance on other parts of the state. The Orange County Water District is using treated wastewater for groundwater replenishment, landscape irrigation, industrial use, and power generation cooling. Localizing water supply would force the southern half of the state into greater self-reliance; costs are high for building up storm water captures, desalination, and water recycling infrastructure, but so are the costs of maintaining the current extended aqueduct network. 

In an archaeology textbook, I read that “technology helps us avoid experiencing the world as it is,” a statement found in the middle of the centuries-long story of human manipulation of landscapes. In California, I was born into a network of resources that allows me to have no idea how this place would work as it is. Or maybe this is as it is. Two centuries of settler colonialism and subsequent re-engineering of water systems has naturalized networks of displaced water flows into our ways of seeing the land so much that we cannot begin to see it without them. The threat of the system's collapse seems impossible. And personal history has taught me that the system is infallible, as everything has always lined up right for me to be here, for clean water to flow into my mouth and sink and shower. 

In the Valley

In the summer of 2014, my friends and I camped in Julian, California, a mountainous area just east of San Diego. We bathed our feet every night in a stream by our site. In a rare conversation about the drought, one friend listed a trail of statistics, our eyes all widening as he claimed that domestic use only accounts for 10% of California water usage (in reality urban and town usage totals around 10%, including both residential and commercial faucet flows). I felt both absolved and hopeless. “Do you know how much water it takes to grow an almond?” he asked incredulously.

Growing one almond requires an average of 1.1 gallons, but that summer inflated numbers circulated publications and conversations as the almond became the drought’s scapegoat. Journalists targeted the almond industry for essentially “exporting water” when they exported almonds, but the Almond Board of California defended their crop. It turns out that almonds take up 14% of irrigated agricultural land in the state and 9.5% of agricultural water supply, a favorably proportioned use of resources for one of the state’s most lucrative products. The outrage was a reminder that all food requires water to grow. California’s largest agricultural region, which stretches from Monterey to Santa Barbara and inland, faces the most severe level of drought. The state provides nearly half of U.S. fruits, nuts, and vegetables, including over 90% of all tomatoes, grapes, and strawberries. Almost a quarter of U.S. milk and cream also comes from California. 

In the summer of 2015, I am driving through the Central Valley on the way home from Yosemite. I take note of billboard after billboard, simple black, all-caps words on white backgrounds, proclaiming the injustice of the drought on the agricultural industry. “Food Grows Where Water Flows,” is a catchy one. Others tell us sad tales about water legislation fights and the decline of the industry, the urgency of better water conservation and allocation. The more expensive and impossible meeting the irrigation demand becomes, the more crops recenter in the south and the midwest, where water is cheap and widely available. One-third of the Central Valley’s jobs are farm-related, causing a direct correlation between employment and water levels.

In 2015, the governor had mandated a 25% decrease from 2013 levels of urban water usage, and districts around the state complied. In the summer of 2016, I am only home briefly, and I mostly stay put in Orange County. I am driving my car south on the Interstate 5 in December of 2016 and cursing because the rain is so heavy that I can hardly see what is in front of me. I tell my friend that I’m angry because this is not what I want when I come home. He laughs and says that I should be thanking the sky. In June, due to the rain, the state loosened conservation requirements, and many suppliers dramatically slid back into previous usage levels. The state went from exceeding Governor Brown’s goal reduction, saving 27% in August 2015, to saving just 17.7% in August 2016. These drastic shifts demonstrate that Californians are capable of lessening their water consumption, yet this decrease is seen as a temporary measure. It is a way out of a mess, not a necessary aspect of life in an arid region.

Heavy rains continued, and while we were happy to receive rain, the cycle of downpour has made it difficult for the land to recover from its dry state, particularly in the hardest-hit central part of the state. Then, 2017 brought another exceptionally dry spell. In the fall of 2017, a series of wildfires ripped through the state, destroying hundreds of homes in Santa Barbara, Ventura, Sonoma and Orange County. Affluence may provide distance from water scarcity itself, but many wealthy residential areas rest on the tops of picturesque, spacious  canyons covered in dry brush. Homes burned in Bel-Air; residents from Oprah Winfrey’s neighborhood in Santa Barbara were evacuated. When the heavy rains came back again, slopes that had lost most of their vegetation to fire were more vulnerable to mudslides. In some of the most destructive events, rain fails to become absorbed in the dry soils and instead immediately becomes runoff, flowing downhill and bringing the landscape with it. 

In the Future 

In the spring of 2014, my local library and water district co-sponsored a reading by novelist Paolo Bacigupi for his new science fiction novel, The Water Knife. The librarian tells me the event had a great turnout, attendees ranging from young adults to senior citizens, culminating with a lively discussion. I’m not so sure about Mission Viejo’s lively literary scene, and in the photos I only see heads of gray and white hair, but maybe people do mobilize when someone speaks to their fears. The story takes place in a near-future version of the American Southwest. Britney Spears is still alive, and the region is overrun by chaos and strife over dwindling water resources. Wars are fought with greedy waterpark resorts while existing communities collapse. Everyone wants their piece of the Colorado River, and East Coast journalists are there to capture it all, making a major profit off of public fascination with the cataclysmic conditions.

Bacigupi’s imagination may not be far off, given the precarious dependency southern California has on three major aqueducts that all intersect with the San Andreas fault at least once. The largest of the three, the California Aqueduct, runs over 400 miles from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta through a network of reservoirs, pipes, and pumping stations, into the Los Angeles Basin. The aqueduct forms an integral link between the northern part of the state, where 75% of precipitation falls, and the southern part, where 75% of water is consumed. Statistically, we are due for a large earthquake in the near future, and geologists at UCLA predict that an earthquake of a 7.8 magnitude could cause enough damage to the aqueduct system to disrupt water supply for up to 22 million Californians. Further, findings published in a 2014 issue of Nature propose that the groundwater depletion of the Central Valley may be altering the stresses of the San Andreas fault. The mountain ranges surrounding the San Joaquin Valley undergo gradual uplift based on variations in the water table, changing the seismic patterns of the region. As water continues to subside, the geologists warn, faults are more susceptible to failure. 

In the fall of 2017, Governor Brown attempted to convince the 29 water agencies reliant on the California Aqueduct to finance his new “WaterFix” project, which seeks to reengineer the plumbing that routes water southbound from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The infrastructural update would fare better in a seismic event. Two massive tunnels would divert water away from the delta, replacing the current system which pumps against the water’s flow, pulling endangered fish to their deaths. Because of the ecological harm caused by the existing pump, proponents of the new project are arguing that in replacing it, the environmental restrictions that limit southbound exports would ease. However, many Northern Californian residents have pushed back, arguing that the supposed decrease in harm to ecosystems is scientifically unsound, since diverting fresh water from the delta would create another set of problems for wildlife. Ongoing sea level rise puts the delta in flux as it is, making its reengineering an experiment with unknown variables. While environmental activists have made their opposition clear, it is funding that is ultimately blocking the project’s progress. In particular, districts which serve agricultural communities are against funding the project, arguing that growers can’t afford a more expensive water supply. The differential in costs has much higher stakes for irrigation than it does for residential use, of which 40% goes to landscaping.

Barring the further damage that a new tunnel system could have on wildlife, drought conditions have already caused harm to the Chinook salmon population south of the delta. Low water levels in the Klamath and Trinity Rivers pose risks to habitat health, threatening the survival of fish, which are central to the diets of the Hoopa Valley, Yurok, and Karuk tribes who live near the rivers. Karuk tribes have petitioned for more water to be released from dams during drought conditions, yet the state continues to prioritize the allocation of water to distant communities over the health of watersheds. In addition to having more household water outages than California on average, Native Californians have little voice in state water management. Many tribes are forced to rely on deteriorating infrastructure and a lack of storage facilities, and their distance from municipal systems means no strong backup plan. The Indian Health Service, a federal agency responding to Native American water crises, is understaffed and only has about 10% of the funding it needs for full response. For intervention by state water agencies, tribes need to give up some measures of their sovereignty. In many communities, this idea is as insurmountable as the low water table itself; for others, there is no choice but to compromise with the state juridical system.
As the climate heats up while precipitation stays low, we will be living in a constant state of adaptation despite reprieves and the proclamation of the end of drought. Water shortage is not a temporary problem, making the distinction of whether it is a “drought” or not arbitrary. The label allows for policy makers to enforce restricted use, yet fails to address the longevity of the problem. Earthquake or not, every community will be at risk. Drought-resilient water providers like recycling plants may become the only option no longer thrust in the face of low-income communities, but fought over by everyone.

PAIGE PARSONS B’18 wants a rock garden.