Water Pressures


It was a cloudy day in Northern California when Tim Stroshane, a consultant at the Bay Area’s Environmental Water Caucus, was showing me around one of the reservoirs outside of San Francisco. It was winter, supposedly a wetter time in Northern California, but from our vantage point the reservoir looked like a small pond. “We used to use the water in this reservoir to stop wildfires,” he told me.

“Well, what would you use now?” I asked. He could only shrug.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, California is more than a year’s worth of water short in its reservoirs. As of July 2014, the whole state was declared to be suffering some level of drought, while 58 percent of the state reached the driest levels on the U.S. Drought Monitor’s scale. As the drought rounds out its tenth year, scientists have started to question whether California is entering a period of “megadrought,” which could persist for decades and spell catastrophe for the state’s residents.

While the problem of water scarcity is an environmental one, it affects the structure of daily life to such an extent that it must be addressed through policy. National policies for environmental action can be effective for overarching environmental issues. But, the issues of water scarcity are very regional and therefore warrant a state specific response. Until now, California’s water scarcity problem has been most broadly addressed through Governor Jerry Brown’s executive order in April 2014. While the text declares California to be in a “state of emergency,” the content of the order inadequately responds to the emergency it pronounces. Besides the prevailing rhetoric of “should” and “encouraging,” most of the measures focus on the decisions of consumers in water consumption, such as turning off decorative water fixtures and limiting outdoor watering of lawns. These measures miss not only the bigger picture of California’s water scarcity, but also the grander opportunity for policy and technological creativity in the face of constraints.

The optimal way to tackle the issue of water scarcity in California is not simply by pressuring consumers, but rather by enacting water restrictions on producers, particularly those in large-scale agriculture and energy production. These solutions alone will not solve the water scarcity crisis, and they should be done in conjunction with, rather than in place of, residential restrictions on landscape water use. In fact, imposing a stricter payment system for residents on water use could ultimately lead to problems for lower socioeconomic classes, leaving the consumption habits of the wealthiest relatively untouched. Imposing constraints on these producers may hurt the economy in the short term, but it will also help to develop a template for responding to the urgent water scarcity issue. The state legislature passed restriction on groundwater pumping in July 2014 to encourage the use of recycled water and storm-water capture as a way of heightening efficiency in water usage. While groundwater is an important part of California’s water system and regulating groundwater is essential to any water scarcity rehabilitation strategy, the new laws give agencies five to seven years to develop plans and until 2040 to implement them. Rather than these anemic measures that catapult real reform into the distant futures, solutions should be provided today. Any feasible solution should be two-pronged: first, imposing regulations, and then offering more water-friendly alternatives to buoy the California economy for long-term adjustment to the changing environment. Consumer habits aside, the sectors of the economy that face the greatest need for long-term adjustment when confronted with the constraints of water scarcity are those of agriculture and energy.

The state’s policy would be strengthened if water usage policies of large-scale agricultural companies were more adequately and specifically addressed. Agriculture uses 77 percent of California’s freshwater supply, and is therefore the first sector that should be tackled through policy. There has been some discussion of reforming agricultural practice in existing policy, whereby the Department of Food and Agriculture will provide financial incentives for farms to invest in more water and energy friendly irrigation treatment and distribution systems. While reforming irrigation practices is an important start, it is not sufficient when the crops themselves require more water than should be allocated in a time of crisis. Despite market demand, water-intensive crops should not be grown in water scarce regions. For example, almonds make up 10 percent of the state’s agriculture product, and each individual almond requires 1.1 gallons of water to produce. Citrus, alfalfa, and the iconic avocados are similarly water intensive and occupy a large share of California’s agricultural product. Meat and dairy production is significantly more water intensive than vegetable production, with many hidden points of water consumption embedded in the amount of vegetables animals require to stay alive. Moreover, California is the fourth largest producer of beef in the United States, each pound of which requires 2,500 gallons of water to produce. California may have a wealth of land, but other states that are less popular for cattle production have better conditions – Wyoming, for example, has an abundance of cheap land, an ample water supply, and is itching for the kind of economic boom a burgeoning beef industry could supply. Happy cows may come from California, but at what cost?

California’s state government has the ability and obligation to curtail water-intensive farming. In the current mandates, there are no provisions for alternating crops or putting restrictions on meat and dairy production. Enacting such measures would be complicated by the fact that California provides most of the produce for the rest of the United States, but properly adapting to water scarcity must become the new reality for California. Crops like spinach, sorghum and various beans are more appropriate for a water scarce environment. Even vineyards and exotic cactus-borne fruits, like dragon fruit, are less water intensive than most of California’s current cash crops and more appropriate in the dry Southern areas of California. While people on the East coast may miss having ready access to avocados during the year, everyone bears some of the burden for shifting climactic conditions if they are to be effectively addressed.

Though rallying support for such a measure could be difficult, as farmers likely will not want to change their short-term profitable habits, the implementation would be less difficult with government support, as existing farms can be converted to a different cycle of crops in the next growing season. Education would be key, especially if farmers have grown used to the cycles of a particular crop for the entirety of their careers, but such education is important to the new climate. The adjustment period may provide a shock to some farmers, but this is another area where the government could be subsidizing those who are making the transition to water sensitive crops. Demand for the crops would be a matter of strategy – it was clever campaigning that made relatively unknown foreign fruits like acai and pomegranates “super fruits” and made household staple. The markets may suffer at the outset, but they will hurt even more if water-scarce conditions destroy entire crops without producers being prepared.

In comparison to agriculture, energy and industry do not currently take up a large piece of California’s energy pie – only about 1 percent in comparison to agriculture’s 77 percent. However, California’s energy future is moving towards more water-intensive prospects, and the relationship between water and energy cannot be ignored. In general, water and energy are extricable themes – water requires a lot of energy for things like domestic heating, while energy production is highly water intensive for processes of extraction, cleaning, and steam generation. Energy intensivity is precisely the problem with desalination as a solution to the drought, as the process requires an immense amount of energy to conduct. Furthermore, California is currently experiencing a hydraulic fracturing boom, with around 53 percent and growing of energy production coming from natural gas. While the growth promises to bolster the economy, “fracking” is a water intensive energy production process. Fracking certainly consumes less water than do the steps for extracting and cleaning coal, but the process also uses water to which is pumped underground at high pressure to fracture rock and release trapped oil and gas. Much of that water flows back out, carrying with it the toxic chemicals used in the fracking process, as well as toxic materials flushed from the fractured rock. Each “frack” can use between two and five million gallons of water.

While some hydraulic fracking companies claim to treat and clean the water after it has been mixed with chemicals, the refinement procedure involves shipping tankers filled with untreated water over long distances to specialized plants after allowing the untreated water to sit in artificial “ponds” for extended periods of time. Much of this water is not cleaned at all, and is instead contained in steel tanks until it can be stored long-term by deep injection in oil and gas waste wells. Furthermore, the subterranean fracturing process can contaminate groundwater sources, which provide 30-46 percent of California’s water supply. This is not the kind of risk the state should be taking in times of extreme drought. Currently, fracking processes are exempt from the Clean Water Act in what is known as the “Halliburton loophole,” which means that many of the regulations governments can put on other industries, fracking is able to squeeze past. A stricter hand by the California state government could set a new precedent not only for the way fracking is treated in the water-scarce California, but also in the rest of the United States. California should work towards these innovations now rather than later.

Other states have already attempted regulations on fracking industries with some success, but more in terms of public awareness of the chemical processes than the water use itself. Wyoming became the first state to require full disclosure of fracking chemicals, which was set forth in a rule approved by the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. At least two other states have followed Wyoming’s lead. California has a law, AB 591, pending to a similar effect. Some states have pending laws that would prevent fracking near public water supplies, while others have enforced temporary moratoria on fracking. Currently, the Division of Oil and Gas of the California Department of Conservation does not monitor, track or regulate hydraulic fracturing. The situation now is not merely environmental and health related, but also economic, for if fracking compromises water supply even further, California is in for a whole host of new issues in its water scarcity struggle.

Conversely, wind and solar production use much less water than fracking and fossil fuel production. California has a long legacy of supporting renewable technology – in 2009, 11.6 percent of all electricity came from renewable resources such as wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and small hydroelectric facilities. However, large hydroelectric plants generated another 9.2 percent of the state’s electricity, which will become increasingly problematic through the drought, as the state looks for solutions to supplement hydroelectric production. Putting government restrictions on fracking as an alternative may help other renewable energy industries to grow. There are some barriers to implementing these policies. The free-market mentality says that restrictions will prevent disincentivize producers, and are therefore harmful. However, not only would putting water restrictions on energy production help cut back state water use on a large scale, but it would also promote innovation. Over 20 years ago, the Porter hypothesis predicted that government regulation could promote innovation. It is time to put the idea to the test.

Agriculture and energy may not seem inherently similar, but they are both large-scale water intensive processes that the government has some ability to control. Together, the processes use over 1.5 trillion gallons of California’s water every year. Though free-market capitalists would balk at the idea of regulating industries in this way, arguing that the allocation of water will happen optimally without the government hand, people’s market decisions have a larger impact than they could possibly predict when buying avocadoes on the other side of the continent. On the macro-scale of a policy perspective, it should be easier to monitor the behavior of large corporations than individual actors. The grander scope of the drought is ever pressing, as the El Niño storm that should have brought a well-needed punch of rain to the state fizzled out in the Pacific this October, and the annual snow cycle is unlikely to mitigate matters either. Even California’s skiing industry has suffered from the serious reduction to the snowpack. As the odds stack up against California, there needs to be long term adaptation and we should take advantage of this opportunity to focus our resources in solving the problem.

Though the prognosis of “megadrought” may seem melodramatic, California’s water scarcity reality should warrant a touch more commotion and attention than public officials have prescribed. While the desiccated reservoirs only required shorter showers during my time in San Francisco, the implications of water scarcity are much more complicated for the state’s residents and should not be ignored by its leaders. As Tim Stroshane emphasized during our time together, if water redistribution does not happen soon, California may not be able to recover from the impacts of a natural disaster of such magnitude and duration. Merely shrugging off the issue is not sufficient in a time of crisis when the legislature has the opportunity to effect innovative adaptability and increased resilience to the exigencies of the contemporary world.