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Trapped in a Devastating Drought, California Needs to Take on Some Surprising Sacred Cows

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In 1973 and again in 1979, Americans were slammed with natural-resource shocks. Back then, the resource was oil, and the shocks were politically induced shortages, the results of upheaval in Middle East petro-nations. The scenes that resulted, captured in black-and-white photos, now define a bygone era: Americans sitting in their cars in gas lines that stretched for blocks. Many people actually changed the way they lived, trading in those Detroit-made land yachts for smaller, foreign-built econo-boxes.

Today in California, a different kind of resource shock is unfolding, and it too may end up, a generation hence, defining an era. This time the resource is water, not oil. Today’s California drought is starting to force similarly life-changing choices, this time in the nation’s most populous state, long a bellwether and, according to some counts, the world’s eighth largest economy. The land of milk and honey has begun in recent weeks to get serious about its water crisis: Farmers are ripping out crops, religious believers are praying for rain, and local governments are ordering restaurants to stop serving glasses of water except to diners who specifically request them. This comes at a time when America’s domestic supply of the natural resource it has cared most about—fossil fuel—is more plentiful than ever.

What remains to be seen is whether California’s water shortage will produce lasting change: whether it will induce Californians to get much more efficient in the way they consume a commodity that, every bit as much as oil, powers the state’s economy. California has wrestled with water pressure for decades. Everyone in the state—including homeowners, farmers, and environmentalists—has failed to make the tough choices that now stare them in the face. 

The scary statistics of California’s drought read like a latter-day version of the 1930s Dust Bowl crisis. Last year was the state’s driest since the start of record-keeping in 1895, and this year is likely to be even drier. The state’s snowpack, the source of roughly one-third of the water used by California cities and farms, is hovering at only about 20 percent of its normal water content. The amount of water in certain crucial reservoirs is lower now than it was in 1977, which was one of the two prior driest years on record. About a month ago, the state announced that 17 rural communities were within 100 days of running out of drinking water, given current patterns of water supply and demand. California Governor Jerry Brown, who’s running for reelection, warned in February that the state is facing a “mega-drought.” Some water experts predict California’s dry spell will last for decades; others say it’s too early to tell.

How did California get here? This winter’s infamous “polar vortex,” which has blocked storm fronts from reaching California, hasn’t helped. But the state was facing dry conditions long before this winter. Whether climate change is at play is a question on which scientists disagree: Some say yes, citing in particular the thinning snowpack, and some say no, citing climate models that predict global warming will make California wetter, not drier. Regardless, the current drought merely tipped into crisis a state whose water woes have been worsening for decades. California would be better prepared to withstand its current lack of rain had various constituencies conceded to tougher water-saving measures over the years. Which constituency is most culpable is subjective. Your answer depends largely on your politics.

Farmers have contributed to the shortage because many of them continue to irrigate their land with water-wasting open trenches. Homeowners have contributed to the shortage because many of their houses lack water meters—rudimentary devices necessary to track water consumption as a precondition for reducing it. Environmentalists have contributed to the shortage because they have opposed the construction of new water-storing reservoirs and have persuaded state regulators to hold back more water to protect fish such as the Delta smelt. You may find one or all of these positions entirely reasonable. But all of them have added to California’s present predicament.

Now, to confront the drought, the government is targeting a litany of sacred cows. In late January, the state announced a first in the 54-year history of the State Water Project, a massive network of pipelines and ditches that epitomizes the sort of 20th-century engineering that transformed much of California from desert into subdivisions. The state said that this year it plans to deliver no water at all from the project to the 29 public water agencies that depend on it to supply more than 25 million California residents and some 750,000 acres of irrigated farmland. In addition, the state said it’s considering slashing by half the amount of water from the project that it supplies to agricultural water districts in the Sacramento Valley. “Simply put, there’s not enough water in the system right now for customers to expect any water this season from the project,” said Mark Cowin, director of the California Department of Water Resources. In a similar first, the federal government announced in February that it plans to supply no water this year to agricultural users from the Central Valley Project, a separate massive water-distribution network that the federal government runs. 

As it turns down the tap, California also is exhorting its residents to change their wet ways. In January, Gov. Brown called on Californians to curb their water use by 20 percent. Last weekend, he signed emergency drought legislation. Among other things, it promotes the use of “recycled,” or used, water—something that makes many people cringe. It also boosts fines for those caught stealing water—an attempt to tame the Wild West in a parched age.

Whether Californians will follow the new rules—and, even if they do, whether the new rules will prove sufficient to meaningfully curb California’s water use—won’t be clear for awhile. In the meantime, Californians already have begun to adapt. Farmers in California, which supplies half the nation’s fruits, nuts and vegetables, are racing to rip out many of their crops—particularly the very thirsty ones, such as almond trees—in what amounts to a high-stakes game of triage intended to ensure that what they’re still growing survives. Some estimate that half a million acres of farmland will go fallow in California this year, and the reduction in farming already is raising food prices in much of the nation. Marin Sun Farms, a company that raises grass-fed beef on its ranch north of San Francisco, has announced it will feed grain to some of its cattle, because its drought-stricken ranch isn’t producing enough grass. The company says it will continue when possible to sell beef from cattle fed entirely on grass, and that, to ensure customers know what they’re buying, it will clearly mark beef from cattle it has fed grain. 

Last week, The Association of California Water Agencies released a list of water-saving measures that local governments have rolled out in response to the drought. The 10-page list reads like a repudiation of much of the carefree lifestyle that, in the public mind, has come to define California. The crackdown differs by jurisdiction. A sampling: Driveways can’t be hosed down. Cars can be washed only with buckets. Showers should be shortened. Hotels should wash linens daily only when customers specifically ask for that service. New landscaping can use only drought-tolerant plants.

This may be just the beginning. State officials say that, even if it rained on California every other day through May, the state would remain in a drought, because the past two years have been so dry. As for Gov. Brown’s call for Californians to reduce their water use by 20 percent, it may amount to whistling in the wind. Five years ago, California passed a law requiring a less-sweeping version of that goal: a 20 percent cut in per-capita urban water use by 2020. Studies suggest that California isn’t on track to meet the goal.