Cattle grazing on the yellowing and dried-out hillsides of Wildcat Canyon Regional Park in Richmond, Calif., at sunset on Tuesday, July 27, 2021. The wildlife in the canyon and throughout the state are threatened with dwindling water reserves because of the severe drought conditions that have hit the San Francisco Bay Area this year. (Joyce Tsai/KQED)
California is in a second year of drought. Gov. Gavin Newsom has asked residents to voluntarily cut water use by 15% across the state to try to shore up our reserves in case of another dry winter. In the meantime, fires are raging around California as bone-dry forests go up like tinderboxes. How did we get here?
Californians are no strangers to droughts, but we tend to think of them as limited periods of abnormal dryness.
While "drought" refers to one season or one year's conditions, climate scientists use the term "megadrought" when arid conditions last for decades. A megadrought might be punctuated by a wet year here or there, but overall the conditions are dry.
"In the southwest, it's been overall drier since the late 1990s. So we're talking about a 20-year dry period here now,” said Richard Seager, a climate scientist at the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, “and using the term megadrought is justifiable because it stacks up in terms of the severity and the length with the ones that we've inferred from tree ring data back in the medieval period.”
The study looked at California, eight other states and Northern Mexico and corroborates what scientists have long feared and warned policymakers: Extreme warming will exacerbate any dry spell, making it longer, more severe and more widespread, and this will bake states in the Western U.S. and areas of Mexico with a punishingly long drought.
California was developed during an abnormally wet time
The 20th century saw California grow to become the most populous state in the nation, says Scott Stine, professor emeritus of geography and environmental studies at Cal State East Bay, and that coincided with an especially wet century.
"We built this phenomenal infrastructure, second to none in the world, here in California and in other parts of the West," he said, "all of it based on the diversion of water and all of it based on the assumption that the 20th century was normal. And the 20th century is not normal."
We're feeling the drought more because we use a lot of water
Climate scientists say a megadrought was in the cards for California and the West because of climate cycles, but our large population and dependence on agriculture make the dryness feel more painful. Forty million people living and working in the state, along with so many of the country’s fruits, vegetables and nuts being grown here, mean water levels going into this megadrought may be lower than they were in previous eras.
"The problem of the present day and the coming droughts is that we are set up to need far more water than we should expect at any time in the coming decades and centuries, particularly with the higher temperatures," Stine said. "We've created a monster that we have to continue to feed with water, and the water is just not going to be there."
California has enough water, but we have to conserve
"There's a lot of inefficiencies in our current system that can be fixed," says Newsha Ajami, director of urban water policy at Stanford University. "We definitely can do a lot more just to make sure we use every drop of water properly. And if we do all the right things, we can survive. But if we don't, we can actually have a serious breakdown in the system. So we have to be able to adapt to this new reality, which means that we have to rethink how we're using the water in different ways and reduce waste."
In the past, water was let out of the reservoir whether or not storms were in the forecast to make room for rainwater. That’s because dams both collect water in reservoirs and protect downstream communities from flooding. Increasingly, California's rainy season is more concentrated and its dry season prolonged, a result of climate change. The state now relies on big, soaking atmospheric rivers for much of its precipitation.
There are some big things agriculture can do to manage water better
Agriculture uses 40% of the state’s water, urban areas use 10% and 50% goes back into the environment to support natural ecosystems. Because the farming industry’s water footprint is so large, it's going to have to cut usage to survive a megadrought, according to Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis. That’s because some irrigated land is much more productive than other land.
"We can have a tremendous amount of reduction in irrigated acreage," he said. "If you take it out of the less productive crops on the least productive land, you're going to have much less of an economic impact than if you took it out of almonds."
He says farmers make 90% of their revenue from the crops grown on only 50% of the land. That means we can cut back on irrigating that other half — where we grow the lower-value crops that use a lot of water.
"I think we're probably going to see on the order of 20% of the irrigated agriculture go out of production in order to keep water for other, more productive economic purposes," Lund says.
That might mean growing fewer of some crops California has become known for: processed tomatoes, vegetables, melons, onions and garlic.
We have to manage our groundwater better
We often talk about farmers pumping groundwater, but many urban areas rely on groundwater as well. In the Bay Area, Santa Clara County — and its biggest city, San José — depend on groundwater for a portion of its drinking water. It’s important to protect our groundwater from pollution and to replenish the aquifers during wet years.
If users in a water district pump a lot of water during dry years to water their crops, they’ll have to refrain from growing some crops during wet years to allow the aquifers to refill with rainwater. This new way to manage groundwater will likely have farmers change what they grow over the next two decades.
How we use water in our homes matters, too
Despite a larger population, Californians statewide are using 16% less water than during the last drought, which ended in 2017. That’s because some of the water conservation habits that took off then have stuck around. Low-flow appliances like toilets, dishwashers, washing machines and showerheads are making a difference.
Still, there are more ways urban water users can conserve. One is to install gray water systems that reuse water from activities like laundry or showering for outdoor watering. Many cities and water agencies offer rebates to help cover the costs of such conversions.
And, since half of all urban water use goes to landscaping, homeowners can see big water savings by converting their yards to drought-tolerant landscaping that features native plants adapted to our region’s climate patterns. As a bonus, native plants provide habitat for helpful butterflies and insects.
Maybe it's time to rethink our lawns
“Lawns should be banned,” said Newsha Ajami of Stanford. “Every drop of water that's used to maintain that lawn can be a drop of water that we can leave in the reservoir if this drought ends up being a 10-year drought.”
Lush lawns require consistent, deep watering to stay nice. Water experts say it’s time to accept the climate we live in and landscape our yards accordingly. Basically: This isn’t the East Coast, people.
“We can have lawns at the parks, places that the public as a whole can benefit from,” says Ajami. “But if you have a personal lawn that you use once a week, during the weekend, then that's wrong. You shouldn't have it.”
Local water agencies are considering ways to boost supply
One idea that comes up often is desalination. With the ocean so close, it’s tempting to think that pumping water out and stripping it of salt would be an easy way to ensure we always have water. But desalination is controversial for several reasons.
First, it’s energy intensive and expensive: Desalination plants cost a lot to build and run. And by some estimates, the water they produce costs consumers twice as much. That’s led water agency leaders to think twice about investing in desalination plants that must be run all the time, even in wet years. Desalination might make more sense when a community’s water is brackish, but not as salty as ocean water. That’s the case in Antioch and Newark where desalination plants are part of the local mix.
The other reason many experts don’t think desalination should be our go-to fix is it can harm sea life. The briny byproduct of desalination is twice as salty as ocean water and often dumped back into the sea. Many marine species cannot survive in water with such high salinity. And, sucking in millions of gallons of ocean water means the small organisms that form the building blocks of the food chain are removed.
We are disconnected from the complicated system that brings us our water
No matter where you live in California, you are benefiting from a massive, complex infrastructure that moves water from water-rich areas of the state to dryer areas, both for agricultural purposes and to sustain urban centers and industry. Very few places in California naturally have enough water to sustain their activities and population.
If everyone knew where their water came from, and the tentativeness of the supply, it could help with conservation efforts.
The environment is suffering
Our State of Drought series focused on how humans can survive on more limited water supplies in a hotter, drier, more variable future. But humans use only half of the state’s water. The other half goes (theoretically) to the environment, to sustain wildlife and ecosystems crucial to California’s identity as a state. But our environment is suffering under climate change, ecosystem mismanagement and too many claims on limited water. Here are just some of the things our natural world grapples with.