Digging into the Southern California Drought
8.9.17 – Southern California is in a serious and long-term drought. In this guest blog post from Saturate California, we’ll take a look at factors that have contributed to SoCal’s current water issues, and some ways to move forward.
The Southern California Drought – Past, Present and Future
You have probably noticed a few things already. The first is that, here at Food Forward, we LOVE oranges. You might not have known that oranges are actually 87% water. That’s one of the reasons that they’re so healthy and tasty, which is why we love them so much.
And speaking of water, the second thing you have probably noticed is that Southern California is in a drought (our recent rain notwithstanding). A long-term, serious drought. The impact of the drought is visible in the mountains, fields, lawns, and fruit trees all across Southern California.
To help us dig into the drought, its causes and history, and its future, we’re pleased to welcome our friends over at Saturate California to the Food Forward blog. In this piece, we’re distilling the juiciest drops from their 6 part series, Drought 101:
The SoCal Climate
First, it is important to note that in a Mediterranean climate, there are nearly as many dry years as there are wet. Until this past winter, the previous 4 rainy seasons had been extremely dry, and that’s an understatement. So when you hear Los Angeles transplants say things like, “It LITERALLY never rains in LA!”, it’s best you respond by asking them when they moved here, and if they remember before this past year getting drenched in 1997–1998, soaked in 2004–2005, flooded in 2010–2011. They most likely won’t.
While we can’t assume that wet years will be plentiful, we can expect more rain at some point. And we want to think constructively about the wet years…
Water Cycles in a Concrete Jungle
In the idyllic verdant water cycle, rain falls, some of it evaporates, some of it becomes surface runoff that flows into streams, lakes and oceans, and some of it seeps into underground aquifers as groundwater recharge.
Here’s the thing about fresh water seeping into the ground: IT’S REALLY IMPORTANT. If anyone asks you, you can confidently tell them. Groundwater is like a water reserve to be used when there’s no more rain falling on the surface. Plus, if the groundwater is sucked dry, then we’ve got a real big problem, because it takes decades to replenish. Bottom line is we need to get more water in the ground now to save for later!
Now in LA, when rain falls, almost all of it runs directly into rivers and streams, which flows straight to the nearby ocean bay. And thus, we get the characteristic Southland rainstorm: half an inch of water at 9am means a flood in the LA River by 10am and a small island of garbage settling in the Santa Monica Bay by noon. Meanwhile barely any fresh water has had time to seep into the ground. Not good…
Managing our Water
By the turn of the century, department heads like William Mulholland (remember Chinatown?) took a leaf from our friends in New York City — who were piping in water from the mountains — and initiated projects that would bring in water in from the Sierras to the east. We set up an extensive system of ducts and canals, and before you knew it, whoosh! Fresh water flowed freely throughout California to farm oranges, build golf courses, manufacture clothes and bottle for consumption.
Once water flowed from the mountain snows, we simultaneously created a multitude of municipal water agencies to deal with the new infrastructure of spreading it around: wells, treatment centers, pipes of every size from arteries to capillaries to a faucet in every home. We compartmentalized our highly interdependent water cycle…
The Water Business
While residential use only accounts for about 20% of the pie, that doesn’t mean we can ignore it. Across the board, our value system needs retooling. Americans pay less for water than almost any developed nation, and we pay less for it than any other utility — gas, electricity, etc. Single-use water comes with a big ecological cost, and the agencies who manage it need to consider that when doing business.
Think about our big state water agencies (there’s only a few: Central Valley Project, State Water Project, Metropolitan Water District of SoCal) as water wholesalers, and each of our municipalities as retailers. Water gets sold a lot like paper clips and panty-hose: cheap in bulk, and at a different price on every corner…
Currently, water rights here are simply permission slips from the California Water Resources Control Board to draw as much as you’d like from whatever surface water is accessible (or has been made accessible) to your land. In early 20th century California, these were not so much carefully regulated as they were handed out to whoever got there first. AKA “first in time, first in right.” AKA someone yelling “Dibs!” and dropping a hose in the river.
This system encounters problems in times of scarcity, not least of which is the fact that California has given out rights to more water than it actually has (five times as much, to be exact), and now faces a need to either massively curtail current rights holders, or completely reform the rights system from the ground up…
We’ve worked to create a basic, yet thorough understanding of the Southern California Drought. Why? We believe that a resilient water future ultimately depends on a shift in us, in the way we think and behave. We can no longer afford to be unconscious water users. Instead, a renewed sense of reverence should shape how we interact with our lifeblood, as citizens, consumers, and people of power…
You’re in California now baby — the land of hearty scrub, deep green succulents, and trees (don’t let anyone tell you trees are bad for the drought!). Might as well embrace it…