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Seven Things That Might Surprise You About California’s Drought

Is California in for another megadrought?

Residents of California are understandably worried about the state’s drought, as a Care2 survey confirmed earlier this year. But as I read more about what’s going on in my state, I discovered several pieces of misinformation, or at least not-quite-accurate reports. Here’s a list of seven things that might surprise you.

1. Almonds Are Not to Blame

Here’s one that you’ve probably read quite a bit: almonds are drinking up all California’s water. It’s not true. Alfalfa, used to feed cattle, soaks up quite a bit more water than almonds, and it’s in high demand, since California leads the country in dairy production and is also a major beef producer. As Mother Jones explains: It takes nearly 700 gallons of water to grow the alfalfa necessary to produce one gallon of milk, and 425 gallons of water to produce 4 ounces of beef.

Even in terms of nuts, almonds don’t use the most water: it takes 4.9 gallons of water to grow one walnut, three-quarters of a gallon of water to grow one pistachio, and one gallon of water to grow one almond.

“The whole thing is completely ridiculous,” says Richard Howitt, an agricultural economist at the University of California at Davis. “The almonds don’t use any more water than most other food crops. And they’re a very water-efficient way to provide protein. Overall, almonds take about 10% of the state’s water but they produce a tremendous amount of value, jobs, income, and a healthy product. So why they became the bad guys I don’t know.”

2. California Is Sinking

In parts of California, notably the San Francisco Bay Delta, and the San Joaquin Central Valley, the land is actually sinking, the result of so much water being pumped from the ground.

As I wrote last month, California’s Central Valley Aquifer is extremely stressed, with some natural replenishment but not enough to make up for growing demand. That pumping is going to continue, and the problems will only get worse as Californians become increasingly reliant on groundwater.

According to an NBC news interview with Michelle Sneed, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Sacramento, one area of the San Joaquin Valley is sinking about a foot a year, due to accelerated ground water pumping.

3. Big Ag Doesn’t Use 80% of California’s Water

That 80% figure is only partially true. Take a look at this graphic from the Northern California Water Association, and you’ll see that just 41% of water goes to “irrigated agriculture.” That 80% figure includes “wild and scenic rivers,” which account for 31% of California’s water. That water is important not just for agriculture, but also for habitat and beauty: allowing species to survive, and also allowing us humans to enjoy the Great Outdoors.

Sadly even that isn’t enough for some species this year, as biologists have noted how several species are disappearing: the Delta smelt, lonfin smelt, Sacramento perch, and spring and winter runs of chinook salmon are just a few. So no, it’s not just about greedy capitalistic farmers stealing all the water.

4. Desalinization Isn’t a Solution

It might seem that with California having so much coastline, an obvious drought solution would be to transform some of that sea water into water fit for human use. Not so fast!

Desalinization involves technology that is extremely expensive, so most water officials don’t see it as a major player in improving water supplies. Still, in the city of Carlsbad, close to San Diego, what will be the nation’s largest desalinization plant is expected to begin operating next year. Producing 50 million gallons of water per day, it will be the largest such plant in the Western Hemisphere. That sounds like a lot, but actually is just 7 percent of the county’s total water needs, and at a cost of $1 billion, it seems unlikely that desalinization will provide a primary solution to the drought.

5. Water Rights Are No Longer Sacred

You may have read recently how those holders of water rights dating back over a hundred years are immune from anything Governor Brown can order. That used to be true, but not any more. Last month, California water regulators ordered farmers and others with some of the oldest water rights in the state to stop pulling water out of California’s rivers.

The action by the State Water Resources Control Board affects 114 different water-rights holders in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river watersheds, as well as the Delta region.

To reinforce that they were entirely serious, last week regulators proposed a record $1.5-million fine against the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District in Northern California after it allegedly diverted more than 670 million gallons of water illegally. The Board thereby made it clear that in these times of severe drought, water rights from 1919 or even earlier won’t protect agricultural water suppliers. As they like to say, “Beer is for drinking, and water is for fighting.” We’ll see where this one goes.

6. California Lawns Are Disappearing

On July 15, the California Water Commission approved strict limits on the amount of water that can be used on landscapes surrounding newly constructed buildings, such as houses, businesses and schools: grass may only be about 25% of a home’s combined front, back and side yards.

This was already foreshadowed by Governor Brown’s April 1 speech, in which he ordered a 25% cut in urban water use. Here’s what he had to say about lawns: “The idea of your nice little green grass getting lots of water every day — that’s going to be a thing of the past.”

Actually, it’s already been happening. Lawns have already been vanishing, thanks to several lawn removal rebate programs, as well as a statewide campaign urging residents to let their lawns fade to “gold.” The state’s largest lawn removal rebate program has already closed, after residents and businesses claimed all of the $340 million earmarked for turf replacement.

7. It’s Not the First Time

It’s true that the past four years are being labeled the driest period in the state’s recorded rainfall history. In 2013, California received less rain than in any year since it became a state in 1850.

But that’s not the worst of it.

Scientists who study long-term climate patterns say the state has been thirsty for much longer stretches before it became a state in the US. They’ve been busy documenting several droughts over the past 1,000 years in California that lasted 10 or 20 years in a row. By studying tree rings, sediment and other natural evidence, researchers have discovered a 240-year-long drought that started in 850 and, 50 years after the conclusion of that one, another that stretched at least 180 years.

Is California in for another megadrought? Optimists have begun talking about the mega El Nino, which could change everything. However, while this weather system looks fairly certain, we don’t know exactly where it is headed. It could bypass California altogether.

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