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California’s Drought: A Trickling Time Bomb

A much drier Shasta Lake in Northern California. Source: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In early March senior NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory water scientist Jay Famiglietti reported that the state of California has approximately a single year’s supply of water in its reservoirs, with backup groundwater supply having rapidly decrease. His LA Times editorial urges an immediate call to action following its startling announcement. “California has about one year of water stored. Will you ration now?” Famiglietti posits. According to research conducted by NASA, California’s water storage has been on a pattern of steady decline since as early as 2002, and since 2011, California has dropped over 12 million acre-feet of total water yearly, according to Famiglietti. In order to combat this crisis, Famiglietti urges, we must act now.

The general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Jeffrey Kightlinger, offers a glimmer of hope, as he clarified in a Wired article. He stated that the warning is, if anything, a generalization of California’s actual water supply, as state and local agencies are determined to stretch out their water supplies rather than simply let the reserves run dry in one year. However, this should not downplay the gravity of NASA’s research, as even these state and local reserves would similarly run dry in only three years. Essentially, the California water supply, now over a decade in decline, is rapidly approaching its own demise, and each California resident will be affected.

California urbanites have felt they had the liberty to ignore the drought due to the lack of visible effects on their everyday lives, as cities absorb only about 20% of the state’s water. Agricultural areas, however, have been noticing the effects of the drought for years, as 80% of state water is used for agriculture. Because of the drought, a million acres of farmland will not be farmed in the year 2015. Thus, city dwellers and farmers face a similar danger: the potential decline of crops and produce, staples for a healthy diet. The decrease in farmable land in California could also potentially affect California’s economy, which depends in part on the export of fruits, vegetables, and nuts. To put it in perspective, California exported $21 billion worth of agriculture in 2013 alone.

The drought has continued to overwhelm the water supply, and the majority of scientists and California policymakers agree that the reserves will not be replenished soon, no matter the timeline. Famiglietti’s urgent call to action was duly noted by the state and public alike, and various strategies are being considered to combat this water supply crisis. Famiglietti outlines an action plan in his LA Times editorial; he calls for immediate mandatory rationing of all water sectors and claims that one-third of Californians are supportive of this plan. He also demands the acceleration of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014, which would create groundwater sustainability agencies. Finally, Famiglietti demands that California policymakers and experts lay the groundwork for a long-term water management plan as soon as possible. In what was undoubtedly a response to NASA’s research, the State Water Resources Control Board has tightened its emergency drought regulations and now requires cities to limit its residents’ watering days. After state officials voted on March 17, the board enacted restrictions for outdoor watering to be reduced to two days per week. According to chairwoman Felicia Marcus, the board is focusing on increasing other regulations, possibly including permanent emergency regulations, water district leak audits, and caps on  per capita use of water. On Thursday, March 19, Governor Jerry Brown announced a bipartisan $1 billion plan for both “immediate relief” and to prevent future water depletion problems. Millions of dollars are allocated for emergency relief as well as $660 million for flood prevention, also a byproduct of severe climate change.

The urgency of the drought has led California’s political leaders to rapidly pass legislation, but that alone will not solve the crisis. Famiglietti calls, most importantly, on the public to open its eyes and “take ownership of the issue.” Despite the fact that 94% of Californians are aware of the severity of the drought, far fewer are willing to act immediately to make the necessary changes, even as the drought worsens. Every Californian has the responsibility to recognize the dwindling water supply and conserve water accordingly. Water is a precious public resource that must be preserved. And that’s a reality that no Californian can afford to ignore.