Have you ever imagined turning on the faucet and nothing coming out? In the first world, this is a rare scenario, with people accustomed to water flowing at their whim. If the water is turned off, it is at least preceded by notices warning residents to simply alter their showering schedule. Yet, as it turns out, California is in fact running out of water.
A three-year drought has dried up many of the state’s largest reservoirs, exacerbating wildfires and causing frenzy among farmers. 2014 is expected to be California’s driest year yet, perhaps within the last century. Now, the state’s Governor, Jerry Brown, is encouraging residential water conservation, such as avoiding unnecessary flushing and turning the faucet off between ablutions. Though some consider such suggestions to be a bit overdue, some cities are mandating various conservation efforts such as not allowing lawns to be watered during the day, and restaurants only giving water to patrons who specifically ask for it.
President Barack Obama is planning a trip to visit the state’s drought-stricken areas to collaborate with local officials for aid. Farmers are of major concern in regards to the drought, as California produces half of the nation’s fruits and vegetables, plus dairy and wine. Water restrictions mean fewer seedlings can be supported for growth and such circumstances can spike food prices, directly affecting American consumers. Surely, the millions coming in from Federal aid may soften the blow, but subsidies only go so far when some yields have been one tenth of expectations.
There are a number of components of California life affected by the droughts and subsequent water shortages. Scientists and politicians are discussing short and long-term solutions. One issue lightly touched upon is that of lawns, which consume a significant percentage of residential water. Dr Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute suggests allowing lawns to brown, and replacing them with drought tolerant native vegetation. This suggestion means addressing the cultural perception of “the perfect lawn,” considered thick green sod often ridden with pesticides and in need of constant water.
Energy bills are also expected to go up in the state as hydroelectric dams have less water running through the turbines, and thus electricity may have to come from more expensive natural gas. Portable desalination stations have been hauled in to ensure people have some type of potable water, yet such a process is extremely energy intensive and therefore costly.
Research has been conducted on solar desalination and continues in Australia as well as the Middle East; some believe it could be the “cure-all” to California’s water woes. As with any technology in the beginning stages, it is rather expensive, but the high cost of conventional desalination is largely due to fossil fuel input. With that component eliminated, costs could come down as research continues. The question is, are we simply going to take the salt out of seawater instead of addressing the underlying problem of wasteful water consumption from both residents and businesses?
Though some conveniently believe that droughts are simply a natural phenomenon, human activity definitely affects rainfall patterns. The historic Dust Bowl in the early 20th century was mainly due to grasslands being turned into large-scale Government subsidized wheat farms. Rainfall slowed, the Great Depression plagued the country, and many of the farms were abandoned, even with major government investment to keep the scheme afloat.
Perhaps instead of searching for a “cure-all” to California’s water crisis, our perception of fair use should be investigated, for if we do not address our wasteful habits, we will be ready to dry up the oceans just as we have dried up our freshwater reservoirs. Surely, it will take longer, but there are always unintended consequences to treating the symptoms rather than root causes of a problem. Sustainability has to do with allowing systems to maintain themselves through efficient and necessary use, not maintaining the status quo of frivolous gluttony. Though we may not want to imagine life without one of our few basic resources, just as the snowstorms in the east have brought out the barbaric side of citizens preparing for the worst, Californians are about to be rudely awakened to reality of water rations.
Sarah Sakeena Marshall, B.S. Environmental Policy