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Benjamin Yang

Rhetoric and Civic Life II – Section 8

A Drought-Parched State: How California’s Government

Could Effectively Manage Extreme Droughts

April 16, 2017


Abstract

This issue brief examines the adverse impacts of California’s recurrent, severe droughts
on human well-being, forests and ecosystems, and agriculture. California has experienced
record-high temperatures and record-low precipitation in recent years, and with human-caused
climate change, future droughts may last longer and become more severe. There is, however,
much controversy over climate projections and whether or not climate change should be
considered a factor in California’s droughts. As much of California’s population could
experience intensified and more frequent droughts in the future, this brief furthermore explores
what I believe to be the most feasible solutions—namely improving irrigation systems, growing
less water-intensive crops, and recycling and reusing water—which will help the state manage
droughts more effectively and prepare for subsequent dry spells. The state government should
take charge and create a centralized committee, to which all groups adhere, to ensure better
organization, communication, and insight.
Introduction

From 2011 to 2015, California experienced the driest four-year period on record1,
exacerbated by a streak of abnormally high temperatures. As the most populated state in
America, and one of the largest economies worldwide—featuring influential technology
companies, entertainment industries, and millions of acres of farmland—California certainly felt
extensive impacts from the recent drought. In addition to impacting millions of people in
California, the drought threatened other forms of life and rural areas. According to the U.S.
Department of Agriculture, drought-induced wildfires burned down 62 million trees in 2016,
over twice as much from the previous year, and a total over 102 million trees since 20102.
Similarly, the intense dry spell harmed many species of plants and animals in sensitive
ecosystems and posed extreme challenges for growing farmland crops.
Compared to other natural disasters, such as hurricanes or tornadoes, droughts are
sometimes overlooked because they occur on a much longer time scale, but that doesn’t mean
that there is less overall damage. From 2000 to 2015, droughts in the U.S. cost $8.9 billion, while
severe storms, winter storms, and flooding combined cost $7.8 billion.3 Unfortunately, droughts
in California are quite common, especially in the southern half of the state, climatologically
speaking. Located in the hottest and driest region in the United States, California is home to
some of the harshest deserts in the world, including the Mojave Desert which regularly sees
summer afternoons approach or exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit and years with only a few inches
of total precipitation. Although the majority of California’s geography does not have such desert-
like climates, most regions have experienced well above-average temperatures and well below-
average precipitation in the last several years. The requirements for a drought vary from region
to region, since the term can be generally defined as a prolonged period of below-normal
precipitation for a given climate region. While there is insufficient evidence to prove that the
most recent drought was a result of human-caused climate change, climate models are suggesting
the possibility of more frequent droughts, which would be exacerbated by increasing global
temperatures.
There is debate and uncertainty among scientists over the exact climate projections and
numbers; nevertheless, California’s state government should work with both federal and local
governments, as well as organizations and residents to fruitfully combat this issue and prepare
for multi-decade droughts, the worst-case scenario. Additionally, people are debating over a
variety of solutions, but with limited funds, Governor Jerry Brown and his administration should
approach this issue wisely and carefully.
This issue brief examines the adverse impacts of California’s recurrent, severe droughts
on human well-being, forests and ecosystems, and agriculture, and explores the most feasible
solutions—improving irrigation systems, growing less water-intensive crops, and recycling and
reusing water.
Climate Change and Climate Impacts on the Environment and Life in California

To comprehend the magnitude of more extensive droughts, dubbed “megadroughts,” that


some scientists predict may strike California in the future, researchers have analyzed tree rings,
sediments, and other natural evidence for historical megadroughts, such as a 240-year-long
drought in California that began in 850 C.E.4 Natural variations in the Earth’s climate lead to
prolonged warm periods, during which some of these historical megadroughts occurred, but
today we have another factor to consider—human greenhouse gas emissions. While the link
between droughts and human activity still remains controversial, the positive correlation between
greenhouse gas concentrations and average global temperatures is indisputable. Carbon dioxide
levels have increased by 38 percent and methane levels by 148 percent from 1750 to 2009, and
global average surface temperatures have risen by about 1.1 to 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit between
1906 and 2005.5

Figure 1 - Increase in Global Average Annual Temperatures and CO2 Concentration


Different scenarios of global average temperature increase in coming decades depend on
the efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but since climate change is essentially
irreversible, human activity should not be discounted from the causes of California’s future
droughts. With aridity becoming more commonplace, California’s water infrastructure needs to
readily adapt to the changing climate. For example, the last major drought in California began in
2011, but if we look at long-term, large-scale trends, the West has actually been in a 20-year
drought beginning in 2000, due to “extreme high-pressure ridges that block storms,” as NASA
researcher Bill Patzert states.6

Figure 2 - Statewide Annual Precipitation and Temperature Deviations from


Average (stronger correlation between the two in the last two decades)

At least for the near future, megadroughts may not last for centuries like the natural,
historical droughts, yet prolonged droughts could result in decreased snowpack in the mountains,
more wildfires, shallower lakes, a retreat of forest lands, and an expansion of sagebrush,
grasslands, and deserts.7 Furthermore, up to eighteen species of California’s native fish, are at
risk of extinction as a result of high water temperatures and low river levels, but wildlife refuges
for migratory birds are also dependent on river water, leading to the tough tradeoff between
keeping water in reservoirs to support the salmon or releasing the water to support wildlife
refuges.8 Overall, more than 3,000 Californian plant species are losing their favorable geographic
range; therefore, protection of some of the most admired and beautiful indigenous species is
necessary. 9
Considering that California produces half of the nation’s high-value specialty crops, from
fruits to vegetables, focus on crop production is another priority.10 About 80% of the state’s
human water use goes towards irrigation, but future droughts will increase this need for irrigation
water.11 However, with a limited amount of water, freshwater may be diverted to cities rather
than used in irrigation for crops. Consequently, farmers would face the difficult decision of
choosing between keeping their crops alive and spending money on deeper wells, or not
spending money on more water and allowing their crops to die. Either way, farmers would be
greatly inconvenienced and probably not profit, leading to rising food costs.

Compared to other severe weather events, droughts do not directly cause many fatalities,
but they impact a very large number of people for a long period of time. For example, during the
worst time of the recent drought from August to November 2014, the U.S. Drought Monitor
estimated that over 27 million people or around 73% of California’s population experienced an
“exceptional drought,” which is the most severe rating.12 A greater water demand in cities means

Figure 3 - U.S. Drought Monitor Map for February 2, 2016

reduced water availability, including clean drinking water. Most urban and suburban areas would
be fairly prepared for droughts, but impoverished communities and individuals would suffer the
most, since some depend on wells for water and cannot afford bottled water, which would likely
be expensive, as a result of water scarcity. More stringent restrictions on water use would likely
be placed, resulting in shut down golf courses, yellow lawns, and other minor inconveniences.
Assessing Current Management Policies

California’s current policies have proved to be largely inadequate due to California’s


growing urbanization, changing climate, lack of financial and technical support, and outdated
water management systems.13 As competition between agricultural and urban water users has
escalated, the state has not successfully pacified both groups with inexpensive, alternative water
source options. Moreover, because of financial constraints, California has failed to expand its
traditional water infrastructure, which was designed in the first half of the 20th century when its
population and average temperatures were lower. Disagreements over how to regulate
groundwater use, how to allocate costs of new infrastructure, and other issues have kept the
current policy mostly stagnant, and the state’s decentralized water management system has lead
self-interested stakeholders to drive the water policy today.14

In 2014, one of the driest years in recorded history for most of the state, Governor Brown
issued a state of emergency. The proclamation called for all Californians to reduce their water
usage by twenty percent, local urban water suppliers and municipalities to carry out local water
emergency plans, and the Water Board to expedite transfers of water.15 Additionally, state
departments of water resources, food and agriculture, fish and wildlife, and forestry and fire
protection, as well as the Drought Task Force, were urged to act immediately in their respected
sectors.16 Although the declaration did not end or prevent most of the drought’s abject effects, it
significantly increased water conservation and planning.

Recently, Governor Brown lifted California’s drought emergency for all counties except
for Fresno, Kings, Tulare, and Tuolumne, which still suffer from a lack of precipitation.17 While
he could have ended the emergency earlier, since a series of strong storms last winter brought
copious precipitation, some areas far away from the Sierra Nevada Mountains did not
immediately receive runoff. Therefore, the state government reflected perspicacity in taking
extra precautions. Despite the official end to the state of emergency, Brown’s new executive
order perpetuates prohibitions including “hosing off sidewalks, watering lawns within 48 hours
of a rainstorm, and irrigating the turf on street medians.”18 However, considering the possibility
of future droughts with the same or greater magnitude, now is the opportune time for California
to improve drought management policies.

The last drought probably hit California the hardest, in terms of cost, people affected, and
area covered, and prompted the most national attention, but other states have experienced severe
droughts in recent years and taken measures to handle these droughts. In Nevada, Governor
Brian Sandoval formed a seven-member panel of administrators, scientists, and water officials
who scrutinize Nevada’s water plan, receive information from agencies and water providers, and
submit bi-weekly summaries to help the governor take optimal actions.19 Similarly, Utah
Governor Gary Herbert created a commission of elected officials and water stakeholders to
examine the long-term water supply in Utah and make a 50-year plan regarding water
conservation.20 No state yet has found the perfect solution to manage droughts, and with a
greater economy and more stakeholders, California arguably has a harder time implementing
effective policies. Notwithstanding, Governor Brown could follow Sandoval’s and Herbert’s
examples, creating a more centralized, small committee to ensure better organization,
communication, and insight among all working organizations.

Creating and Implementing Future Policies

In the agricultural sector, studies show that agricultural water-use could be reduced by
5.6 to 6.6. million acre-feet per year and still cover the same area and crops if irrigation practices
are modernized.21 This would allow for more water to be used elsewhere, such as in the urban
setting. Although the majority of farmers now have efficient irrigation systems, approximately
40 percent of farm lands still have flood irrigation,22 an ancient and inefficient system, which
involves distributing water across land by gravity.23 More efficient irrigation systems include
center-pivot—where sprinklers move in circles on wheeled towers—and drip—where water
droplets are deposited near the roots of plants, minimizing evaporation and runoff.24

Figure 4 - Center-Pivot System Irrigation System Layout

Figure 5 - Drip Irrigation System Layout


While these more efficient, but exceedingly expensive systems would be arguably
burdensome for the government and taxpayers, the saved water would ultimately benefit those
who paid for the improvements. Although investing is risky, U.S. Geological Survey data shows
that a four percent reduction in agricultural water consumption would result in a fifty percent
increase in residential, commercial, and industrial water.25 State and local government
policymakers and organization leaders would need to inform the public of the payoffs of
irrigation modernization, and schools could better emphasize irrigation modernization to
influence future voters to support these improvements. Once enough support is garnered,
building these irrigation systems would not be very difficult, since we already have many of
these newer systems in place. Ideally, farmers would eliminate nearly all outdated irrigation
systems in the next few decades.

Another way farms could conserve water is by focusing on less water-intensive crops. A
single almond, for example, requires 1.1 gallons of water to be produced, 6,000 almond farmers
reside in California’s Central Valley, and 600 million pounds of almonds are produced every
year.26 Along with other water-intensive crops like alfalfa and pasture, the result is an
astronomical amount of water used. However, not all consumers would be willing to give up
almonds because of their great taste, nutrition, and ubiquity. If consumers at least reduced the
demand for certain water-intensive crops, making smarter choices about eating, we could afford
to relieve some of the mandatory restrictions on water use in cities. The state government could
push farmers to raise prices to discourage the purchase of such crops, and once demand falls,
farmers would be able to gradually stop growing these crops and be able to focus more on less-
intensive crops in a matter of several years or decades. Water-intensive crops could alternatively
be grown in greater quantities in other states or countries that are not as drought-prone.

Figure 6 - List of California's Most Water-Intensive Crops


Considering that California pumps around a billion gallons of treated wastewater into the
Pacific Ocean27 and reuses about thirteen percent of wastewater each year,28 wastewater
recycling and reuse are crucial to water conservation. Not only do wastewater recycling and
reuse help local water supplies, but they also help reduce energy use and pollution from
wastewater discharges, which contributes to the global effort to stop climate change. The water
reuse potential in California ranges from 1.2 million to 1.8 million acre-feet—one acre to a depth
of one foot—per year, a tremendous increase from the estimated 670,000 acre-feet of reused
wastewater every year now.29 Irrigation, toilet flushing, and groundwater replenishment are a
few examples of uses of treated wastewater.30 Purified drinking water from wastewater is even a
possibility, if the State Water Board can ensure that drinking water reservoirs have advanced
treated recycled water.

Figure 7 - Process of Treating Wastewater and Storing, Distributing, and Using the Recycled Wastewater

The main opposition is due to psychological concerns about recycled water safety, but the
opposition should shrink in the coming years as more dependable and advanced water treatment
methods are created and implemented. However, in order to reach the American of California
Water Agencies’ target of 2.5 million acre-feet of recycled water by 2030, an addition
investment of 13 to 81 billion dollars will be needed.31 Since most taxpayers and the federal
government would oppose this ambitious target, a more achievable target of, say, 1 million acre-
feet by 2030, would allow the state to carry out water reuse projects more practically.
Conclusion

With the harmful effects to human and animal life, forests, and crops, drought
management and planning are valuable, important investments. Through the modernization of
irrigation systems, emphasis on less water-intensive crops, and wastewater recycling and reuse,
California’s state government can advantageously monitor and prepare for droughts. In order to
ensure the most effective policies are implemented, leaders from political, economic, and social
groups should meet regularly to revise their policies and keep up to date with innovation and
climate change. The state government should take charge and create a centralized committee, to
which all groups adhere. Finding commonplace among voters and different political parties in
California will be integral in gaining support and collective action. Ultimately, there is no perfect
solution to California’s droughts, but all efforts to achieve the proposed recommendations will
help reduce the impacts in some way.
1
Hanak, Ellen, Jeffrey Mount, and Caitrin Chappelle. "California's Latest Drought." California's Latest Drought
(PPIC Publication). N.p., July 2016. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.
<http://www.ppic.org/main/publication_show.asp?i=1087>.
2
"New Aerial Survey Identifies More Than 100 Million Dead Trees in California." USDA. N.p., 18 Nov. 2016.
Web. 16 Apr. 2017. <https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2016/11/18/new-aerial-survey-identifies-more-
100-million-dead-trees-california>.
3
Smith, and Matthews. "Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters." National Climatic Data Center. N.p., 6
Apr. 2017. Web. 16 Apr. 2017. <https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/summary-stats>.
4
Rogers, Paul. "California Drought: Past Dry Periods Have Lasted More than 200 Years, Scientists Say." The
Mercury News. The Mercury News, 12 Aug. 2016. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.
<http://www.mercurynews.com/2014/01/25/california-drought-past-dry-periods-have-lasted-more-than-200-years-
scientists-say/>.
5
"Global Warming." NASA. NASA, n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.
<https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/GlobalWarming/page2.php>.
6
Rogers, Paul. "California Drought: Past Dry Periods Have Lasted More than 200 Years, Scientists Say." The
Mercury News. The Mercury News, 12 Aug. 2016. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.
<http://www.mercurynews.com/2014/01/25/california-drought-past-dry-periods-have-lasted-more-than-200-years-
scientists-say/>.
7
Breslin, Sean. "California's Drought Could Last Hundreds of Years, Research Shows." The Weather Channel. N.p.,
04 Jan. 2016. Web. 16 Apr. 2017. <https://weather.com/climate-weather/drought/news/california-extended-drought-
greenhouse-gases-ucla-study>.
8
Hanak, Ellen, Jeffrey Mount, and Caitrin Chappelle. "California's Latest Drought." California's Latest Drought
(PPIC Publication). N.p., July 2016. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.
<http://www.ppic.org/main/publication_show.asp?i=1087>.
9
"Climate Impacts in the Southwest." EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 22 Dec. 2016. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.
<https://www.epa.gov/climate-impacts/climate-impacts-southwest#Reference 4>.
10
"Climate Impacts in the Southwest." EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 22 Dec. 2016. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.
<https://www.epa.gov/climate-impacts/climate-impacts-southwest#Reference 4>.
11
Hanak, Ellen, Jeffrey Mount, and Caitrin Chappelle. "California's Latest Drought." California's Latest Drought
(PPIC Publication). N.p., July 2016. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.
<http://www.ppic.org/main/publication_show.asp?i=1087>.
12
Artusa, Anthony. "U.S. Drought Monitor - California." United States Drought Monitor. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Apr.
2017. <http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/Home/StateDroughtMonitor.aspx?CA>.
13
Hanak, Ellen and others. Managing California's Water. San Francisco, CA: Public Policy Institute of California,
2016. 2011. Web. 16 Apr. 2017. <http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_211EHR.pdf>.
14
Hanak, Ellen and others. Managing California's Water. San Francisco, CA: Public Policy Institute of California,
2016. 2011. Web. 16 Apr. 2017. <http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_211EHR.pdf>.
15
"Governor Brown Declares Drought State of Emergency." Office of Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. N.p., 17 Jan.
2014. Web. 16 Apr. 2017. <https://www.gov.ca.gov/news.php?id=18368>.
16
"Governor Brown Declares Drought State of Emergency." Office of Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. N.p., 17 Jan.
2014. Web. 16 Apr. 2017. <https://www.gov.ca.gov/news.php?id=18368>.
17
Dwyer, Colin. "Gov. Jerry Brown Lifts Drought Emergency For Most Of California." NPR. NPR, 07 Apr. 2017.
Web. 16 Apr. 2017. <http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/04/07/523031241/gov-jerry-brown-lifts-
drought-emergency-for-most-of-california>.
18
Dwyer, Colin. "Gov. Jerry Brown Lifts Drought Emergency For Most Of California." NPR. NPR, 07 Apr. 2017.
Web. 16 Apr. 2017. <http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/04/07/523031241/gov-jerry-brown-lifts-
drought-emergency-for-most-of-california>.
19
"4 Years In, How Is Nevada Handling Drought?" CBS Sacramento. The Associated Press, 12 Apr. 2015. Web. 16
Apr. 2017. <http://sacramento.cbslocal.com/2015/04/12/4-years-in-how-is-nevada-handling-drought/>.
20
"4 Years In, How Is Nevada Handling Drought?" CBS Sacramento. The Associated Press, 12 Apr. 2015. Web. 16
Apr. 2017. <http://sacramento.cbslocal.com/2015/04/12/4-years-in-how-is-nevada-handling-drought/>.
21
Gleick, Peter and others. The Untapped Potential of California’s Water Supply: Efficiency, Reuse, and
Stormwater. N.p.: n.p., n.d. June 2014. Web. 16 Apr. 2017. <http://pacinst.org/app/uploads/2014/06/ca-water-
capstone.pdf>.
22
Glennon, Robert. "The New York Times Company." The New York Times. The New York Times, 1 June 2015.
Web. 16 Apr. 2017. <http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2015/04/07/can-farms-survive-without-drying-up-
california-13/modernize-irrigation-with-incentives>.
23
"Other Uses and Types of Water." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, 11 Oct. 2016. Web. 16 Apr. 2017. <https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/other/agricultural/types.html>.
24
"Other Uses and Types of Water." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, 11 Oct. 2016. Web. 16 Apr. 2017. <https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/other/agricultural/types.html>.
25
Glennon, Robert, and Gary Libecap. "The West Needs a Water Market to Fight Drought."The Wall Street Journal.
Dow Jones & Company, 23 Oct. 2014. Web. 16 Apr. 2017. <https://www.wsj.com/articles/robert-glennon-and-gary-
libecap-the-west-needs-a-water-market-to-fight-drought-1414106588>.
26
Cameron, Charley. "Ten Solutions to California's Drought." Inhabitat Green Design Innovation Architecture
Green Building. N.p., 28 Oct. 2015. Web. 16 Apr. 2017. <http://inhabitat.com/possible-solutions-to-tackle-the-
california-drought/>.
27
Sangree, Hudson. "California Looking to Recycled Water to Ease Drought Concerns." The Sacramento Bee. N.p.,
14 Apr. 2014. Web. 16 Apr. 2017. <http://www.sacbee.com/news/local/article2595660.html>.
28
Centor, Robert M. "Where We Agree: Building Consensus on Solutions to California's Urban Water Challenges."
N.p., Mar. 2016. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.
<http://pacinst.org/app/uploads/2016/03/Where_We_Agree_Building_Consensus_on_Solutions_to_CAs_Urban_W
ater_Challenges.pdf>.
29
Gleick, Peter and others. The Untapped Potential of California’s Water Supply: Efficiency, Reuse, and
Stormwater. N.p.: n.p., n.d. June 2014. Web. 16 Apr. 2017. <http://pacinst.org/app/uploads/2014/06/ca-water-
capstone.pdf>.
30
Cameron, Charley. "Ten Solutions to California's Drought." Inhabitat Green Design Innovation Architecture
Green Building. N.p., 28 Oct. 2015. Web. 16 Apr. 2017. <http://inhabitat.com/possible-solutions-to-tackle-the-
california-drought/>.
31
Cameron, Charley. "Ten Solutions to California's Drought." Inhabitat Green Design Innovation Architecture
Green Building. N.p., 28 Oct. 2015. Web. 16 Apr. 2017. <http://inhabitat.com/possible-solutions-to-tackle-the-
california-drought/>.