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California has about one year of water left (latimes.com)
320 points by nickgrosvenor on Mar 13, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 393 comments



80 percent of the developed water supply in California is used by agriculture. About 6 percent is industrial and commercial. That leaves 7 percent residential landscaping, and 7 percent residential non-landscaping (showers, washing machines, etc.). Source: http://www.kcet.org/updaily/socal_focus/commentary/where-we-...

Even if residential landscaping or non-landscaping water usage dropped by a quarter immediately, which seems rather unlikely, that's close to a rounding error compared to the amount of water to turn our near-desert into an agricultural breadbasket. Put another way, more water is used for almond farming alone in California than all residential landscaping or residential non-landscaping: http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2014/0...

The drought is real, but I would take op-eds like these more seriously if they acknowledged the above figures. And the fact that some cities like Sacramento still don't have everyone on metered water -- flat rate! -- and meters won't be fully installed until after 2025. Source: http://portal.cityofsacramento.org/%20Utilities/Conservation...


Related to this: California is one of the largest producers of rice (one of the most water-intensive crops in the world) in the United States. Rice (and other water intensive crops) shouldn't be grown in places that have water issues.


Texas is also recovering from a 10 year drought and was growing rice up until last year. It's just crazy.


I lived in Texas for 3 years during the drought and had no idea they were growing rice.


It looks like it won't help much, but landscaping should stop. Double stop. Triple stop.

No need to waste water in there, and comply with neighbor whatever regulations.


I agree with OP. Solve the big problems first. If at some point landscaping ranks as a top consumer of water, then solve it. Attention and effort is a resource -- spend it where it has the most impact. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amdahl%27s_law


There's pretty lucrative incentives for adjusting landscaping to reduce water consumption - I grew up in the Palm Springs area (which, ironically, is one of the few parts of California that can water itself - the golf courses have to buy their water from outside sources, but there is a large aquifer out there), and there's been a major move towards desert landscaping to take advantage of it.


How is 7% close to a rounding error? Especially when, in the case of landscaping, it is not a necessity and is almost completely for aesthetics[1]. If someone said they had money problems and it turns out they spend 7% of their income on makeup/barber visits/tanning salons, would you not point those out as possible expenses to reduce?

Just because residential usage is not the main source of the problem doesn't mean people should just not care about it at all. I'm not implying that everyone take 30 second showers. I just think it's important to be conscious of your water usage and reducing it when it makes sense. Addressing multiple sources of the problem simultaneously is possible. Also, sometimes it's possible that you're able to reduce the smaller portion more than the larger portion, so you should never focus only on the large numbers.

[1] Okay, neither are almonds, but I think you understand what I mean.


>How is 7% close to a rounding error?

I didn't say 7% was a rounding error. I wrote "a quarter" of 7%, which is rather different.


Ahh, sorry, I missed that (in a display of very poor reading skills). That does make more sense.

But if commercial landscaping isn't included in that 7%, this number becomes larger. And if the drought is very serious, why wouldn't it be theoretically possible to cut landscaping usage down to near 0%? A 25% reduction seems like it would be very easy. (Although, I admit I don't have any idea what the breakdown of landscaping water usage looks like.)


Probably it makes much more sense to reduce water intensive agricultural activities like rice production together with other water conservation practices (i.e. making water more expensive for home users).


Everyone keeps blaming nuts, and they do use a lot of water, but Alfalfa is the biggest agricultural user of water in the state.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/08/opinion/meat-makes-the-pla...


Disclaimer: I have no clue if what I'm proposing is realistic or not, but:

Perhaps the federal government should step in and gradually step down the level of subsidies given to farmers in California and gradually increase subsidies given to NEW farmers in other, more water rich parts of the country. This would have the effect of moving farms to more sustainable locations in the country. Sure, the types of crops produced would change and consumer demands would have to shift with that, but that isn't the worst thing in the world.

Another solution is to allow utilities to drastically increase water prices for communities that import most of their water anyways.

All in all, both solutions are geared towards population displacement in unsustainable locations. Just as New Orleans is probably destined for another Katrina, SoCal is probably destined to be a desert despite the demands we've put on the land in the last century.


My understanding is that California is so ideal for agriculture because of its climate (with the water scarcity being the big liability, the can we've been kicking down the road for decades). Other states, either individually or collectively, do not have the year-round, Mediterranean, relatively predictable climate to take on the load that California would drop. This includes not only total square acreage of arable, mild farmland, but also a bevy of specific crops that cannot be grown reliably in other states. (There are certainly wetter states, but they have seasonal extremes that make X, Y, Z crops very challenging.)

When it comes to agriculture, California is in the rare position of being a jack of all trades and master of most. That is, until the water runs out. Then it starts to look more like the mild, but semiarid desert it was before we engineered it to run on various, unsustainable water sources.

That being said, the subsidies have certainly placed us in a predicament -- a wildly unstable dependency -- that will be extremely tough to unwind. Something has got to change on that front, and quickly.


There are other places in the world where these crops can be grown. People in those countries will be more than happy to trade us almonds, rice, bananas and the like in exchange for things we are great at producing like software and music.

It's a win-win.


I like to remind you that we, as mere lowly humans, require food grown on a farm to survive a lot more so than we need software or music. If we collapse our agricultural backbone and just willy-nilly decide to depend upon a foreign nation for food, then be prepared to fight a lot more "oil wars" (except for human fuel and not just car fuel).

Furthermore, we'd be putting our trust into the governments and politicians of foreign nations. And, quite honestly, despite all the shit we see about our politicians being corrupt, cheating on their wives, embezzling thousands of dollars a year, letting the rich get away with billions in tax loopholes, being stupid in congress, being radical not-born-in-murica communists, etc., at least keep in mind we at least see them in all their human imperfections (and sometimes less-than-human vices), whereas we have absolutely no idea what the hell goes on behind the closed doors and smokescreens at a foreign government. Politics and power is inherently a very difficult game of balancing flexible compromises and hardline stoicism, not a place for cults of personalities and naive idealism.

As for me, I'd much rather trust the politician who is getting publicly crucified for having told a racist joke 10 years ago, flirted a little too much with some girl not his wife, is a closest homosexual, tweeted something dumb like "#killasians lolwat", or committed some other sensationalist-media-breaking-news-but-realistically-inconsequential-to-his-character "sin" than the perfect politician who has never commit any sin and who no one dares to speak ill against (e.g. today's chairman Xi).


You wrote some jingoist 19th-century bullshit. You're ready to fight in World War 1.

The idea that we need to protect strategic resources is outdated. We continue to do so, at our own detriment. Our sugar costs something like 5x what it costs in the rest of the world, because we place tariffs to keep it from coming in from the Caribbean. We are DESTROYING WEALTH CREATION with this market engineering. It is a tax that we see no benefit from and that is paid to no one.

Increased trade between countries increases stability. Some of my college classmates thought that we were due for a war with China just b/c they're the other huge power. What horseshit--- our mutual trade requires our politicians to play nice and not take any Crassian steps towards war.

If the US actually needed to make sure that we produced all of our strategic resources by ourselves then our economy would be tanked because we wouldn't be taking advantage of factories in BRIC. Do you think we make all the hard drives we would need to sustain a war against the rest of the world?


Loosing control over rare earth metals played out very well. For China.

Not being able to produce enough wood tanked Soviet Union.


I'm not familiar with the wood theory of the downfall of the Soviet Union. Link? I figured it was their centrally planned economy.

Yeah, so China has most rare earth metals. Are you advocating imperialism and occupation? Do we have evidence that they are managing their resource in an abusive way? (After a bit of reading, it appears that China does have large export restrictions. That market inefficiency is being solved by smuggling. :D http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rare_earth_industry_in_China#Hi... )


Of course there are multiple factors for collapse of SU but from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consumer_goods_in_the_Soviet_Un...

> By the time of the Soviet Union's collapse at the end of 1991, > nearly every kind of food was rationed. > Non-rationed foods and non-food consumer goods had virtually > disappeared from state owned stores.

Do you think that people were happy about this kind of situation?

China was not the only producer of rare earth metals but they used dumping and by that made production of rare earth metals unprofitable elsewhere. After other producers closed their plants, they started to heavily increase the rare earth metal prices.


The problem here is that you expect history to indicate future performance. You expect each country to act morally instead of what's in their best (monetary) interest. How are wars fought these days? Sanctions, it has happened in recent history. Now what is a nation to do when a sanction against them on food imports? One thing is for sure, it'll help solve a population problem.


The Midwest grows enough crops to feed the whole country if some major disaster or famine happened.


The Midwest is rapidly depleting its own water supply as well.

"About 27 percent of the irrigated land in the United States overlies the aquifer, which yields about 30 percent of the ground water used for irrigation in the United States. Since 1950, agricultural irrigation has reduced the saturated volume of the aquifer by an estimated 9%. Depletion is accelerating, with 2% lost between 2001 and 2009 alone. Once depleted, the aquifer will take over 6,000 years to replenish naturally through rainfall."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ogallala_Aquifer


The core Midwest doesn't depend on that. The great plains do, but Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, etc. don't. You would probably get bored as fuck with corn and soy beans. But it would v feed tons of people if we didn't feed it to cows or gas tanks.


1. "Software or music" doesn't require water... most of them anyways.

2. Software / data and more modern approaches to agriculture can potentially optimize water usage.

3. startup / company opportunity here, if the policy makers can incentivize the agriculture industry to innovate instead of keeping the old inefficient ways.


"Ricardo's Difficult Idea" is an essay that provides a good online education in economics and why trade makes everyone richer, as demonstrated not just by history but also by mathematics.

http://web.mit.edu/krugman/www/ricardo.htm


Food security is the reason governments stick their noses in an otherwise free market.


Even if we accept that argument, which I think is a little far-fetched given the countries that would need to get on board for a hypothetical food embargo against the US to be effective, there's no national security implications to almonds and there are good substitutes for rice and cotton.

In a real pinch the agricultural production dedicated to ethanol can be redirected to food, and perhaps most importantly even a small shift in the meat/plant balance towards plants creates a huge calorie surplus.

In short, food security looks more like a post hoc rationalization than a good justification for our terrible policy landscape when it comes to agriculture.


> and there are good substitutes for rice

American culture can replace it with wheat, yes, but if you ever want a case study on government fiddling with a crop for national security reasons, rice is it. Not in the US, but Asia? It's probably on par with oil.


I think it has more to do with straightforward nationalism. Yes, we could all be sweetening our products with cane sugar and equatorial sugar farmers could be making a great deal of money. But instead we have high tarriffs on sugar cane and subsidies for corn farmers. Why? Because the corn farmers are Americans, and the equatorial farmers are not.


Could it possibly have anything to do with 85% of corn being produced coming from Monsanto seeds?

http://ourworld.unu.edu/en/can-we-feed-our-world-without-mon...

They do spend millions of dollars lobbying the government every year.

https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/clientsum.php?id=D00000005...

Soy seems to be in a similar situation to corn.


Which can also be phrased as "unemployed Americans farmers are burdens on American systems, unemployed equatorial farmers are not."

Not that I don't think the sugar subsidies specifically are nonsense, the structural reasons that food subsidies exist is sound.


Although I would not consider myself an expert, I know it is far more complicated than you appear to think it is. It is not just the climate, as previously mentioned, or the access to fresh water sources, it is also the fertility and durability of the topsoil. There are significant tradeoffs regarding the productivity and soil durability that lead to depletion or pollution because our demand is far beyond sustainable supply.

Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that the human population is far too large and puts far too many demands and strains on nature for anything like sustainability.

So, someone may bring up large scale hydroponics, especially of genetically modified produce, but that is really just another can being kicked down the road, because no matter how many tricks you come up with and how hard you push the pendulum, it will eventually come swinging back with a vengeance, especially the farther it is pushed out of its range.


> I know it is far more complicated than you appear to think it is

Agreed, definitely a thorny issue, and there probably isn't a simple fix. And even if the fix were as simple as "cut off subsidies for water-intensive crops", that would itself be hard in today's political climate.

> no matter how many tricks you come up with and how hard you push the pendulum, it will eventually come swinging back with a vengeance, especially the farther it is pushed out of its range.

Source? Human population is supposed to top out around 10-12B, last I checked, and then level out or even drop off a little bit. In a pinch, modern agriculture could probably feed that many, just with today's methods, but that would mean less in the way of meat and resource-intensive foods like almonds.

There are resource scarcities (e.g. oil, fresh water), but food is not really one of them.


"...it is far more complicated than you appear to think it is..."

I apologize if I appeared to be simplifying the issue. That was not my intent and is not the limit of my understanding (though I am certainly no expert, either). But climate is a major limiting factor for other states, even before we get into the nittier grittier details of soil composition and fertility, topography, preexisting transportation infrastructure, and so forth. Totally agree with you that there are a lot more complications and issues involved than just climate, and again, very sorry if I gave the impression otherwise.


So what's your suggestion? Unless you're suggesting we just start killing people off I don't see how anyone's supposed to act on the idea that there are too many people.


The overpopulation myth will be the next political distraction just like the climate change reality.

The fact is even in developing countries -- when women are educated and have access to contraception -- most families have 2 children. This is now becoming a reality, even in developing countries like Bangladesh the fertility rate is something like 2.2. Only Africa has higher fertility rates.

The real problems are with resources, like water, food and energy. When the developing countries become developed, and everyone has a washing machine and fridge, that's when the fun starts.


It's also often promulgated as a "we should just let people in the third world die" kind of thing, even though, objectively, first worlders are consuming way more resources. That makes it pretty distasteful to me.


Yes... Destroying an entire industry in a country is a win win...


It seems that we have the choice of either:

1. Destroying the farming industry 2. Destroying the land entirely, and then destroying the farming industry.

The current situation is proof that the current level of agriculture is unsubstainable.

As a reference, a few quick searches[1] show that it takes:

5.4 gallons of water to grow a single head of broccoli

4.9 gallons of water to grow a single walnut

1.1 gallons of water to grow a single almond

[1] http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/02/wheres-califo...


I'm a biased vegan but...

802.7 gallons of water for one pound of beef

187.969 gallons of water for one pound of vegetables

Agriculture consumes 2/3rds of California's water, most of which goes to growing and feeding farmed animals.

Source: http://www.waterfootprint.org/?page=cal/WaterFootprintCalcul... (Used United States for country)


As a biased omnivore, it would probably be a bit more useful to compare the calorie content of 1 lb of beef vs 1 lb of vegetables. I understand the point you're getting at but the bias might be a little bit too strong there.


Definitely a fair point.

http://www.waterfootprint.org/?page=files/Animal-products

shows 10.19 litres/calorie beef vs 1.34 liters/calorie vegetables. Which is an even greater distance than the gallons per pound I mentioned. This obvioulsy can't be right. I will argue that theory wise it makes sense that a plant based diet would use less than a diet consisting of eating animals that ate the plant based diet. The animals are expending energy! You could argue that we can feed animals lower water usage plants than we can feed humans, but does that really make a healthy animal for human consumption?

That said, there are other negatives associated with beef production and consumption :).

Also - not all calories are created equal.


As a meat-loving animal, this made me feeling a bit worse...

What if meat is imported from areas/states/countries where there is no water problem.

And with that, maybe California should open itself to import vegetables/fruits from other states, countries too?


> What if meat is imported from areas/states/countries where there is no water problem.

It often is.

> And with that, maybe California should open itself to import vegetables/fruits from other states, countries too?

California imports fruits and vegetables from other states and countries already.


Some completely arbitrary choices for comparison that may or may not be representative:

90% Lean Beef: 798 calories per pound

80% Lean Beef: 1152 calories per pound

Carrots: 186 calories per pound

Potatoes: 354 calories per pound

Using GP's numbers for gallons/pound:

90% Lean Beef: .994 calories per gallon

80% Lean Beef: 1.435 calories per gallon

Carrots: .990 calories per gallon

Potatoes: 1.883 calories per gallon

Much closer than I was expecting. I was also not expecting numbers on the order of magnitude of one calorie per gallon...


"Vegetables" are the wrong thing too look at.

Soybeans have about 2000 calories / lb, based on the number Google gives me of 446 calories / 100g. A random website claims soybeans take 200 gallons of water to produce 1 lb, which comes out to about 10 calories / gallon.

That said, you can make huge gains just by switching from beef to pork or chicken. Pork uses about half the resources of beef, per pound, and chicken about a third. Eat your beefs for special occasions, eat chicken and pork if you want every-day meats.


Not sure I believe the animals are getting most of it in California but either way that's something that can be easily moved out of state. Almonds can't.


Correct. There are only a few areas in the world almonds can be commercially grown. California is one.

Cattle can be grown lots of places.


Growing water intensive crops like rice in California, which it grows a good deal of, is just stupid. That is an industry which needs to die. I'd argue the same for almonds, which are basically a water intensive cash crop.


Almonds use 10% of the state's water supply. The irony is that almonds and apricots have been grown in the Santa Clara valley and surrounding areas without irrigration until tech booms led to orchards being pulled out and replaced with office complexes.


That is an interesting and ironic thing to consider. And I think it's probably inevitable that California shifts its crop mix away from things like almonds, even if at one point they had been grown sustainably (and certainly rice, which is patently unsustainable, but easier to draw down from). Olives, for instance, grow very well in California and are a lot less water intensive than almonds and other trees in the stonefruit family. The downside is that trees take a long time to grow to productive maturity, and phasing one species out for another cannot be done overnight. I have no idea if a phase-out of one in favor of the other is already underway, and I would hazard a guess that if it is, it's proceeding glacially. But some sort of phase-out seems essential.


California's water reserves can't sustain the ridiculously wasteful agriculture that Californian farmers have been growing for decades, and a huge amount of California's water use is going towards agriculture to grow almonds, rice, and grapes in the desert.

Those crops are going to have to come from somewhere else pretty soon regardless.


Except when it's inconsistent with its environment in the first place. All the government subsidies in the world can't make water be where it isn't.


There are many politically active people who would starve the American public to death if necessary to prevent the exportation of riches from the US to foreign nationals.


The same mega corporations that run agriculture in the U.S. also run most agriculture throughout the world.


I just read a story the other day how Iranian almond farmers were lamenting the trade sanctions sitting on tons of them while US exporters grabbed their market


You can pirate software and music, but you can't pirate almonds and rice.


We don't want to have to rely on other nations for our food supply.


There seems to be a significant distinction between staples and "food supply" and the high-value specialty fruits/vegetables grown in the central valley.

The US will never need to rely on other nations for their corn, rice, wheat, apples, barley, etc. But if the choice is between destroying our own land and infrastructure or relying on other countries for our kiwis, artichokes, avocados and almonds, then I might actually be okay with eating Mexican avocados (and I think the Mexican farmers might appreciate that too).


We can still grow crops in California without water subsidies. In places where water is more expensive, like Israel, farmers invest more in water-saving technology in their farms. And probably grow less water-intensive crops like rice.


With the fun side effect of taking away Palestinian land and water. Everyone wins.


> (There are certainly wetter states, but they have seasonal extremes that make X, Y, Z crops very challenging.)

Then perhaps we as a culture should stop eating X, Y and Z so much.


I think simply phasing out water subsidies would be a huge win. I've read a fair number of reports suggesting that, while not great, the situation would be considerably improved if farmers had an incentive to invest in more efficient irrigation techniques or switch to more drought-tolerant crops. The catch is that it costs money and that's risky if you're the first one in the industry doing it – if the government announced that, say, the current subsidies would be reduced 10% a year starting in couple years that'd send a message to everyone that it's safe to take out loans because all of your competitors are going to have to do the same thing.


There's a related issue of perennial, tree, and more orchard-like agriculture rather than seasonal crops. These farmers cannot reduce their water consumption without suffering massive losses - they're price insensitive on water to a large extent, and their choices are irrigate or go bankrupt.

IIRC, avocado trees are a big culprit for California's future commitment to consuming water for agricultural purposes.


Avocados are produced much more efficiently in Michoacán. Now that 85% of avocados sold in USA are imported, the conversion of these orchards to more sustainable agriculture would be less of a blow to the consumer.


The underlying problem here is that there isn't enough water to go around. There three outcomes:

1. Farmers stop growing more wasteful crops which are very water intensive and peak consumption drops below the crisis level 2. Avocado farmers raise prices based on increased costs 3. Some avocado farmers can no longer compete with avocado farmers in wetter areas of the US or Mexico

I'm certain we'd see some combination of all three and that any of those outcomes would be preferable to what we're doing now where the combination of a severely distorted market and a patchwork quilt of existing water rights & management districts ensures that market forces are applied very inconsistently if at all.


" Some avocado farmers can no longer compete with avocado farmers in wetter areas of the US or Mexico"

And therein lies a thorny political issue. Generally speaking, when this sort of shift starts happening, farmers and agribusiness lobby the government (state and/or federal) for tariffs and subsidies, in order to protect their price competitiveness against foreign or out-of-state producers. This is a vicious cycle, and we need to find the political will to stop it when it comes. Which leads to further issues: can a governor of California get elected who is seen as hostile to Californian agriculture? Possibly, but oh man, would he or she be in for a fierce battle. Central CA is a very powerful voting bloc, and farm lobbies are very powerful at the state level and in D.C.


You're right - any trees or vines are an issue when it comes to drought management. When you lose a tree or vine, it can take multiple years to get back to productive levels. It's very different when you're planting seasonal crops and can choose to skip a season.


Judging by the number of protest signs (Water = Jobs, etc) I see every time I go through the Central Valley, and the increasing acreage that seems to be returning to desert conditions, this seems to have been happening for a while.


What would happen if the gov't did nothing?

1. Water would become more scarce in California. Not everyone would get what they need.

2. Price of produce would go up, since there is a smaller supply.

3. We'd start to import more produce (either from outside the country or other states) because the price is the same or lower than the new, higher CA price.

4. Other farmers, who don't grow what CA grows, would start to because it's more profitable as prices rise.

The gov't doesn't really have to do anything. That's the beauty of the free market.


I'm puzzled at the down votes you're receiving. I think you have a valid point and I generally have a similar perspective, but, in this case, it overlooks a significant externality: the destruction of the environment as rivers are pumped dry and (albeit, artificial) reservoirs run dry. Further, your solution could make the additional extraction of water quite profitable, which would further the destruction.

The straightforward solution is to internalize the externality via a progressive tax on water usage. Then, as you said, the free market can regulate itself.

Note: I'm not a fan of taxation, but it can be a good solution to managing externalities.


Or, do what we've done for roadways and electricity in this country (and to a lesser extent oil and water), and expand a "water grid" from the southwest to the midwest, and southeast... transporting water from water-rich locations to more drought-prone locations.


it overlooks a significant externality: the destruction of the environment as rivers are pumped dry and (albeit, artificial) reservoirs run dry

Not sure I understand. The rivers would run dry because of no rain, not because we're taking water from them. Remember all this water we're using for irrigation was just ending up in the ocean anyways.


Is the California produce you buy bone-dry? Probably not. It's full of that precious water. A lot may wind up in the ocean as runoff, but a lot gets exported from CA too. It eventually winds up back in the ecosystem, but the point is that it will take eons to get back into the acquifers.


The government is not an independent entity. Farmers (by which I include agribusiness corporations) vote and donate heavily to political causes. Further, the government is not a monolithic entity; you have the governor, various other elected officials, and then all the legislators in the assembly and state senate, plus all the people that California sends to Congress Washington DC. There are a lot of people who live in inland California whose economic well-being depends directly or indirectly on agriculture. As long as they participate in the political process, government is going to serve some of their interests because they keep electing people to vote for that.

This is the big trouble with libertarians right here. You keep being politically marginalized because you don't seem to appreciate that government is not some alien thing imposed from without, but the distillation of multiple (and often competing) collective interests. Just as 'war is a continuation of politics by other means,' politics is is a continuation of business by other means. Your 'free market' solution is only going to function if you exclude a bunch of people from the political process because their continued participation has become a major inconvenience for everyone else. As someone with technocratic inclinations I sometimes wish we could do that, because I think the farming lobby frequently epitomizes greed and stupidity. But shutting farmers out of politics would be a huge violation of our constitutional design, not to mention political suicide.


but government is doing something, they are pricing water too low currently artificially incentivizing farming and over use of water


But farmers aren't the only consumers of water, so is everyone that lives in CA. The issue as I see it is the drought combined with agriculture combine to drive the price of water up and it's unlikely the corrective (forcing farmers to migrate out of state to water rich locations) will happen before critical levels are hit for servicing residential populations and their needs.


Farmers are not the only consumers of water, but they consume approximately 80% of it. We are nowhere near running out of drinking water.


Water is allocated via water rights. Not sure the specifics, but I would guess the gov't has water priorities and wouldn't let SF go dry just to keep the farms going.


Let me see if I get this right: if the government doesn't do anything, the beautiful free market will automatically redistribute a scarce resource evenly between all the interested parts. Got it!

In any case, 2), 3), 4) doesn't seem to produce any beautiful fix for 1) in your list, apart from maybe stabilizing produce prices.


    other, more water rich parts of the country
My main question is: What are these other water rich part of the country that aren't already fully exploited for agriculture? Are there maps published somewhere that tell people where they can move to to establish farms elsewhere?


The US has lots of young forests that grew after people abandoned the area that used to be farmed.

If you ever go for a walk in the woods and wonder why the trees are all so (relatively) small, that's why.

There is plenty of room for more farmland. You will have to cut some trees, but that's always been the case.


I'm curious which places these are and why such areas were abandoned for farmland in the first place.


I can't speak for most places, but New Hampshire is almost all new-growth forest. If you roam the woods you'll find miles of ancient stone walls demarking the edges of long-gone farms. Of course, there's not much LAND in New Hampshire so it definitely can't take on California's role (even disregarding all the other problems), but I wanted to give an example of abandoned farmland.


How competitive is NH with a region like California weather-wise? I would imagine that the growing season is much shorter in NH, making it way less attractive. Farming in New England is either specific to the climate or exists mainly because that's where many Europeans first colonized America. Just because farming made economic sense there 50-100 years ago, doesn't mean that it makes economic sense there today.


You plant on memorial day, and harvest by labor day[1]. It is not going to make a dent in CA's food production.

[1] source: my family's garden when I was growing up.


My understanding is that the Northeast was primarily deforested for sheep farming. The stone walls delineate old paddocks for rotated grazing.

Most of the ground is really quite marginal; thin soil, rocky as sin, etc etc. It's possible it'd would be economically viable as pasture-land; it wouldn't surprise me if the only The West won as pasture land was that it was all essentially free out there. Maybe if the gov't charged competitive rates for grazing on public land (and was actually able to collect) you'd see a resurgence of Eastern pasture-land.


I have to say I'm a little tickled by the suggestion that we should deforest big tracts of land to address an environmental crisis.


All perfect solutions have already been implemented.

Everything else is a tradeoff.


the small trees are also a sign that that area was clear cut for lumber and replanted.


Where? I'm talking about more than a plot of land. Farmers also need all the institutional support features in agricultural regions that help moving their crops from farm to table.


Michigan (lower peninsula)? Seems to have a lot of undeveloped (forested) land. But I haven't done any actual research so may be badly wrong.

Also if CA agriculture becomes less productive & more expensive then many other parts of the country now become more competitive for agriculture (not cheaper - just worth putting into production)


This reminds me of a conversation I had a while back with some other folks like me who had grown up in Ohio. We were talking about what sort of program would help turn around Ohio's brain drain to the states of the South and West, which has been going on in various degrees since the collapse of the industrial Rust Belt.

My thought was that, in a few decades, you won't need a program to make living in Ohio attractive; all you'll have to do is say "Ohio is a place where free water falls from the sky" and people will come running.


Access to enormous amounts of fresh water in the form of the Great Lakes may very well be the Rust Belt's ace in the hole in the coming decades...


If the rest of the country could grow the same crops as "America's Salad Bowl" we would. California is ideal for those crops and without the large population would be fine.

It is probably past time to actually push desalination plants or convince a lot of people to move somewhere else.


The people consume only a fraction of the water and it's dishonest in the extreme to say that things would be "fine" without them. Each ton of alfalfa in California consumes more water than a family uses in a year and yet sells for $200. There were 13 million tons sold last year. If we got rid of the low-value forage crops, the people (who would pay a hell of a lot more than $200 a year) would have more than enough water.


So, as an intellectual exercise, if the Los Angeles and San Francisco metroplexes simply vanished, would there be enough water?


Agriculture is responsible for around 80% of California's water usage, so even if every person in the state vanished and the farming was done entirely by robots things wouldn't change much.


I don't know. Let's see.

LATimes has an article from last year on high and low residential per capita water usage (http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-1105-californi...). Using that, let's estimate a .5kgal/person/day usage for San Diego and Orange counties, and a .05kgal/person/day usage for the San Francisco region. (The difference in those numbers was surprising.)

The most recent census numbers estimated the Orange County population to be ~3.1 million people, Los Angeles county to be ~10 million people, and San Diego county to be ~3.2 million. San Francisco county is about .8 million. Let's add in Contra Costa, San Mateo, Marin, Alameda, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties at roughly the same per capita usage, with populations of ~1.1 million, ~.8 million, ~.3 million, ~1.6 million, ~.8 million, and ~1.9 million people respectively. At this point, we've accounted for ~23.6 million of California's ~38.3 million residents.

Crunching the numbers, this works out to ~8.2Mgal/day for the southern California region's residential water usage, and ~.4Mgal/day for the Bay Area region's residential water usage. (Check my math, but I don't think I screwed it up.)

According to an article from Slate (http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2014/0...), almond farming alone in California uses roughly 3Ggal (that's three giga-gallons, or three billion gallons) of water per day.

Or, to put it yet another way, if we decided instead that about 23.6 million people were worth some almond farms, we could balance their entire water usage by reducing California's almond farms by less than 1 percent.

So, no, there would not be enough water if those metroplexes simply vanished.


It is hard to tell if you are trolling, a California farmer, or just being plain obtuse.

tl;dr - NO. It would not make a difference.

Google your question. The answer is below for you.

Source: KCET article. February 10, 2014.

California's water budget is skewed heavily toward agriculture. The conventional estimate is that 80 percent of the water used in California flows into the state's multi-billion-dollar agricultural sector.


No, I'm actually asking the question since Wikipedia's quote is "In an average year, about 40% of California's water is used for agricultural purposes". Which makes me wonder about how far down California is that it is now 80%?


The figures used in the Wikipedia article include "environmental" water use (water that flows to the sea in streams, etc. most other sources do not include this in their figures. Environmental "use" accounts for 50% of total water use in the state and why Wikipedia's 40% for Ag is everyone else's 80%.


It depends on how you count, due to overlap, such as rice paddies that are flooded with water releases that eventually head downstream. That could be counted under environmental or ag. If you take out the environmental water, ag is 80%.


No.

http://www.kcet.org/updaily/socal_focus/commentary/where-we-...

> The drought has changed all that. Now, management plans are being looked at with care as California nears a 2020 deadline to cut the state's overall water use by 20 percent. [which would move us close to sustainability]

> About 14 percent is poured into bathtubs, toilets, and washing machines or sprayed over residential lawns.

We'd need a residential population of -30% of California's current population.


Many of the water-greedy crops being grown in California with their water subsidies are hardly important for the country. Almonds are not a staple crop; they are not necessary for our society and should not be valued highly enough to justify the Californian water used to grow them.

If it is a matter of farmers needing almonds to remain profitable enough to grow more important foods, then we would be better served by giving them free money, rather than cheap water for almonds.


Why not just buy the more important foods?


Subsides for more important crops could probably work. However from what I understand, much of the popularity of almonds has to do with them being a reliable crop that are fairly easy to count on. You don't need to replant them every year, so they are less risky than other crops.

Subsidies for more important crops would probably have to match the profitability of almonds and offset the additional risk. Still, it should be possible.


I wasn't suggesting subsidies; I was suggesting doing nothing, letting farmers absorb the risk, and presumably pass it on to consumers in the form of higher prices.


Well, given that their problem is an excess of sunshine, solar powered desalination plants strike me as excellent insurance against these conditions.


Please not WA. We have enough Californians moving here and driving up prices already.


Please stop. They've been saying that for decades, always using the latest industry as an excuse (Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon). Incidentally, now that I (and many friends and my parents) have moved from WA to CA, I've noticed everyone in CA complains about all of the outsiders moving here and driving up prices.

It's tired and trite.

PS: When do I get my kudos for moving the eff out of WA?


The problem is, this turns places that already have severe unemployment issues into 2008-era catastrophy. The entire central valley is based off of farming.


Farms work on thin margins, so jacking the price on them might not be the first step to take.

A few things we can do:

Increase rates to households.

Fix the delivery system to residences so that we don't lose approx 30% to leakage

Invest in desalination and make it a viable alternative

Incentivize drip irrigation where applicable (ie. almonds, but not rice)

Of course increased water conservation.


Too goddamn bad, maybe it's time some more farmers went bankrupt. Reducing household water usage is not going to be enough to offset the hugely wasteful consumption by agriculture. My water bill is not too high, but I have to say that I am not too enthused about watching it go up this years after we cut my household usage by around 30% over the last year. I didn't see a corresponding drop in the bill because most of the sum is fixed charges for delivery and sewage treatment, and my actual metered usage is the smallest part of the bill. So despite putting a lot of effort into conservation I'm being asked to further subsidize the most wasteful users of water in the state.


If farming in Calif went bust, a few things would happen:

Foodstuff would get more expensive.

We'd import more food, meaning fewer 'local' products. Localvores would have to become 'televores'.

Much of the no-education, low education jobs would disappear for people who have little other than their physical ability to offer the job marketplace.


You'd also see a special election to recall the Governor, I think - Central California trends heavily Republican and people there have convinced themselves that it's all the fault of the coastal cities for not building desalination plants. They're not sympathetic to the environmental arguments.

Gray Davis was recalled for less back in the early 2000s, although Arnold Schwarzenegger turned out to be a lot more moderate and forward-thinking than the Republican voters anticipated. Gov/ Brown is already in bad odor with the farming lobby, although the successful passage of the water infrastructure bond ballot proposal has given him more of a mandate than he might otherwise have had.


The Midwest would make a good alternative place to grow. It won't be as prone to droughts and will have a longer growing season due to climate change.

Either that or giving farmers a subsidy for growing crops that require less water. Our huge Almond industry is a giant water-guzzler.


Almond Trees at maturity seem to be small enough to be movable to new locations (12-33 ft high, 12 in trunk)


You can move a tree. Moving a tree successfully is completely different. If you are in a race to grow a 20', you are generally better off starting with a seedling than a 10' tree because they handle the move so poorly.


You can't move almond trees to other areas. They wouldn't thrive there. You might as well suggest moving a Banana plantation from Honduras to Montana to save on shipping costs.


Much of the Midwest draws from the Ogallala Aquifer which is also under severe strain and has been overdrawn for nearly a century, many describe the water as 'fossil' water because the aquifer took many hundreds of thousands of years to grow to the size it has become and it's replenishment rate is significantly lower than our current demands.

The Colorado river is also running dry, sometimes it does not even make it to the ocean, which is a basic sign of environmental health -- when rivers run dry significant changes occur rapidly. The Rockies which feed this river has had lower annual snow pack than expected for many years running now.

New agricultural land in the US will be coming from the north as the climate continues to become dryer and warmer, already Canadian farmers have experienced a renewed vigor and development. Unfortunately there will likely be some land and water use competition between fracking as well as the Canadian Boreal forest, one of the largest and most pristine wildernesses in the north american continent.


I'm not sure how you're imagining this would work. Are you suggesting the feds build giant canals across the Sierra Nevada and then across hundreds of miles of Nevada desert? To where?


GP is suggesting that farming move to where the water is. By cutting subsidies, farmers or farm operators have less incentive to operate in regions suffering from droughts and more incentive to operate in a fiscally and ecologically sound manner.


I just moved to Austin, TX 1.5 years ago. We've got our own severe drought here, and I wonder what's going to happen in the long term. Was it a mistake to move here?

At least in TX, there are a couple of ways in which it's clear we're doing it to ourselves.

First, we can't keep the reservoirs full because a significant amount of water flow is earmarked for rice farmers down at the mouth of the river. That's right: rice farmers. It's clearly not a good idea to be supporting a water-intensive crop in this geography.

Second, Texas has a "right of capture" in its laws. That basically means that whatever water you can capture, you can have. There's a controversy near my town where a private company wants to drill well into the deep aquifer to pump and sell huge amounts of water, such that local homeowners are afraid their less-deep wells will run dry. And there's little one can do to insulate oneself: there's no way to stake claim to the part of the aquifer under your house, other than to be the first person to pump it all out.

I wonder how much of this stupidity is also driving CA's problems.


Almonds are a very water-intensive crop. We grow a huge amount of almonds here in California. (Most of them are exported.) See http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30052290 for one writeup.

Now, they're also a very lucrative crop, so not growing almonds would certainly affect the state's economy. But...


Specifically, one almond takes about one gallon of water to produce.


Hate to be that guy but do you have a source for this? That's pretty incredible and I'd want to read more.

nevermind: the parent article pretty much covers it



Wow--thanks! The "How Thirsty Is Your Food" infographic from the first link is really incredible. Definitely makes me think differently about eating handfuls of almonds, or a huge amount of broc with dinner.


I agree that's really interesting. But it would be better to normalize to serving size. It doesn't seem fair to compare one almond or one grape to a whole head of broccoli.


Water use is often seen as something negative. When the crops come from a wet place anyway, it shouldn't be a problem I think.


The droughts in Austin, and Texas, are far longer running than 1.5 years. Welcome to Austin, water shouldn't be a reason you think it is a mistake to live here.

There is a City of Austin Drought Contingency Plan: http://www.austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Water/C...

Not Austin, but you can read an article on central Texas rainfall patterns done in Mason county on a ranch from 1950-2012 http://doublehelixranch.com/FlyGapRainTrends.html

Read about the "Record Drought" when the rain stopped in 1947 http://www.statesman.com/news/news/local/current-drought-pal...

I hear the elder in south Texas talk about how everything was green and they had various fruit trees when they were younger, all that is down there now is dust and mesquite.

Edit: The Lower Colorado River Authority has a Drought Update as of March 2015 http://www.lcra.org/water/water-supply/drought-update/Docume...


A couple of other things that concern me here:

It appears that the authorities are sacrificing Lake Travis in order to keep the city lake full and beautiful. IMHO, it would be better to let the level fall there as well, to keep people thinking about the need to conserve.

I live just a few minutes from Jacob's Well [1]. Having heard stories of how this spring used to sometimes shoot 20 feet into the air, but in some recent events has stopped flowing altogether, makes concern about draining of the aquifers (not just surface water) seem quite real.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacob%27s_Well_%28Texas%29

edit - spelling


I would love for the city to reflect our water problems in town lake, lake travis is being sacrificed. They won't go for that though, not with all the downtown development.


That's interesting you mention rice farmers in TX because in Sacramento rice farmers are getting paid to sell not rice but water to Los Angeles.

Evidently many of these folks will probably end up making more $$ selling water than rice

See: http://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/water-and-drough...


The 2011 drought destroyed the Austin water reserves. Check the lake level in 2010/2011 vs where we are today[0]. For those that don't know, in 2011 we had record temperatures and little water which led to a few wild fires. The Bastrop wildfire [1] burned 34,000 acres of land destroying 1650 homes. There was also a smaller fire (160 acres) in west Austin in the Steiner Ranch development destroying 25 homes. Temperature wise, Austin had 90 days with temperatures >= 100 degrees that summer.

The area hasn't recouped its loss in water from that drought yet, and it will likely take a very long time for that to happen. Also, the Lower Colorado River Authority is the one that dictates where the water ends up, so they try to balance it for everyone that uses this supply (which is why Lake Travis is still so low).

For fun, Lake Travis had a island that would appear in the middle sometimes depending on water levels, called "Sometimes Island". Since the drought, it's been jokingly renamed "Sometimes Peninsula"[2].

[0] http://travis.uslakes.info/Level.asp

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bastrop_County_Complex_fire

[2] http://www.statesman.com/news/news/local/no-boat-needed-to-g...



Not related to water per se, but I've lived in Austin for over 6 years now, and can confidently say it was a mistake to move here for me.

Where do you go when you want to get out of town? Big Bend? New Orleans? Sure, 8 hours later... And beyond that, what? So much cultural desolation, for hundreds of miles. May as well be in a moon colony.

Texas, where dreams go to die.

Of course, these are my personal feelings, so downvote away. If you moved here because it's cheap, like most people do, like I did from the Bay area, you'll find a cheap existence, as in, you get what you pay for.


Dallas and Houston are a bit of a hike (4 and 3 hours, respectively), but San Antonio is only an hour away. I find that there's plenty of stuff to do in Austin itself anyway. (Heck, SXSW is going on right now.)

I have a theory that a lot of people move to Austin expecting it to be somehow hermetically sealed away from Texas; if you don't like Texas, you will eventually not like Austin. What do you like about the Bay area that you miss in Austin?


3 other large cities within a 3 hour drive (Dallas, Houston, San Antonio). The Gulf coast is also around 3 hours away. Not close, but it's something.


It seems you've forgotten we have an airport.


Was it a mistake to move here?

People are moving to the South in general because housing is cheap there—as Matt Yglesias discusses in The Rent is Too Damn High: http://www.amazon.com/Rent-Too-Damn-High-Matters-ebook/dp/B0... :

There is another option besides denser cities or more sprawling ones: People can just relocate to other cities altogether. And increasingly, that’s what Americans have been doing. If the only way to afford a place in a safe neighborhood in some metropolitan areas is to bear the enormous costs of long commutes, those are just cities with little if any housing that’s truly affordable. The natural choice is to go to the cities that aren’t choked with these problems.

As Forbes magazine put it, “It’s no secret that the Southeast and Western United States are booming. The costs of living and doing business there are often cheaper than in big coastal cities.” People have to go somewhere, and by and large they’re going where it’s cheap. That’s why between 2000 and 2010 the Dallas and Houston metropolitan areas each added about 1.2 million people, dwarfing the approximately 500,000 each added by the much bigger New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago metro areas. But this kind of boom driven by a low cost of living is a particular kind of boom. The relatively sluggish population growth in New York City and its suburbs during this period wasn’t a repeat of the urban collapse of the 1970s. The financial services sector at the core of the region’s economy was, for all the (oft-deserved) opprobrium it’s attracted over the past several years, one of the decade’s major money-making success stories. The city’s specialization as the main headquarters of American journalism and publishing seemed relatively unaffected by the sweeping technological change reshaping media. The crime drop of the 1990s that turned the city’s momentum around in the first place continued. A wave of gentrification swept through the Lower East Side, vast swathes of Brooklyn, important parts of Queens, and even Hoboken and Jersey City across the Hudson River.

But while this kind of gentrification demonstrates the continuing appeal of the Big Apple, it represents only a small net increase in the population. The people moving in are largely replacing other people who are moving out as rents go up. Some of this is due to working-class families moving out of now-expensive neighborhoods. Other times, it is the cycling of twentysomething professionals out of the city as they start families and want more space. In both cases, the city can prosper without its population increasing very much.

By contrast, the “booming” cities of the Southeast and the western United States aren’t necessarily booming in the sense of getting rich. The ten metropolitan areas with the fastest population growth between the 2000 and 2010 censuses were, in order, Palm Coast, Florida; St. George, Utah; Las Vegas, Nevada; Raleigh, North Carolina; Cape Coral, Florida; Provo, Utah; Greeley, Colorado; Austin, Texas; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; and Bend, Oregon. That geographical distribution supports the idea of a boom in the Southeast and West. But it’s striking that in 2009 all ten of these metro areas had per capita personal incomes below the national average of $40,757. Indeed, only Cape Coral was even close.

It may be a long-term mistake, but the localities that control building height, parking minimums, and so forth have ensured that people move to the desert states.


What has happened before will happen again. California had similar issues with mild winters and the reduced water associated with them back in the 1930s. [1][2] The difference now of course is that there are a great many more people there and a great many more farms.

The Bureau of Reclamation is pretty much at fault for the lack of water available for human consumption because of mismanagement and prices below the cost which encouraged over development of farming.

The current drought can likely be traced to changes in the Pacific Ocean dating to 1976 [3]. As in, we have more than time enough to see something was changing.

What can be done? Rationing won't solve it all. The states need to have more control over the water that the Bureau of Reclamation currently controls. They are in a far better position to understand their needs and cooperate amongst each other instead of using the weight of Washington politics to force a way.

First and foremost priorities have to be set and reasonable prices for the cost of water need to be assigned. Yes this will likely mean a reduction in farming but it is artificially propped up now by unrealistically low water prices. People also need to understand conservation and large lawns should either be restricted or the water use for such maintenance needs to be surcharged.

The key is better use of resources and not redirecting the problem which is more mismanagement than natural causes.

note, I haven't read much on site #2, but they consolidated nicely some NOAA charts which make it easier to view.

[1] http://docs.lib.noaa.gov/rescue/mwr/061/mwr-061-09-0251.pdf [2] http://www.coyoteblog.com/coyote_blog/2015/01/california-dro... [3] http://icecap.us/images/uploads/More_on_The_Great_Pacific_Cl...


The way I see it water consumption for household and business uses that are not farms should be on a per person basis, going up exponentially at each strata of consumption.

This would not be unlike how the desirable island of Fernando de Naronha controls limits tourism, while still keeping it accessible. IIRC, every day you are on the island you pay a fee, but each day you stay the fee increases until it gets so expensive that even the rich feel it. The island is limited to 420 tourists at a time.

http://www.ilhadenoronha.com.br/ailha/taxadepreservacao_em_n...

Likewise, for water a person might pay a nominal rate per gallon for the first 40 gallons in a day, then the price doubles for the next 40, then doubles for the next 40, etc, etc. until it's literally unaffordable by even the rich.

This would also have the nice side effect of limiting yard size, which would curb urban sprawl.


The other difference is the ground water reservoirs are significantly more drained now than in the 1930s.


Warning: strong language and opinion

I'm glad each time climate change consequences hit the US instead of other countries that contributed way less, like Tuvalu.

You consider this rude? Fair enough, I consider it rude to destroy the planet we are living on, at least in a way that makes it habitable for humans. Of course other countries are not innocent either, but the (institutions of the) US stand out in many ways.

We need as much pressure as possible for the three big climate-relevant conferences in 2015 (Paris et cetera), this will be the best chance we get for the next couple of years. If drinking water or water to grow plants runs out maybe some people start to care finally. We all can be fucking glad if any of the upcoming changes turns out to be reversible. I'm afraid that few will be (keyword tipping points).


The sad truth is that the net outcome of this drought will probably hurt those in less developed countries more than Americans.

Californians will not go thirsty or not be able to take showers; there's enough water for municipal supplies.

Agriculture will, however, take a hit. While the valley produces a huge amount of produce, it is still a small part of the overall California economy.

Prices will go up for vegetables which will need to be produced elsewhere. Americans won't really notice. SV will keep on humming. But in other places the prices for food will go up.

Remember the 2007-8 food price crisis? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007%E2%80%9308_world_food_pric...

Most Americans don't.


That is not a very satisfying answer for people hoping for America's demise.


The drought in California has nothing to do with climate change.

> If drinking water or water to grow plants runs out

If anything climate change will make more water not less. (Higher temperatures mean more evaporation.) The water would just be in a different location, not that there would be less of it.


Yep, the drought should be thought of more as a return to normalcy for California. We have been living under an incredibly wet period of California the past 100 or so years. We were wrong to think that was the norm.

Climate change will impact things but climate change is not the cause of Californias problems. All this has happened before and all that jazz.


I'm unsure if we can safely assume that California's recent drought troubles are the cause of climate change, and not the fact that California really is a giant desert.

If anything human intervention made California livable.


> I'm unsure if we can safely assume that California's recent drought troubles are the cause of climate change,

Literally no one has argued that California's recent drought troubles are the cause of climate change. (The result of, OTOH...)

> and not the fact that California really is a giant desert.

The Central Valley is a giant desert, but California's water problems aren't because the Central Valley is a giant desert, its because the water received by the rest of California have been far below the historical norms for several years.

Now, consuming lots of water -- e.g., by shipping lots of water from other places to the desert for agriculture -- makes California more sensitive to droughts than it otherwise would be, to be sure.


I live in rural New York and I have mixed feelings about fracking for similar reasons. Why should we push environmental problems onto other people? We should be the ones to deal with them.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_issues_in_the_Nig...

> A UNDP report states that there have been a total of 6,817 oil spills between 1976 and 2001, which account for a loss of three million barrels of oil, of which more than 70% was not recovered.


I believe recent scientific studies have said the California drought is not caused by climate change.

http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/12/new-study-cal...


I believe the most recent theory is that the drought cycle is normal but the severity of the drought is influenced by climate change.



"influenced" is such a weasel word. Everything influences everything a little bit.


Whatever dude. The vast majority of climate change comes from Brazil destroying their rainforests, it has little to do with the US.

>If drinking water or water to grow plants runs out maybe some people start to care finally.

No, water will simply become further commoditized, as Nestle is already doing today. And instead of the bottom Billion suffering it'll be the bottom 5 Billion.

The US will still mostly be fine.


> The vast majority of climate change comes from Brazil destroying their rainforests, it has little to do with the US.

Brazil's destruction of its rainforests to create land to raise beef for export actually has more to do with the US than you might think.

I mean, why do you think that is a profitable (in the short run, anyway) thing to do?


Fair point, but we're not the only country that enjoys beef, many 1st and 2nd world country import it. Blaming the issues on the US is myopic and wrong-headed. We aren't over-populated. We protect our national parks. We have a functioning democracy. Etc.

Capitalistic demand can be short-sighted and there can be negative externalities, none of that should be surprising. It's up to people who OWN the land (their most valuable asset) to come up with ways to make it sustainably productive.

Like you said, ranching on rainforest land only makes sense in the very short term.


> Capitalistic demand can be short-sighted and there can be negative externalities, none of that should be surprising. It's up to people who OWN the land (their most valuable asset) to come up with ways to make it sustainably productive.

But, as you note, there are negative externalities, which means that there is no incentive for the people that own the land to do so (because they are diffuse harms that also effect the landowners, there may be incentives for them to do so if it is in concert with mandatory restrictions on others taking actions that contribute to the same diffuse harms, but the nature of negative externalities is that the incentives to those involved in the transactions -- including those who own the land at issue -- are not sufficient for the optimal course of action, in terms of social utility, to be rational.)


The sad truth is that the US will be fine. Few countries are as well positioned for rapid change as the US. Sorry.


So what happens when they run out of water? Are there water sources that are just undrinkable that can be cleaned up; similar to fracking now being cheap enough to compete with OPEC is there no water or just no drinkable water? Can they just "ship" or "pipe" the water in from neighboring states or are they too on the edge of a draught. Is this country-wide, just Western states, or just California and can other states give up water without risking throwing them into a draught?

I know that's a bunch of questions but this article seems to raise more questions than it answers, at least for me.


My understanding is that under most scenarios water for humans is fine, but agriculture will be totally dead in California.


Ahh, ok they hinted at that in the article but for some reason it didn't click in my head. I wonder if the farmers will just move to neighboring states (not that it's easy to pick up and move a farm....) losing farms in California would be a huge loss:

> California produces a sizable majority of many American fruits, vegetables, and nuts: 99 percent of artichokes, 99 percent of walnuts, 97 percent of kiwis, 97 percent of plums, 95 percent of celery, 95 percent of garlic, 89 percent of cauliflower, 71 percent of spinach, and 69 percent of carrots (and the list [1] goes on and on). [0]

[0] http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/explainer/2...

[1] http://www.motherjones.com/files/2agovstat10_web-1.pdf


> [...] losing farms in California would be a huge loss:

CA produce is not evenly geographically distributed. Production in the coastal ranges is less affected by the drought (compared to the Central Valley), but coastal production is skewed towards fruits and vegetables.

Central Valley production is skewed towards Alfalfa (most of which is exported to China) and Almonds. Both of those are extremely water-intensive to produce and contribute almost no calories to the average American diet (and even less to the poor).

So, cutting off water to Central Valley farmers will have a smaller effect than most predict.


It's not as though the drought just stops at the border of California, so that probably won't be practical.


But the agriculturally impacted area is, essentially, the central valley, which is entirely in California.

There are areas of Oregon and Arizona impacted by the same general drought, but they are a drop in the bucket (pun partially intended).


While true, it's also surprisingly like that- basically, the Sierra Nevadas have been blocking the weather that gave the rest of the country severe flooding last year.


Is this an issue of price? Charging more for water? Or is outright rationing without doing any price hikes the only viable option?


Yes it's an issue of price, but in a market that doesn't function very well. Water, ironically, is not very "liquid" in the economic sense.

Over time, people will have to pay more for their produce. Some farms will shut down and some crops will stop being grown. If the price of water goes high enough, then desalination or new pipelines from wetter areas will start to make sense.


I think so too. There's no reason we have to subsidize agriculture in CA. The one question is do the farmers have some legal claim or right to access the water at non-market rates?


This. What it really means is that we won't be able to grow crops in the desert which is the central valley region. And that means that prices for foods will go up, and we'll not be able to use the corn belt for just corn, or conversely growing something other than corn there will be more profitable.

It really is too bad we couldn't build a water pipeline of some scale to help folks like Boston out with their excess snow.


Which would still be absolutely catastrophic considering how much of US (and world, for that matter) supplies of produce come from CA.


Not really. If the US opened up its agricultural markets much more to the rest of the world, there will be no shortage of suppliers. Problem is that to sell crops to the US there is a maze of regulations and tariffs.


and the practise of subsidies to over produce then forcibly dump the product on other countries, decimating their local farming economies as they are not allowed to add import tariffs and subsidize their industries as that is anti-competitive


Which in turn means US will have to do with about 50% less vegetable/crop to consume.


No, because the price would go up and some of the crop would get grown in other states. Hard to say what the exact percentage would stabilize at, though, and it certainly takes a long time to plant orchards, etc.

But what is the percentage of income taken by produce? Not very high, I'd guess. Probably affect the poor the most.


Some crops would take years to rebound, like nuts, which are both water intensive and take years to mature.


The US is a net food exporter by a large margin.


Because humans don't eat, right?


What's far more interesting is that that will result in massive numbers of unemployed non-citizen farm workers right after Obama grants them work permits by executive order.

And that's going to happen right before the 2016 presidential election.


A lot of water in California goes to farming. They'll have to close farms, which will drive up prices of produce.


About HALF of produce consumed in US comes central part of California. Exact ratio depends on the type of crop though. And it takes a LOT of water for all the crop.

So it's not really the green lawns or swimming pools.


Until new farms capitalize on the opportunity to capture the market in places where there's an abundance of water.


Only on HackerNews are people silly enough to think you have the scalability of virtual infrastructure in the physical world. Farms measure lead times in years.

EDIT: I help my uncle manage a farm in Florida. The startup times are seriously ridiculous.


And is this drought not also taking years? It think it's reasonable to expect the farm markets to capitalistically take advantage of California's decline, even if it does take years.


The drought is going to start pinching farms in one year. This thread is about whether the California government should start rationing water now.


I don't see any indication that treehau5 thinks farm-related infrastructure is as easily scalable as tech-sector infrastructure nor did treehau5 suggest it would not take years.


Not only in Hacker News, but otherwise agreed with you.


Spoken like a true city dweller. Like other have alluded to, farmers think in terms of years. Ever hear the expression "the best time to plant a fruit tree was 5 years ago". I wonder where that came from.


"...and the second best time is today"


Grew up in a small town in NC. Agriculture and textiles were the biggest industries, outside of banking "in the city"

Ever heard the expression "assumptions make an ass out of you?"


Get real. Where is there that has the same amount of arable land and infrastructure and semi-skilled labor to just ramp up to where California is now?


The entire Midwest and plains states. They would just need to switch from growing field corn to something that people can actually eat.


It's not that simple. Farm crops are what works well for the soil and climate of that region. You don't see fields of corn in California because it's not an attractive climate for corn. Likewise, you don't see fields of broccoli in Iowa, for the same reasons.

Midwest corn mostly goes to feed for cattle, hogs, and chickens. The corn may not be really great human food, but it gets made into great human food through an extra process step.


You don't see fields of corn in California because it's not an attractive climate for corn.

Why? I've seen corn grown in California. I think the lack of corn has more to do with the ability to grow more profitable crops than corn in California.

I can't see why corn wouldn't grow well here.


Oh, it would grow. It's just not optimum use of the land.

Meanwhile, nothing is worth growing in the midwest unless it can handle real thunderstorms and real winter. A lot of vegetables rely on a mild climate. Our CSA farm grows a wide variety of vegetables, but they regularly lose parts of their crop to hail, late freezes, and other situations that just don't happen in California.


The Eastern US is awash in water and has a ton of underutilized, fallow land that is already cleared. The workers can migrate as they already do. We can rebuild our greenhouse industry to get winter vegetables.


Migrant workers will move a lot more easily than a whole agricultual and peripheral industries. They aren't going to willingly abandon productive land in California so long as no one forces them to stop sucking water out of the ground. If water rights laws are abrogated toward the approximate reality that everyone owns that water, and only a fraction can properly be removed such that this maintaining the productivity of California agricultural land is non-competitive compared to other areas of the country, that'd be the free-market solution. But that implodes both the tax and voter based in California, so the incentive now is that the politics will dictate the continued legislated alternative to a market solution. Both the politicians favor this as does the agricultural business interests. Imagine some 35% of California farmland being made fallow, how does California replace that tax base? One of the reasons why it's such a rich state is because of its massive agriculture. Just in wine alone it'd be like saying, OK France can't grow grapes anymore. No matter whether you go with a market solution, a legislated solution, or a hybrid solution, it's all just plain icky. The technical solution is how to cheapen desalination such that it keeps California sufficiently competitive, i.e. things get more expensive but not untenably so.


Which could take years.


There is plenty of drinking water, this is an agricultural issue.


Just to add my 2 cents.

I'm based in Saudi Arabia, and considering the deserted climate and environment, there are literally no persistent water sources (aside from a few select wells that are over-exploited by bottled water manufacturers).

Desalination is currently (as of 2015) being used to supply 50% of Saudi Arabia's water needs. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_supply_and_sanitation_in_...

So yes, it's feasible, and just FYI, it is provided free of cost.


I don't know what you mean by "feasible". Saudi Arabia neither has the population (28mil vs 38mil) of California nor the Farming needs (I don't have numbers on Saudi farms but i'll guess its somewhere near zero).

There are a number of desalination plants along the coast of California and a few more scheduled to be built. However they're very expensive to build and to operate and their yield isn't where it should be.

Supplying 50% of Cali's water via desalination is not at all feasible


Great point.

When people talk about California's water problems they make it sound as if there isn't an easy solution, but there is. The real core of this entire issue is not the methods but more the cost, it is ultimately a conversation about saving money NOT about some finite limitation on water in real terms.

California could solve this issue with a pen stroke, it just might hurt their farmers, which is really what all the concern is about. If water doubled or more in price (which is realistic), that is expensive for farmers who need a ton of the stuff for their crops. So will supermarkets pay 30% more or will they look abroad?

I actually think even with a higher water bill, it will still be cheaper for US retailers to buy US produce. Shipping that stuff by ocean isn't exactly cheap with the price of oil. I think where it would hurt US farms is their exports to Europe in particular, Europe is in a geographical position to buy from either the east or west, both by ocean. So if US/California crops go up in cost they might just buy them from someone else.

But let us not pretend that either shipping water in from other states OR just distilling water isn't an option for California, because it is. It just might hurt farmers and make them less internationally competitive.


This is part of what is needed. Water rights in California are as old as the state and extremely convoluted. Those with the older water rights have a practically guaranteed supply and generally irrigate in remarkably wasteful ways. Breaking the old water rights and increasing the price of water would push farmers to move to Israeli style computer controlled drip irrigation rather than current methods of just spraying tons of water over the field. Gov Brown was talking about bring that technology over and pushing it hard into farming...


Feasible for human drinking but I assume not farming (citation required). Which goes along with the story of "People in cali are not going to die of thirst, but a lot of farmers might go bankrupt"


They'll have enough salt to last forever!


> So yes, it's feasible, and just FYI, it is provided free of cost.

Nothing is free of cost.


So it looks like there is suddenly water everywhere in the solar system...except for California.


In the absence of fresh water, it becomes a matter of the energy required to clean / desalinate / or distill contaminated water.

Abundant clean renewable energy would solve "rare" water issues.


So would magic.

We need to rid ourselves of the mythical notion of "abundant", meaning arbitrarily cheap, energy. There are only a few more doublings of global energy usage left before we heat the atmosphere significantly, not due to greenhouse gases, but by raising the equilibrium temperature of Earth as a radiating blackbody in space.

TANSTAAFL. Every resource is ultimately finite. Let's live within our limits rather than justifying our actions with unrealistic fantasizing about future technology.


"Solar energy will be cheaper than fossil fuels by 2016", Dutche Bank [1]

Recently Germany had reached a day with %50 of electricity produced by Solar. [2]

[1] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-10-29/while-you-...

[2] http://theweek.com/speedreads/451299/germany-gets-50-percent...


This has nothing to do with us having the ability to produce "arbitrarily cheap energy". Did you even read my comment?


Solution: Crash an icy comet into California. Bonus points for aiming it at the Bay Area to clear the way for new development.


Great idea, this will both fix the water problem and disrupt the startup industry!


This thread is long so this comment will likely fall pretty quickly, but this page is pretty telling in terms of usage by sector: http://www.ppic.org/main/publication_show.asp?i=1108

1. Environmental 50% 2. Ag 40% 3. Urban 10%

(btw, this is particularly topical when my landlord just informed us he'd be swapping our shower heads for lower-flow ones due to increased costs in Southern Cal (bringing a toothpick to a gun fight?))

The thought process for how to decrease use, though, would be: 1. Can we tap into environmental use and, if so, how much, or is that verboten? 2. If no, which ag can we forgo with the least human/economic impact? 3. If no easy answer looking at both human and economic impact of ag, which ag can we forgo with the least human impact (e.g., if none of us had an almond ever again, would the world be worse off for it? That makes killing almonds purely economic) 4. If there's not enough from 1-3, then we've probably gotten to a life-threatening lack of water and so we get rid of crops that have the least "nutritional" value (i.e., crops that are best at sustaining life are the ones we keep) 5. If we still can't support life, looks like it's time to desalinate, create a pipeline from east or move

Of course, even though it's a drop in the bucket, we should just immediately save the 5% that's used for urban and residential landscaping (see article; ~50% of urban use is landscaping) because there's nothing "essential" about that even though there would be an economic impact (and a whole lotta angry golfers).


Israel has built its first four desalination plants in the last 10 years. They now provide 40% of the country's potable water. The newest plant (Sorek) is the world's largest, producing over half a million cubic meters a day at a cost of $0.68 per cubic meter.

Edits:

I'm unable to find data on Israel's net import of calories. I suspect it's substantial, but 85% of their agricultural water supply is treated urban wastewater.

I'm part of a family of four living near Berkeley, CA. We'd need 50" of rain a year to be self-sufficient on our 4000 ft^2 property, which is about twice what we get. I have no problem commandeering runoff from some place in the Sierras. But it'll have to be 8,000 ft^2, because what hits this lot (and every other lot in the neighborhood) goes straight into the bay.


In the Bay Area, things don't seem that bad. However, I drove from LA to SF and holy wow. Everything along I5 is just a dustbowl. Farms are empty with big signs saying that there are no jobs because there is no water.

However, its hard not to blame the farmers themselves. We consistently hear that it takes a gallon of water for a single Almond, yet here we are and farmers aren't looking for new crops that use less water, it's simply "give us more water" as if this is realistic...


Maybe stop growing rice in a desert? Let gasp other parts of the country or double gasp world sell food to Americans?


[deleted]


Then we let them suffer. What's the problem here?


The market will decide and it will be more profitable to sell American almonds in the American market.


The underlying problem is that the scarcity of water is not being taken account into what farmers pay for it.

That underlying discrepancy distorts the market and prevents Ricardo's comparative advantage from being done.



The definitive history of water development in California is this book: http://www.amazon.com/Cadillac-Desert-American-Disappearing-...

It's almost thirty years old now, but the history is just as relevant, and the warnings issued similarly prescient.


That's also available as a video documentary. Stunning history, the looming drought was inevitable.

TL;DR/DW - the only reason CA has a vibrant agricultural component is because enormous amounts of water are being taken from other states and used very inefficiently. There's a hard limit on what can be redirected, and increasing demand around those sources to keep what's being taken.

Sometimes a supply-and-demand curve has a brick wall: when demand outstrips supply, cost goes from dirt-cheap to incredibly expensive fast. This is often derided as "price gouging", but is a natural consequence of basic needs being supplied cheaply vs insufficiently. CA artificially increasing its water supply faces exactly that: natural growth of demand will slam into lack of sufficient supply, and those with the funds to purchase from the supply at near-any price will suddenly destroy the market for those enjoying necessities at barely-affordable prices.


This book is fascinating. It covers of course the history of water rights in California and the southwest, but also mismanagement of so many other areas. It's long but amazingly readable.


The embittering part is that it was so easy to see this problem coming 30-plus years ago, and yet here we are today all the same.


That reads like it was written by a clueless reactionary. Draining reservoirs didn't cause the drought. It caused the water supply to dry up sooner in the midst of a drought.

> Then they alleged that global warming, not their own foolish policies, had caused the current crisis.

One of the most brain-dead sentences I've ever read. No one is claiming that global warming is responsible for the reservoirs being depleted. They are claiming that global warming is responsible for the fact that the reservoirs have not been replenished by rain and snow melt. It is a subtle, but extremely important difference.


> They are claiming that global warming is responsible for the fact that the reservoirs have not been replenished by rain and snow melt.

Even Mother Jones and NOAA disagree with you:

http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/12/new-study-cal...


Did I say I was saying that? I said "they", meaning the people referred to in the linked article.


To an extent, it's a feedback problem. Global warming causes drought, which means insufficient rainfall, which means more irrigation from reservoirs, so reservoir use does go up. Meanwhile, it also means less replenishment of reservoirs, so they don't recover.


@glesica I'm not sure I understand the putative difference. Can you explain more?


We can certainly debate the "correct" reservoir capacity, maybe California doesn't have enough reservoirs, I don't know enough about it to make an intelligent argument on that point. However, claiming that anyone who wants to get rid of dams (which are environmental disasters in many cases) is some kind of "extremist" is absurd to me.

As for the global warming bit, people (not me, some other commenters seem confused on this fact) are blaming global warming for the drought itself, not for the empty reservoirs. In other words, they are saying that global warming is why it hasn't rained or snowed very much. In this sense, it wouldn't matter one bit (in the big picture) if California had more reservoirs, if the state turns into a desert, the largest reservoirs in the world would still eventually run out.

If the state hadn't removed dams, perhaps they could capture a larger percentage of what precipitation there is, but a larger proportion of a vastly smaller total is still small. The Sierra Nevada snow pack is apparently only 20% of its normal size this year [1]. That means that if the rate of capture was twice as high as it is, the amount captured would still be less than half of normal (back of the envelope calculations).

The link I responded to originally was clearly written by someone playing politics, not by someone actually trying to help others understand the situation.

[1] www.sierranevada.ca.gov/factsheets/snc_factsheet_drought.pdf


We have oil pipelines stretching thousands of miles... why don't we create a water pipeline, sending fresh water to the southwest? I've never really understood why this wasn't an obvious thing started 80+ years ago. We created roadways, and a fairly complex electricity grid... water transfer has been a critical thing forever, and something we haven't really addressed on a national level.

Not only that, but hydrogen as fuel stores would be a very realistic scenario if water wasn't so scarce in locations where solar/wind is so ideal.


They're called aqueducts, and California has quite a few, typically sending water from northern california/the Sierras to Los Angeles.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Aqueduct

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Los_Angeles_Aqueduct


I'm talking about actual pipelines from the midwest/southeast to the southwest U.S. ... much larger scale projects... I know we transport water across states, but I'm talking across the country.


Yeah, California already gets a portion of the Colorado River. http://www.mwdh2o.com/mwdh2o/pages/yourwater/supply/colorado...

So it's been done. The crux of the problem here is that the history of the state is all about thinking like you do -- "let's just import more water" -- instead of finding ways to live within our means in terms of available water out here. So Californians like to have their own pools and like to plant grass in their yards and like to grow Rice in the freaking desert and then whine when long term drought threatens some "crisis" which is basically artificially created. There are lots of ways improve what we are doing without trying to import yet more water. For long term sustainability, that's what we really need to focus on. My understanding is that the Colorado River is already so chopped up and whored out to the water needs of the west that it is a pathetic trickle, instead of a roaring river, by the time it reaches the ocean (somewhere in Mexico, IIRC).

There are real world limits here on "just import more." And that is a big part of the problem here. It's a desert. We need to learn to live like residents of a desert. That's the only long-term, sustainable solution.


I wasn't intending to bring more from the Colorado river.. I was meaning more from the midwest and southeast where there is flooding most years... A lot of that could be siphoned out without too much affect on those regions... we have the ability to move water much farther distances.

For that matter, look at the northern europe and scandanavian research into water purification.. we should also be working towards this effort.


Water use in California is mostly agriculture. Almond, rice, and hay production in California is going to stop. Rice and hay can come from elsewhere. Almonds are almost entirely from California, and they come from trees, so no place else can pick up the demand quickly.


How feasible is desalination? If they can make that work on a large scale, then there's quite literally an ocean of water available to California.


Desalination is expensive and not great for the environment, but its starting to happen.

http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/533446/desalin...


Desalination used to be expensive. In the last 4-5 years ultrafiltration (UF) membrane technology for the pre-treatment process plus double pass reverse osmosis process to produce potable water has resulted in costs dropping to around $500/acre foot, ($0.50/m^3 or 1000 liters).

Completely reasonable for coastal cities, if we could be certain they were needed.


Don't forget solar desal. For example, http://waterfx.co. That would eliminate any pollution.


It probably wouldn't. Desalinization leaves a lot of salty brine to be disposed of.


Put it back in the ocean? That's where it was before anyways. It's not like that would have any impact on the salt concentration of the ocean.


> It's not like that would have any impact on the salt concentration of the ocean.

Ocean-wide, no. Where it's dumped, definitely.


My understanding is that desalination doesn't give you crystalline salt, but rather more salty sea water back. Of course you'd have to be careful where you dumped it as a small bay doesn't mix that well. I don't see why you couldn't pipe it out 1-2 miles from the coast. It should mix quite well.


Depends on the process. Is usually extremely energy intensive, but there are some interesting developments happening.

Direct contact membrane distillation - http://www.usbr.gov/research/AWT/reportpdfs/report134.pdf

Seawater greenhouse - http://www.seawatergreenhouse.com/process.html


supposedly much more cost effective to clean waste water


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