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devastating drought

Like any typical Californian, I take relatively warm winters and bright sunny days as my birthright. I also don’t give a second thought to the fact that I actually live in a natural desert that imports water from Colorado. According to Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at NASA, California has only one year of water left, which means that environmental collapse is inevitable if we don’t haul ass and come up with real (and possibly painful) solutions.

Given the gravity of the situation, what is being done to conserve our water supply? Are we really willing to make hard lifestyle changes so we can save ourselves and ensure the posterity of future generations? Do we really think that our water problem will just solve itself without any sacrifice on our end? Will the fates smile on us against all odds and send a few monsoons our way to end the drought?

For better or for worse, choosing who gets to tighten their belts the most has always been a political affair. California legislators are targeting individual and business consumption with new regulations, despite the fact that 80% of the state’s water is consumed by Big Agriculture. To clarify, there is nothing wrong with enacting common sense measures against wasting water–but how effective can they be when the biggest water guzzlers are spared from sacrifice and compliance? How much water are we really saving with restrictions on lawn watering and swimming pool construction, when almond farmers continue to use publicly subsidized water for growing almonds (80% of the total crop) mainly for export?

Plants Over People

To be clear, I am not anti-plant. They are living things that share this planet with us, and our prosperity would not be possible without their existence. But is it ever a good idea for our water distribution policy to prioritize crops over humans? What kind of world do we live in when we are reduced to competing with our food for water? According to the Daily Beast:

“Agriculture is the heart of California’s worsening water crisis, and the stakes extend far beyond the state’s borders. Not only is California the world’s eighth largest economy, it is an agricultural superpower. It produces roughly half of all the fruits, nuts, and vegetables consumed in the United States—and more than 90 percent of the almonds, tomatoes, strawberries, broccoli and other specialty crops—while exporting vast amounts to China and other overseas customers.

“But agriculture consumes a staggering 80 percent of California’s developed water, even as it accounts for only 2 percent of the state’s gross domestic product. Most crops and livestock are produced in the Central Valley, which is, geologically speaking, a desert. The soil is very fertile but crops there can thrive only if massive amounts of irrigation water are applied.”

Scientific consensus has concluded that California’s mega-drought is caused by climate change, which is being exacerbated by our profit-driven food production industry. The institutionalized insanity is succinctly spelled out by Truthdig’s Sonali Kolhatkar:

“That desert is irrigated with enough precious water to artificially sustain the growing of one-third of the nation’s fruits and vegetables, a $40 billion industry…Think about it. A third of all produce in the United States is grown in a desert in a state that has almost no water left. That produce is trucked from the West Coast all over the country in fossil-fuel-consuming vehicles, thereby contributing to the very mechanism of climate change that is likely to be driving California’s historic drought.”

50 Shades Of Wrong: The Oil And Gas Industry’s Contribution To The Water Crisis

Apparently, ruining our air and ozone layer is old hat for today’s fossil fuel industry. The oil industry already wastes 2 million gallons of water a day just for oil and gas extraction. Unfortunately for us, that’s a minor transgression compared to the injection of fracking waste water into public aquifers meant for drinking and irrigation. According to NBC Bay Area,

“State officials allowed oil and gas companies to pump nearly three billion gallons of waste water into underground aquifers that could have been used for drinking water or irrigation…Those aquifers are supposed to be off-limits to that kind of activity, protected by the EPA.”

Desperate Times Call For Half-Ass Measures

California Governor Jerry Brown is set to sign a bill allocating $1 billion for water crisis related spending, which includes necessary infrastructure construction, unspecified aid to the hardest hit communities, and penalties for illegal diversion of water. Meanwhile the state government has been slow to explore alternative hi-tech solutions, neglecting the potential of cheap desalination methods and inexpensive nanotech filters for water purification, which aim to expand the supply of drinkable water. Instead, the focus is on securing ever-dwindling groundwater sources–from funding the Delta Water Tunnel boondoggle, to farmers selling their water rights for better profits, institutional tunnel vision continues to be a major obstacle in the face of a deepening crisis.

Like the Roman emperor Nero, our state leaders prefer to fiddle while California burns from this self-inflicted ecological disaster. What are we going to do once the last aquifer in our parched corner of paradise is exhausted? By then, our well of tears will have run dry–and there won’t be anything left but the dust of what we once were.

Postscript, April 3, 2015: On April 2, 2015, Governor Jerry Brown issued an emergency order requiring a mandatory 25% reduction of water usage for individuals and non-agricultural businesses. Unsurprisingly, Big Agriculture and the oil industry remain exempt from compliance, despite the fact that these 2 industries account for over 80% of California’s freshwater usage. Do state officials actually think that this will be enough to stave off the coming environmental disaster?

Californians will have a lot of hard choices to make in the very near future. As for me, I no longer have a dog in this fight. My time here in the Golden State is almost up, though I will always remain a Californian at heart no matter where I live in the world. To my fellow Californians, take care and good luck.