On April 1, Jerry Brown, the governor of California, stood on a patch of dry brown grass, instead of the usual five feet of snow, in the Sierra Nevada mountains and declared, “This historic drought demands unprecedented action.” Droughts have always been a recurring feature in California, but the period between 2011 and 2014 has been recorded as the driest since 1895. The problem is that, unlike in 1895, almost 40 million people live in California today. 2015 is shaping up to be a year with just average rainfall, a far cry from what the state needs. Approximately half of the state is classified as experiencing exceptional drought.
Conditions have worsened throughout each of the past three years, and the agricultural sector, which consumes a lot of water, has been hit particularly hard. California plays a pivotal role in the US agriculture, as the state is responsible for roughly one-third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts. Some farmers are now opting to sell their water–they could make more money selling their water than their meager crop yields. Scientists say that the current drought is caused by a warm dry ridge of high-pressure over Western North America, and this ridge is preventing clouds from forming and precipitation from falling. Opinions are split on whether global warming contributes to the formation of the high-pressure ridge. The consequences for people and industries in California are, however, immediate and real.
For the first time in the history of California, Governor Brown ordered cities and towns to cut water usage by 25%. The state will also impose significant cuts in water use on campuses, golf courses, landscaping; replace lawns through the state with drought-tolerant landscaping; and increase the state’s ability to enforce against illegal diversions and waste. Some towns that have already gone to extraordinary lengths to conserve water claim that the additional reduction will be difficult to achieve.
This water crisis has now become a mainstream issue. People have to change their lifestyle and understand that the most precious commodity, until there is relief, just might be water. NASA satellite data analysis indicates that an astonishing 11 trillion gallons of water will be needed for California to fully recover from the emergency. To put that into perspective, that is the amount of water that flows over Niagara Falls across 170 days. Governor Brown tried to capture the significance by noting that “It is a different world and we have to act differently.” Water is a basic necessity of life and essential to all economic activity. California has long dealt with the issue of water rights. Water shortages turn obscure water rights into a difficult discussion on public and social policy. Fixing this problem will not be easy, but people have to be resilient and industries have to be creative. Besides, everybody wants the Golden State to stay golden.