How California pioneers the fight against the drought

How California pioneers the fight against the drought

25 July 2015

Californians are rightfully proud of their tradition in pioneering – Hollywood movies, mountain bikes and Silicon Valley technology are all gifts from the Sunshine State to the world. Now the never-ending sunshine is causing trouble: Scientists’ analysis of tree rings has shown California to be suffering from the worst drought in 1,200 years. Californians again find themselves pioneering, albeit involuntary.

First and foremost are efforts to reduce water consumption, something most Americans are not used to. In April, Governor Jerry Brown decreed compulsory measures to save water: “Climate change is not a joke,” he said, describing the situation as an “alarm signal” that the entire world should hear and heed. Measures include replacing the cherished thirsty lawns with drought-resistant plants, both for private households and public properties such as universities, schools or grave yards.

The #droughtshaming trend on social media
The #droughtshaming trend on social media

Some celebrities seem to be unfazed by drought and restrictions. Magnum P.I. star Tom Sellek was found to have illegally stolen truckloads of tanker trucks from public hydrants for his 60-acre farms. He paid a $21,000 settlement to the local water authority, who had used a detective to discover his theft.

Ordinary Californians, enraged about luscious green lawns and full swimming pools in celebrities’ villas, have started to shame what they see as profligate water use by posting pictures, names and addresses under the hashtag #droughtshaming. Prominent names to be doughtshamed include Anniston, Ecclestone, Lopez, Kardashian, Penn or Streisand.

Most of the 40 million Californians will be affected by the measures. However California’s agriculture, which accounts for 80% of the state’s water consumption, is still exempt from compulsory measures, causing many to protest the measures.

Drought conditions in crop field near Woodland, Calif. Source: California Department of Water Resources
Drought conditions in crop field near Woodland, Calif. Source: California Department of Water Resources

The State government’s reluctance to impose restrictions on California’s farmers is understandable, since much is at stake. California is not only the world’s largest exporter of almonds, it also produces 94% of all processed tomatoes in the United States, 90% of the country’s wine, 86% of the lemons and 83% of all strawberries, in addition to a significant dairy industry.

And California’s agriculture is already under immense pressure. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service predicts a “major impact” on California’s agricultural production: “Because California is a major producer in the fruit, vegetable, tree nut, and dairy sectors, the drought has potential implications for U.S. supplies and prices of affected products this year and beyond.”

For 2015, the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences estimates a crop revenue loss of $856 million, additional groundwater pumping cost at $595 million and around 18,600 lost jobs in the state’s agriculture sector. At the end of May, a group of Californian farmers in the Delta region pledged to reduce their water consumption voluntarily by 25% as of June, with an increasing number of farmers following.

Just on time, a desalination plant at Carlsbad beach, north of San Diego, was installed after 14 years of planning and construction and $1 billion of investment. It is the largest such plant in the western hemisphere, with a capacity of producing 200 million litres of freshwater daily. This massive plant, however, is not much more than the proverbial drop in the ocean, as it will cover a mere 7% of the region’s water needs. And it comes at price – the San Diego Water Authority will have to buy the plant’s water for 30 years at a price significantly above current levels, and environmentalists fear the plant’s refuse will destabilise the ocean’s ecology.

A creative Californian solution: paining the lawn green
A creative Californian solution: paining the lawn green

In line with their pioneering spirit, Californians are debating a number of other creative ideas, such as hauling icebergs to their coast, constructing pipelines from Alaska’s mountains or harvesting rain clouds with silver iodine. A successful start-up around Novato provides the service of painting the lawn green, using an environmentally safe colour.

Jeremy Grantham, the founder and chief strategist of the asset-management firm GMO, sees the Californian drought as part of a wider global trend. Not only will local water shortages will cause “persistent irritation” including possibly wars and famines, but the world, whose population might reach 10 billion by the next generation, is running out of every commodity from certain nutrient fertilizers to fossil fuels: “Global warming is bad news. Finite resources is investment advice,” he says, explaining that prices for all types of commodities from fertilizers to oil have experienced a “bigger price surge than occurred during World War II” and predicting this to be a stable, long-term “paradigm shift” that investors and humanity at large should brace for.