The Nature of California’s Water Problems

Michael HiltzikI was out in the front yard earlier today pulling weeds. Really, the place is starting to look like an abandoned house. And given how often I leave the house, there is something to that. Never leaving is not much different from never coming. But it is remarkable that there is so much growth going on when there is so little water. I’m been worried about the water situation here in California since I was in seventh grade when we had a big drought. Not that I minded it at the time — it meant that I didn’t have to get naked in front of a bunch of boys to shower after PE. But ever since then, I’ve seen California is always on the verge of turning into a desert.

My concern only got worse when I went to graduate school and shared an office with another student who was doing work that showed in a warmer world, California was going to get much drier. And now California is experiencing its worst doubt on record. It used to be that in my hometown of Santa Rosa, the average annual rainfall was about 30 inches, but the new normal seems to be around 20 inches. In the 2013 calendar year, we got less than 5 inches of rain. This season (which is effectively over), we’ve gotten 21 inches — and that’s only because of a deluge of almost 13 inches we got in the middle of December. Historically, we got almost 6 inches of rain in January — this year, we got 0.02 inches. We should get over 5 inches in February, we got under 3. March should bring three and a half inches, we got 0.13. It’s very bad.

So what are we going to do about it? The first thing we need to recognize is that our current drought is not due to misbehavior by California farms and residents. This, my friends, is global warming. According to a recent Pew Research poll, only 37% of Republicans even think there is solid evidence that the earth is warming. That’s not “human caused warming” — that’s any warming at all. And only 25% of them think it is a major threat to the United States. This is with almost 27% of the country living in California, Texas, and Florida. But the numbers are not much better overall. Less than half of all Americans (48%) think that global warming is a problem.

I imagine someone with a cut on her leg. It’s not a big deal — she ignores it. But it gets red and somewhat inflamed. It’s a problem, but it isn’t notably worse than it was the day before. Soon, it is clearly festering — but only slightly more than the day before. And so on and so on until no one can stand the smell of it. She goes to the hospital and they have to amputate her leg. Global warming is like that. It isn’t going to be suddenly hotter one day. And as a result, charlatans like Fred Singer can go around saying global warming isn’t real, just as he said that second hand smoke didn’t cause cancer.

Last week, the always insightful and generally brilliant Michael Hiltzik wrote, The Wrong Way to Think About California Water. He noted an amazing statistic: here in California, we use 38 billion gallons of water every day. So any time you hear about millions of gallons of water being wasted, bear that in mind. He also countered a common claim, “It takes four gallons of water to grow one almond.” That’s true, but that’s also over the course of four years. And almonds are actually not that water intensive a crop. If we are concerned about agriculture, we should think about meat.

Kyle Kim, Jon Schleuss and Priya Krishnakumar put together an amazing interacting info-graphic that shows how much water it takes to put food on your plate. A half pound of oranges takes 20 gallons of water. A half pound of rice takes a 130 gallons of water. (Note: rice is farmed very efficiently!) A half pound of potatoes takes just 124 gallons of water. But chicken? That’s 133 gallons. Pork? That’s 330 gallons. Beef? That’s a staggering 850 gallons of water!

Living in wine country, I’ve long thought that the vineyards used a lot of water. But that’s not true. An 8 ounce glass of wine requires only 28 gallons of water. Compare that to an 8 ounce glass of milk, which requires 44 gallons. In fact, wine is more efficient than apple, orange , pineapple juice. It is also slightly more efficient than a pint of beer. But the news is not all good: chickpeas (which I’ve been going crazy with in my recent obsession with falafel and hummus) require almost 610 gallons for every 8 ounces.

Hiltzik’s article is based upon work by Ellen Hanak at the Public Policy Institute of California. And it is focused on ways to improve the water market here in California — so that water is used in the most efficient way. This is classic free market environmentalism. And it is something I very much believe in. We are never going to fix our environmental problems by whining at people to act responsibly. So you would think that these kinds of ideas would appeal to conservatives. But they generally don’t. The truth is that existing businesses like things to stay the way that they are. And the conservative movement is only interested in maintaining the status quo. They will do nothing long past the point of no return. But hopefully, California will continue to make necessary reforms and accelerate them.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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