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Brown is the New Green: The Golden State Drought

August 10, 2016
This past winter, California had its first rain-filled season in four years. The El Nino winter led California’s largest water reservoirs to recover to almost full capacity. Governor Jerry Brown lifted many state restrictions and removed mandatory cuts on water use. Farmers have enough water to harvest this year, and home owners can water their lawns again. The drought has seemingly passed. However, the negative effects of California’s drought are far from over.

By Rachel Cullen, C’18

The fallout of increased wildfires, California’s decreasing groundwater, and the severe cost on farmers are all still major obstacles to overcome. 2014 and 2015 were two of California’s worst fire seasons on record [1]. The drought has made wildfires more frequent and intense, turning millions of forest acres into dry tinder ready to burn. It is a vicious cycle because the drought also dried up the water sources needed to stop the very fires it created. In some cases, where wildfires would break out in a low population area, firefighters let the fires burn themselves out instead of using water to stop it. In an effort to save water, countless trees, animals, and ecosystems were destroyed in these fires. This has had a negative impact on the environment and the economy. Most of the time the fires burned in rural places, but in some cases it burned people’s homes and land. While we know some of the immediate consequences of increased wildfires, we have yet to see how this truly will impact the state in the decades to come [2]

In an effort to retain food production levels, California has been tapping into its underground water aquifers -and diminishing them at an alarming rate. Groundwater now supplies about 60 percent of the state’s water, with the majority of that going to agriculture. With the water sucked out to irrigate crops, California is literally sinking. Some places in the state are sinking at a rate of more than a foot per year. Last summer, scientists recorded the worst sinking in at least 50 years; and this summer, all-time records are expected [3].

The sinking is destroying bridges, cracking irrigation canals and twisting highways across the state. In the Central Valley, Fresno County is an area that produces about 15 percent of the world’s almonds. Two bridges in that county have sunk so much that they are nearly submerged in the little bit of water that the river has left.  It will cost millions to rebuild the bridges in a county that doesn’t have the money to afford it. Nearby, an elementary school is slowly falling into a miles-long sinkhole that will make it susceptible to future flooding and will also take millions of dollars to fix [3].Brown Crop Fields in CA Due to No Water 

There is a fine line - a balancing act - between protecting the environment for the future, and protecting the citizens of today. While the sinking of California will have incalculable effects in the future, the cost on farmers has already damaged today’s agriculture sector. During just one year of the drought, crop revenue losses totaled $900 million and dairy and livestock revenue losses totaled $350 million. 10,100 jobs were lost. The total economic impact was near $3 billion. The drought is now in its fourth year, and these losses are unstainable. Small dairies and farms are going out of business, food production has dramatically gone down, and a way of life is drying up as fast as the ground is [4].

California needs a long-term solution to the water crisis, so that a lack of rain in the future is not as detrimental as it was this time around. The state needs a way to conserve water in a more effective way, for longer periods of time. That means stopping the man-made limitations on the water supply for farmers, putting families first, and creating solutions to store excess water supplies more effectively.

In Washington D.C., Congressmen are trying to find the solution. H.R. 2898, The Western Water and American Food Security Act of 2015, establishes procedures for the Department of the Interior, the Department of Commerce, and the Department of Agriculture to address drought conditions in California. The bill requires the use of updated data in order to increase water exports and maximize water supplies without causing a significant negative impact on the survival of certain endangered species. The bill provides for the use of expedited procedures to consider project requests from the California governor relating to emergency drought conditions. It also revises requirements for water supply permits, prepayments on water service contracts, water efficiency considerations in dam safety projects, and water rights in land use decisions. H.R. 2898 passed the House of Representatives a full year ago, and has been held up in the Senate ever since [5].

The negative effects of the Golden State drought are far reaching. Even with the recent rain, California citizens need to realize that brown is the new green.

References

  [1]McDonnell, Tim. “California’s Devastating Fire Season Is the New Normal.” Mother Jones. N.p., 05 Aug. 2015.Web. 09 July 2016.

  [2] Ghose, Tina. “Water Woes: Firefighters Get Creative to Douse Flames in California.” LiveScience. TechMedia Network, 25 Sept. 2015. Web. 09 July 2016.

  [3] Halverson, Nathan. “California Is Sinking and It’s Getting Worse.” Reveal. Center for Investigative Reporting, 04 June 2015. Web. 11 July 2016.

  [4] Howitt, Richard, Duncan MacEwan, Josue Medilin-Azuara, Jay Lund, and Daniel Sumner. Economic Analysis of the 2015 Drought For California Agriculture. Rep. Davis: California Department of Food and Agriculture U of California – Davis, 2015. Print. 

  [5] “H.R.2898 - 114th Congress (2015-2016): Western Water and American Food Security Act of 2015.” Congress.gov. Congressional Research Service, 10 Aug. 2015. Web. 10 July 2016.

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