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California’s Drought: Short-Term Gains versus Long-Term Sustainability

September 12, 2016
California is known across the country as one of the most progressive and innovative states, especially when it comes to policy involving the environment and natural resources. It is home to a number of national historic parks, a leader in solar energy, and has taken the lead in implementing pollution standards stricter than those enforced federally. However, one of the most troubling and politically divisive issues in California over the last several years is the management of the very scarce water supply.

By Madison Lane, C’17

As one of the biggest industries in the state is agriculture, water policy has a huge impact on California’s economy, and is absolutely crucial in places like the Central Valley and the northernmost parts of the state, where residents’ livelihoods are based around farming culture. It has become increasing difficult for the government to balance these economic concerns with the necessity of sustainability and environmental impact.

A severe drought in California lasting nearly six years has been the main focus for policy and industry leaders, but when it comes to water, everyone is a stakeholder. While water restrictions for residential use have recently been eased, the resource shortage is far from over. One of the most difficult to solve and far reaching issues within water policy is the management of groundwater. As the drought has depleted surface water sources like snowpacks, rivers, and lakes, groundwater use has increased to make up for other losses. Overuse of groundwater is a big environmental problem because this water can be a virtually nonrenewable resource. Over pumping of groundwater in California has created the issue of land subsidence, which is essentially shrinkage of the aquifer itself as the land above sinks when too much water is pumped out. Responsible pumping of groundwater can avoid this problem by leaving enough water to sustain the pressure in the aquifer and keep the land from subsiding. Land subsidence is irreversible, and once the aquifer is depleted, that underground catch basin for water is gone, and even years of ample rainfall will not be able to replenish the groundwater supply. As just one illustration of this problem, wells in the Central Valley that used to strike water at 500 feet deep must now be drilled down 1,000 feet or more, costing more than $300,000 for one well [1]. Most residents don’t realize the severity and virtual irreversibility of ground water depletion.

The recently signed Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) attempts to curb some of this overuse; while groundwater had before been treated like property owned by the individual or company that owned the well, SGMA acknowledges the scarcity of the resource and treats it as such [2]. The politically charged aspect of this issue involves the SGMA’s impact on the largely agricultural economy. The Central Valley is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the country, yielding most of the almonds, artichokes, lemons, pistachios, and processed tomatoes of the United States. California accounts for nearly 15% of total US agricultural exports, and its 76,000 farms and ranches make on average $54 billion per year [3]. As such, this massive industry demands a great deal of the state’s water supply; agriculture accounts for about 80% of all human water use. Crops like almonds are notorious for requiring a significant amount of water, specifically, 600 gallons of water per one pound of nuts [4]. However, almonds have some of the largest profit margins of California’s crops, leading farmers to continue planting them and leading policymakers to be sympathetic to the farmers’ needs. The drought has certainly already cost this sector, reducing profits by $2.2 billion and accounting for about 17,000 lost jobs in 2014 [4]. These short-term losses must be weighed, however, against the possible long-term devastation to the entire sector if water is not used in a sustainable manner.

While agricultural interests have a powerful grasp over California’s water policy, environmental groups are also concerned about long-term sustainability of the water supply as well as its impact on fish and wildlife. Many view these interests to be in direct opposition to more economically focused interests. This battle is played out more over surface water flows than groundwater pumping. An interestingly contentious political topic is the declining salmon population in California’s rivers, which not only impacts the fishing industry but also has important environmental implications for the entire ecosystem.  The state water resources board has put in place water flow restrictions on the Valley’s rivers before the San Joaquin Delta, increasing flows in hopes of preserving the salmon’s habitat [5]. There is a great deal of rhetoric from the agricultural industry as well as mainly political officials on the right arguing that this policy prioritizes fish over jobs, but this largely ignores the economic benefits to the fishing industry as well as the added sustainability of this approach on surface water.

The drought in California has negatively impacted a number of different industries and wreaked havoc on the state’s natural resources and landscape, leading to dry lakes and rivers and an increased number of forest fires, impacting individuals homes and property. Without proper policy and continued vigilance, California’s very water dependent economy will be severely and irreversibly damaged. While it is easier politically to prioritize short-term profit margins and job growth, the long-term success of the agricultural economy as a whole depends dramatically on strict and sustainable water management policies. While many argue that environmental concerns fly in the face of the economy, it is extremely important to realize that in the long term, the two could not be more connected and interdependent.

References

  [1] Dennis Dimick, “If You Think the Water Crisis Can’t Get Worse, Wait Until the Aquifers Are Drained,” August 21, 2014, Online, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/08/140819-groundwater-california-drought-aquifers-hidden-crisis/

  [2] Kevin Haroff and Zachary Kearns, “New Groundwater Legislation Will Have Dramatic Impacts on California Agriculture,” January 22, 2015, Online, http://www.martenlaw.com/newsletter/20150122-groundwater-legislation-california-agriculture

  [3] California Department of Food and Agriculture, “California Agricultural Production Statistics,” 2015, Online, https://www.cdfa.ca.gov/statistics/

  [4] Matt Schiavenza, “The Economics of California’s Drought,” The Atlantic, March 21, 2015, Online, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/03/the-economics-of-californias-drought/388375/

  [5] San Joaquin Tributaries Authority, “Showdown Over Salmon: River plan would require more water for the fish,” 2012, Online,  http://calsmartwater.org/showdown-over-salmon-river-plan-would-require-more-water-for-the-fish/

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