California’s drought fiasco is best fiasco

"Dust Bowl - Dallas, South Dakota 1936" by Sloan (?) - United States Department of Agriculture; Image Number: 00di0971 (original link now dead). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dust_Bowl_-_Dallas,_South_Dakota_1936.jpg#/media/File:Dust_Bowl_-_Dallas,_South_Dakota_1936.jpg
“Dust Bowl – Dallas, South Dakota 1936” by Sloan – United States Department of Agriculture

As I write this right now, California is in the midst of the worst drought in recorded history, and possibly even long before. As of April 1, our mountains have 5% of the snow they normally have. A NASA scientist recently estimated that we have one year of water left in our reservoirs. A city has run out of water and is having to distribute emergency rations.

Fortunately, Gov Jerry Brown issued a sweeping executive order to cut back water usage by 25% by… Well, actually it’s not clear how this cutback will work yet. Regardless of how things will work, how should they work? I don’t have that answer, nor do I envy the people who are tasked with finding an answer.

You have a few parties whose interests conflict. Let’s look at them one-by-one.

Agriculture

By Deutsch: Maler der Grabkammer des Sennudem English: Painter of the burial chamber of Sennedjem [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Deutsch: Maler der Grabkammer des Sennudem English: Painter of the burial chamber of Sennedjem [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Agriculture is a very attractive target. Agriculture uses up an enormous amount of the state’s water. They consume 80% of the state’s water while contributing only 2% to the state’s GDP. Almonds in particular are very water-intensive. You could provide 3 years worth of water to San Francisco and Los Angeles combined.

But it doesn’t end there. What’s really water-intensive is meat. A single ounce of beef uses 106 gallons of water.

But here’s the thing: while agriculture makes up a small percentage of the state’s GDP, it also produces a very significant portion of America’s food. If you have eaten any of the following recently, chances are it came from California:

  • Artichokes
  • Walnuts
  • Plums
  • Garlic
  • Celery
  • Cauliflower
  • Spinach
  • Carrots

Serious cutbacks on the water agriculture can use would have a great ripple effect across the country. Prices of food would rise. And this isn’t an issue that would affect the 1%. The majority of the impact would be on lower class families who are already struggling to “put food on their family”.

And besides that, tackling California’s complex water-rights system would hardly be an easy task.

Still, I think it’s unavoidable to do something about the drought without BigAg having to make some cutbacks. For starters, BigAg has an unlimited free pass to use up groundwater, at least until 2020. And while we probably won’t have much luck convincing Americans to eat crickets, we could probably shift the American diet to eat less water-intensive foods.

Homeowners

Ransomes01
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Lawns use up a good 200 gallons of water per person a day in the United States. If everyone tore up their grass lawns, it would drastically slash residential water usage. Personally, I think the world would be a better place if everyone simply tore up their lawns.

But the story of the grass lawn is far too complex to just leave it at that. The grass lawn is a symbol of excess, a triumph of the middle class, and a display of American patriotism all at the same time.

It’s difficult to overstate the impact that the invention of mechanical lawnmowers had upon society. You see, at one point in time only the wealthy could afford to maintain a lawn. They were the only ones who could afford to pay someone to trim them with a scythe. But then came the lawnmower and the 40-hour workweek, and suddenly Joe Middle Class can have a nice green lawn.

After World War II, the story becomes even more interesting. Enter the 50s. Soldiers are returning from the war, and they begin to settle down and have a family. Joseph McCarthy is running his infamous witch hunt for Communists and Homosexuals. Economic equality is at its height.

The 50s were a time of conformity. Everyone had a neat grass lawn, which they maintain with zealous vigor. Crab grass and Communism were considered morally equivalent.

This combination of patriotism and egalitarianism has forever embedded the grass lawn in the American psyche.

The end result? Peoples’ lawns became a pretty green monoculture that excludes native plant life, removes sources of pollination for bees, and guzzles water. Grasses have become some of the most invasive species in the country, and it’s all because of us.

So how do we move past the grass lawn? A lot of the problem can be solved by simply fighting the urge to weed out everything that isn’t a flower or grass. What we think of as being “weeds” are really native plants that are most suitable for your lawn. The concept of Xeriscaping offers us another way to build drought-resistant landscaping.

The Politicians

By Pach Brothers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Teddy Roosevelt
Carly Fiorina, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, recently claimed that the California drought is a man-made disaster, born of liberal environmentalism. It’s not difficult to see why such a movement would draw in pro-business Republican politicians. Environmental laws make doing business difficult. Think of how much easier business could be if you didn’t have to think of environmental impacts.

Today we tend to think of environmentalism as being something only for Democrats. Republicans are the ones against environmentalism. It hasn’t always been that way though. The first president to speak out on environmental issues was Teddy Roosevelt. Richard Nixon, while hardly being a staunch environmentalist, caved to public pressure by signing some far-reaching environmental legislation, including the bill that created the EPA. In more recent history, Newt Gingrich and Arnold Schwarzenegger have both been described as “green conservatives“.

Going back to the present day, we can see that the contemporary Conservative is staunchly against environmentalism. If you cut through the rabid anti-liberal, anti-environmentalist speech, you can see that there’s a grain of truth to what they’re saying.

When we think of drought, we tend to think of a lack of rain. In California’s case, drought tends to come from a lack of snow. What happens is that snow tends to accumulate in the mountains and colder areas during the cold, wet months. During the warm, dry months, this snow melts and feeds streams and rivers that provide sources of drinking water.

As the earth warms up, there will be less snow. More and more water will evaporate into the atmosphere. This means that not only will droughts become more frequent, but rainy seasons will have more precipitation in the form of rain rather than snow. This is the paradox of climate change: increased flooding and increased droughts.

Thus, now that we can’t rely on our mountains to hold as much water in the form of snow, we need to figure out new places to store the water. Ironically enough, one of the things stopping us from adapting to climate change is environmental law. Most of the places where we could build new reservoirs are home to numerous endangered species. While we have to lament the destruction of habitat that will ensue from building such reservoirs, we also need to acknowledge that our existing mechanisms of storing water simply won’t work going forward.

There is some good news on this front. One of Jerry Brown’s big ballot propositions of the 2014 election cycle authorizes building more reservoirs and dams. This raised the ire of some environmental groups, but I think it will be an important change in adapting to climate change.

Conclusion

California’s drought has proven devastating to California’s economy and to our way of life. We tend to take having clean drinking water for granted. However, when it starts to run out, it prompts some hard decisions. Water is life, and how do you ration and limit life?

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