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Food Security

Managing the Future of Drought in California’s Water Crisis

By Vanessa Thevathasan

  •  October 29, 2015
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The past four years has seen California gripped by an unprecedented water crisis. Ninety-three percent of Californians have been affected by the lack of water and there are no signs that this drought will end anytime soon. Looking at ways to conserve and recycle water will help protect the many industries that rely on water to uphold their livelihoods and the state’s economy.

The current crisis has been borne out of low precipitation endured by California and the entire west coast for the last 15 years. As a result, B. Lynn Ingram, a professor of Earth and planetary science at the University of California at Berkeley, argues that the current conditions can be classified as a “mega-drought.” Historically, she says, California has endured a variable climate with predominately dry conditions. Ingram emphasizes the challenge facing California,“The problem now is that we’re adding, on top of the natural variability, we’re adding global warming. And in this part of the word, it’s predicted to get drier with fewer winter storms and less snowpack.”

Each year researcher head up to the Sierra Nevada mountains to analyse the snowpack and predict how much precipitation will fall in the next year. The survey carried out earlier this year suggests that there is 40 percent less snowpack on the mountains than they did last year. This is extremely concerning, given that snowpack can predict about 70 percent of precipitation that will happen in the future. Californian government and residents will need to deal with a future where there is even less rain.

The impact is far-reaching. California grows and exports a majority of the fruits and nuts consumed by the rest of the country, meaning that water shortages in the state will affect food supply across America. The Pacific Institute indicates that each American indirectly uses more than 300 gallons of the state's water each week when they consume food farmed in the state. The meat and dairy industries are one of the worst culprits for hogging the state’s water resources. To maintain the feed for their animals, farmers use gallons of water to grow the crops needed to as animal feed. To grow 1.75 ounces of beef, farmers have to use 87 gallons of water. This has put immense pressure of the sustainability of the state’s water supply, no less in a desert.

The cotton industry is another sector consuming huge amounts of water. Though cotton production has dropped steeply in California, since 1995, California farmers have gotten $3 billion in federal subsidies to grow it. On top of subsidies, " Use it or Lose It" clauses in state water laws actually encourage farmers to flood their fields with much more water than they need lest they lose the right to that amount of water in the future.

Switching to crops that use less water will help ease the pressure on water supplies in California, however, there are fewer federal subsidies for farmers looking into switching to more sustainable crops and as such, there is currently little incentive to shake up the farming sector to combat water restrictions.

Conservation and recycling are now key to managing California’s water crisis. In an unprecedented policy change, the government announced its first mandatory water restrictions in the state’s history. Cutbacks have been made to farmers' water rights and residents have been issued water restrictions by as much as 36 percent.

Additionally, Orange County Water District has implemented a wastewater-recycling programme. The initiative is based on taking waste water from the sanitation district and run it through an advanced purification system, becoming highly distilled. It is then put back into the ground water base, becoming a source of drinkable water for the county. Seventy million gallons of water a day is recycled through the programme.

Technology must also meet farmers’ needs to provide more water-conservation solutions. RainBird, Valley, Lindsay, Jain, Hortau and other established irrigation companies offer a wide variety of smart irrigation packages. Hortau recently raised $5 million to expand its reach in California beyond several hundred large-scale growers. PowWow so far has signed up about two dozen growers for PumpMonitor. At its heart is an algorithm that converts electricity usage data from so-called smart meters into water flow through the pumps hooked to those meters. PumpMonitor has evolved into an all-encompassing irrigation monitoring system that incorporates data from many sources. The California Energy Commission last month gave PowWow a grant of $2.3 million to start trials of the more advanced system.

A new HydroRevolution plant being constructed by WaterFX in Firebaugh, California, in the heart of the Central Valley, is offering a tech-led solution. Completed next year, the solar-powered desalination plant will treat up to two million gallons a day, boiling out natural minerals and salts, so it can be used by residents and farmers.

However, there is still an issue of so few Silicon Valley startups offering solutions to the problem. The answer is partially a matter of matching skill sets; the long-term investment and sporadic nature of such crises, all of which does not bring the quickest return for venture capital investment. Yet, the need for tech solutions could be greater.

 

In July, California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer introduced emergency drought legislation aimed at helping communities facing severe water shortages and supporting new water.  Key provisions of the California Emergency Drought Relief Act will assist rural and disadvantaged drought-stricken communities with a new USDA program, seek federal support for desalination projects, promote the building of new reservoirs, support water recycling projects, increase agriculture water conservation mandates and expand protections for threatened fish and wildlife. 

The future for California will be very different form that it faced at the turn of the 20th century, when water departments, dams and aqueducts were built in a relatively wet century. This scene is not likely to return to California. A focus on longer-term mitigation projects will be needed to deal with what is increasingly the norm in the parched state. 

As California heads into a fifth year of drought, the state and residents are now coming to terms with a changing environmental landscape. More focus needs to be placed on connecting the technology sector to the farming sector to ensure the needs of farmers can be matched with efforts towards conserving and recycling the states precious water supplies. The sustainability of the food sector and keeping up with America’s dietary habits will depend on how effective the water crisis in California is managed.  

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