How Dire Is California’s Water Crisis???

inOn Friday, March 12, 2015, the Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed piece calling for mandatory water rationing as an emergency response to California’s worsening water crisis. The piece was written by Jay Famigliettim who, according to Business Insider, “… is the senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech and a professor of Earth system science at UC Irvine.” In other words, Famigliettim has credentials that make his warning credible.

For people who follow California’s water issues, the editorial just added to the bad news. On March 5, NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration) reported that the long anticipated El Niño weather pattern, which is expected to bring heavy rains to California, had indeed arrived. But this year’s El Niño, they reported, is extremely weak and as a result little, if any, additional rain is expected.

California’s rainy season officially runs from December through April. Last December’s heavy rains created hope that the current drought was over, however, the state had more heat and less rain than usual, making this the fourth consecutive year of drought conditions.

According to an article in today’s New York Times, California may only be able to squeeze five inches of water from this year’s snowfall when the state was hoping to get the equivalent of 30 inches of rainfall. California receives a major portion of its water from the snowpack in the High Sierras. The actual yield is calculated by measuring the depth of the snowpack, as well as its density. This year’s snowpack density has been measured at 6 to 7 percent, which is considered very low for the High Sierras.

Economic Impact

It’s not just California’s 38 million residents that are at risk as a result of the state’s water shortage. According to the State’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, California is the eighth largest economy in the world. In 2013, California exported some $21.4 billion in agricultural goods alone.

Agriculture is the major user of water in the state. Slate reports that 80 percent of the water in California is used by growing and maintaining a variety of cash crops. Loss of water means higher food prices for all, and the loss of jobs in the state. A National Geographic article published last July estimates that 17,000 jobs were lost last year due to the ongoing drought, which cost the state $2.2. billion.


Google solutions to California water crisis and you get pages and pages of ideas ranging from the feasible to the outlandish but, an ounce of prevention being worth gallons of cure, the greatest return on the investment of effort will be yielded by much-needed conservation and more aggressive enforcement of conservation regulations.

The New York Times published an editorial in July of 2014 called “Saving Water in California” which suggested that fully 70 percent of the state’s water districts had not implemented conservation methods. In addition to calling for mandatory rationing, as The Los Angeles Times did last week, other proposals for decreasing water usage range from charging more for water to banning car washing and lawn watering.


While conservation can make better use of the water they have, Californians realize that their water supplies, or the lack of water, will control development in the state. California has 840 miles of ocean front property, including some of the most expensive zip codes in the world. Turning salty sea water into potable drinking water has been talked about in California for decades as the ultimate solution for the state’s water problems, but efforts to develop seawater desalinization as a solution to the chronic crisis has been met with stiff resistance from beach front property owners, beach goers, the businesses that cater to them and, ironically, conservation groups.

After 15 years of debate and 14 court challenges, a company called Poseidon Water is moving ahead with the construction of the Carlsbad Desalinization Plant, a $1 billion desalinization facility that will convert 56 million gallons of seawater per day into potable drinking water for San Diego County residents. The desalination plant is being built in Carlsbad, California, some 30 miles north of San Diego. According to the Sacramento Bee, the project is being touted as a test to push conservation conscious and coast protecting Californians into accepting this sort of industrial development on their coastline.

San Diego County has agreed to pay $2,257 for each acre foot of desalinated water. That’s about double the amount paid for fresh water from natural sources. The County has contracted for 48,000 acre-feet every year over 30 years, the article reports, regardless of need. On the other hand, the city of Long Beach, just south of Los Angeles, built a desalination plant in 2006 and then shut it down again in 2010 because the cost of the water it produced exceeded the cost of water from other sources. Part of the plant still operates as a test, which seems to be going well.

It seems unlikely that enough desalination plants could be built quickly enough if California’s drought continues. Conservation and even rationing may well need to be part of the package of making the best possible use of California’s water.