APR 08 2015

California’s Drought – What Should Be Done Now?

California, California Drought, Climate, Climate change, Drought, Water Resources

English: A dry riverbed in California.

A dry riverbed in California. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Governor Brown’s approach to drought management in California is admirable, but flawed.  His order to “implement mandatory water reductions in cities and towns across California to reduce water usage by 25 percent” is an essential first step to capture the public’s awareness by engineering a socioeconomic drought, but his proposed solution addresses only a portion of a greater problem.

Droughts are complex occurrences whose causes and impacts can be seen through different, descriptive lens: socioeconomic, meteorological, hydrological, and agricultural.  A socioeconomic drought occurs whenever an extensive, fresh water deficit impacts the general public.  This results from the demand for water exceeding its supply.  The governor’s mandatory reductions have accelerated the meaningful arrival of the current, socioeconomic drought to California.  Given the concerns of meteorological and climatic experts, its arrival was crucial.  Nevertheless, the state must also address the drought from the perspective of its other lens.

A meteorological drought is a water shortage that results from reduced snowpack and rainfall; in California’s case, this is probably due to natural drought cycles amplified by anthropogenic climate change.  California has been a leader among governments in recognizing the dangers of anthropogenic climate change.  Further recognition of this threat could include championing this cause at national and international regulatory levels as well as pursuing goals to further reduce atmospheric carbon.  The economic and technological viability of other water sources (e.g., desalination, transport of water from other areas) needs to be investigated, too.

A hydrological drought is a continuing water shortage due to increasingly reduced levels of groundwater and surface water storage which have diminished as the duration of the meteorological drought has grown.  California needs to ensure that all its water use is metered and monitored, all its water use is monetized (either in the form of governmental fees or use taxes), and its efforts in protecting groundwater are furthered by considering a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing and by increasing its regulation of agricultural runoff.

An agricultural drought is a water deficit due to specific crops’ water demands and the differences between actual evapotranspiration and potential evapotranspiration assuming optimal irrigation and other agricultural practices.  Eighty percent of our state’s water use is agricultural.  California needs to ensure that this use is not wasteful by metering, monitoring, and monetizing its use (for example, by setting agricultural water rates to a level of ten percent or five percent of the average retail, residential water rates).  Efficient irrigation methods (e.g., drip systems, moisture meters, irrigation at designated hours) with managed run-off (which includes minimal use of chemicals to reduce aquifer contamination) should be mandated.  The state should also ask questions to the USDA and other regulators about the continued social value, if any, of crop subsidies (e.g., sugar), agricultural market orders, and other farm programs.

Finally, California should not approach the current drought as solely a California problem.  Our state produces over half of the nation’s fresh fruits and vegetables and most of its nuts and dried fruits.  More than twelve percent of America’s population are Californians.  The governor should consider applying for a Presidential disaster declaration in order to seek federal aid in implementing long term solutions to the drought now.

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