WATERWORLD

Whenever someone mentions that the world will run out of oil and natural gas someday, I enjoy pointing out that there's no point in worrying about it. We'll run out of potable water before that can happen.

Regarding the geographic shifts in the American population (favoring the Sun Belt) over the past thirty years I say the same: Don't worry, they'll be back when they finally kill the Colorado River. And their groundwater. And their reservoirs. I mean, at the rate that Desert Metropolises like Phoenix, Vegas, and Los Angeles are pissing through the available resources, the Great Lakes region will start looking very good in the next decade or three. Not that Texas won't be a joy when the water's mostly gone and our summers have heated up even more.

Any discussion of depleting a natural resource sounds, by definition, at least a little alarmist. We have so little direct experience with and social context for running out of anything here in the land of eternal plenty that it makes sense for most people to be unable to wrap their minds around it. Logically, though, it would make less sense to believe that things that cannot be man-made (or can be only at great cost) won't be exhausted someday. I mean, compare oil depletion scenarios to the belief that the Earth makes oil in its crust and tell me which one is nuts.

The unprecedented drought in California is drawing more attention to the issue, with reliable estimates that the supply of stored water is down to about one year. This does not imply, as some news outlets concluded, that California will be "out of water" in a year. At some point it'll rain and alleviate the immediate crisis. It does indicate that a potential disaster is never more than a few years off under the present circumstances, though.

The US and other developed countries are positively drowning in water compared to the rest of the world though. Changing consumption patterns, population growth, and changing climate add up to demand for water outpacing supply by nearly half in 2030, according to the UN. If the world thinks it has seen wars over resources, wait until it sees two massively populated but impoverished countries fighting over the last of the available water. I kind of picture it like the Battle of Helms Deep, but more dehydrated.

People tend to have an unshakable faith in technology to solve these problems for us. It's not in fact the worst argument in the world. History has given us a number of examples of how we've been able as a species to overcome some of our limitations with science. I would believe, for example, that by the time the oil runs out a synthetic substitute or alternative might be available. There's not many candidates for "water substitute," though.

Places like Southern California, the UAE, and Western Australia are relying at present on desalination as their savior. But desalination is a remarkably expensive and energy-intensive process. In most uses it also does little more than supplement cheaper and more accessible sources of water to meet the needs of large populations. The number and scale of desalination plants that would be necessary to support California's 40,000,000 people (not to mention Phoenix and Vegas, who will probably need pipelines) is impractical veering toward impossible, even if we disregard the ecological impact of large scale desalination.

I don't think it's going to be tomorrow or even a decade from now, but at some point in my lifetime I expect to live in a world in which deserts once again resemble deserts and the illogic of having a sprawling metropolis in the middle of one cannot be ignored. The Southwest will resemble (as it once did) the Australian Outback when the capacity to support four or five million people in a place like Phoenix disappears for good. In places less wealthy than the US, it's neither bold nor prescient to predict that the situation is likely to get much uglier.

Don't worry though: the good news is that an ever-increasing share of the global potable water supply is being handed over to private corporations. That should help.

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64 Responses to “WATERWORLD”

  1. cromartie Says:

    So you're suggesting I just bide my time in Cleveland and house prices in the future will rise to California level. Fantastic.

  2. Earl Says:

    This may stun you, but the water crisis in CA isn't real.

    I mean, yes, we're running out of water.

    But agriculture uses 80+% of the water in the state, and it's wildly, ludicrously, stupendously wasteful. Just to hit some high points: we grow rice. In the desert. The most water intensive crop in the world, and we grow it here. We grow almonds, using, in fact, 10% of the state's water per year on them. One gallon of water *per almond*. We export alfalfa to Japan and China, to the tune of 100 *billion* gallons of water per year.

    The farmers have been dragging their feet adopting drip irrigation. This drought is actually a blessing in disguise; the farmers need to deal with reality and we need to ban the growing of certain water intensive crops in CA.

    Now, is it true that we all have to eat? Certainly, but that's the farmers only defense. When asked why we're growing rice, or exporting alfalfa, they have no real answer. And we're all going to live just fine if almonds cost 10x as much (though I do love them). We'll all still have enough to eat if the price (currently massively subsidized) farmers pay for water goes up 1000x.

    But drive through the right part of CA during the day and you'll see row after row of industrial sprinklers going full blast at 95F at 1pm in 20% humidity. I bet not even one third of the water used makes it to the crops.

  3. Heywood J. Says:

    The Syrian Civil War has many underlying causes, but the catalyst was a five-year drought immediately following Assad selling off their grain surplus. It doesn't help that Turkey's Great Anatolia Dam Project controls much of the river flow in the region, including the Tigris and Euphrates.

    California is going to get real ugly, real soon. Desalination plants will probably gain some support for the coastal cities; they've been talking about building one near San Diego for years, and this is the state that was ready to dump a shit-ton of money into delta tunnels and a bullet train to fucking Fresno. But the inland region is royally screwed, and intent on screwing itself further.

    As ridiculous as last year's six-state referendum proposal might seem to the rest of the country, it's not an unfair portrayal of the cultural divides of the state. The water issue just exacerbates those existing animosities.

    The State of Jefferson movement in Northern Cal (I live near Chico, which would be in the southern part of the projected Jeff State) is almost entirely about water, namely the amount that gets transferred south. In the small rural counties north of Sacramento, most of the land and political power is in the hands of family farmers.

    So the county boards proclaim a drought emergency, then turn around and grant record numbers of well-drilling permits, which the farmers use to punch 900-foot ag wells. I have friends and neighbors whose 50-foot res wells have gone dry, while less than a mile away from them some almond farmer is pumping water from the deep aquifer.

    The USGS has tested some of the water from the deep levels in the Central Valley, finding that it is hundreds of years old. Which of course means that it will take hundreds of years to replenish. Meanwhile, as Earl points out, we keep allowing farmers to grow ludicrously water-intensive crops, because Free Market Jebus will provide, or something.

    Seriously, I know these folks, and they engage in nothing but providential thinking. Wouldn't surprise me at all to see local pols holding rain prayer services on the county courthouse steps, like they've done in the south. But they'll be goddamned if they're gonna change one bit of their consumption.

    In short, the people who have been wasting the overwhelming majority of the water in CA have been given absolutely no reason to stop doing so, while the people who are most at risk of having their wells run dry have been conserving, but it doesn't prevent the inevitable. The guy watering his lawn isn't the problem, it's the acre-feet in the rice fields and almond orchards up the road.

  4. moderateindy Says:

    Earl is right about Cali. Even if every human left the state it would do nothing about the water crisis. I think 80% is actually a conservative estimate on how much water is used for ag purposes.
    The powers that be that control the Water from Lake Michigan have already started denying municipalities that don't currently have Lake MI h2o the ability to access that resource.
    The future of manufacturing in the great lakes region is fairly promising, as a lot of mfg requires copious amounts of water. As water grows more expensive, even labor costs may be trumped by the availabilty of a cheaper, more plentiful natural resource

  5. Wyatt Says:

    looks like the farming issue is already being covered here. It is frustrating to see signs on restaurant windows that they now only serve water by request due to a new law while they still serve almond milk lattes for $2. I really wanted to ride that massive water slide in downtown Los Angeles before drought hysteria made the city block it, while
    meanwhile farms are just pouring lakes worth of water over rice fields.

    even with unagimably tough legislation or price increases farm's share of usage would drop to what 70% of the total? at some point with this, warming, and dwindling natural resources we have to have unreasonable faith in technology, because even with the farmers out of the picture we have water for 10 years instead of 2. but Ed I think you're being too dismissive of that, our ability to adapt to really awful
    situations is too often underestimated. anyone whose been to Peoria should
    know that.

  6. Major Kong Says:

    Whiskey's for drinkin', water's for fightin' over.

  7. Dave Dell Says:

    My understanding is that Israel is grabbing territory not for the territory itself but for control of the water supply.

  8. dianne Says:

    We also grow mandarins in the foothills, pears along the Sacramento delta and nectarines in the mid central valley. Most of these orchards are small family farms unlike Harris Ranch (known for beef, mostly) which let acreage go fallow that had previously grown 50+ million heads of lettuce. When the country goes without these common fruits and vegetables for a few years because of no water, I bet they will be a little more cooperative about sending us a bit of their floodwater in order to preserve our wonderful diverse diet. The salad crops can be brought back after a good water year but if the orchards are allowed to die, there won't be a way to bring them back to life after a year or two of rain.

  9. Tim H. Says:

    Maybe this will make Californians accept recycled waste water. And Dr. Gold was right about abiotic oil, but it takes long enough to regenerate that the fact isn't very meaningful.

  10. Xynzee Says:

    I live in a farming community in one of the drier parts of the world—NSW.
    Just FYI from an agricultural land use perspective rice actually is very efficient and not as water intensive as you may think. Yes it looks like it uses stupid amounts of water, but the soils must be fairly dense soils ie clays, which hold the water very well. That's why most of the California rice is grown north of San Fran. These soils then retain that moisture quite well so a secondary crop can be planted and grown with minimal to no additional irrigation. Alfalfa is a perennial crop so it puts down deep roots, allowing it to access ground water sources.

    Granted, huge savings could be made with far better and efficient irrigation practices. Looking at crop choices that are better suited to the region as suggested would be beneficial too, but learning about the crops and farming practices will help us not sound like uneducated alarmists—I'm trying to be helpful. :)

    Alfalfa and sorghum are fodder crops, so it should give us some indication of how much water is used directly/indirectly in the meat industry.

    The absolute worst crop for water is cotton, Aral Puddle anyone? Sorry for using Wiki, but as you can see in the map/wiki, Texarse, California and Arid-zona are leading the charge. http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cotton_production_in_the_United_States

    Really for potable water it's just being stupid with use. We use potable water for flushing toilets. American toilets use stupid amounts of water unnecessarily. Look into the bowl, is that much standing water necessary? Aus toilets keep a minimal amount in the bowl. Lawns and golf courses are pretty silly, especially in the desert—I'm looking at you Palm Springs. Do you want to know what they use in parts of West Australia for greens? Sump oil and sand. Grey water capture/reclamation would be a good start and with proper vector control rain water tanks are a great start. Same with change of use habits.

    Corporate uses of water should bear more scrutiny and regulation. Coke, Pepsi and Nestlé use huge amounts of water in their products. They have history of draining aquifers and "buying" up water "rights"*. So who knows what plans are being hatched in boardrooms. But I don't think it bodes well.
    http://www.desertsun.com/story/news/2015/03/05/bottling-water-california-drought/24389417/

  11. c u n d gulag Says:

    In his tell-all book, "Confessions of An Economic Hit Man," John Perkins tells how he was involved in securing the mineral, energy, and water rights for the US and its corporations in South American, Central America, Asi… well, pretty much all around the world.

    The US and The world Bank gave some short-term money to the leaders of poorer countries, in return for the long-term rights to their natural resources.

    I think some of those countries, if/when we come to collect, might not be too happy about it.

    And so, the Powers-That-Be and people in the know here, are adamantly against lowering our "Defense (Military) Budget, because they know if those nations balk at turning over what they agreed to over the last 60+ years, we'll need to send our military all around the world, to 'get what's ours!'

    Oy, FSM help us.
    And, those countries.
    OY!!!

  12. Xynzee Says:

    Something Heywood didn't point out about wells/bores, is the concern for minerals (salts) in bore water. So though you're watering your crops, you're poisoning the land at the same time. Ooops!

  13. Greg Says:

    Cromartie, I've had the same thought about my small Lakewood real estate. By the time it's time to sell, the Texans will be here buying up everything.

  14. ronzie Says:

    If the value of my house goes up, what good will it do me? Won't I just have to pay more to buy or rent somewhere to live?

  15. amarks563 Says:

    Read up on the Salt River Project in Arizona, and the related market prices for water being sold across state borders. It's getting to the point where desalinization is, at a marginal level, cheaper than buying water and diverting it to California, at least during the worst of a drought. We're not yet at the point where these prices are consistently high enough to actually fund a desalinization project, but once those reserves run out in a year the math is going to look a bit different for developers. It'll be a boondoggle, no doubt, but I'd bet it will be easier to convince people to pay for a plant than it would be to impose water conservation regulations on those who use the most water, the agriculture and electricity sectors (though energy is a distant second compared to agriculture in California).

  16. Emerson Dameron Says:

    @amarks563:
    Now I'm picturing some sort of Chinatown scenario.

  17. pathman Says:

    Related article here:
    http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/03/finding-the-right-price-for-water/388246/?utm_source=SFTwitter

    I see you were prescient.

  18. well mostly Says:

    In a strange way the pressure on water may push us towards one useful result: companies will have to respond to growing concern over lack of clean, cheap water, by making their own arrangements and making those clear to investors/analysts, etc. That means getting the real cost of one resource into their books. They've been able to ignore this for decades. Externalities and all that.
    Imagine if high-tech and wall street firms suddenly had no access to B1 visas or B school grads! Their growth, imperiled, would be questioned, and they would have to do something or see stock prices collapse.
    Of course, the big boys would just throw their money and power at water resources, pushing out other's access. But that's another story. We should all be paying more for water, from whatever source and whatever the condition.
    Here's an idea, ask anyone concerned about water if they play golf. If so, they have to explain how their course gets it's water or STFU.

  19. Tim H. Says:

    If you can dig one far enough away from wells and streams, outhouses would reduce water use.

  20. Mo Says:

    Stuff I read last week:

    In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China

    Empire of Cotton: A Global History

    China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa

    In which I learned such tidbits as:
    Perhaps as much as 20% of China's rice crop is contaminated with hazardous levels of cadmium.
    That the government subsidy to Arizona cotton growers is higher than the GDP of many small countries.
    Goodbye forests in Africa.

    And whenever I think about stocking up on guns and ammo to defend my acre in the Tongass rainforest, I contemplate the fact that when the oligarchy wants your land, they'll just take it. Hopefully I'll be dead by then and be unable to care about my heir being driven into the wastelands.

  21. Mo Says:

    Stuff I read last week:

    In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China

    Empire of Cotton: A Global History

    China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa

    In which I learned such tidbits as:
    Perhaps as much as 20% of China's rice crop is contaminated with hazardous levels of cadmium.
    That the government subsidy to Arizona cotton growers is higher than the GDP of many small countries.
    Goodbye forests in Africa.

    And whenever I think about stocking up on guns and ammo to defend my acre in the Tongass rainforest, I contemplate the fact that when the oligarchy wants your land, they'll just take it. Hopefully I'll be dead by then and be unable to care about my heir being driven into the wastelands.

    [re-posted after links to Amazon sent the original into the Moderation wastebasket]

  22. NonyNony Says:

    When the country goes without these common fruits and vegetables for a few years because of no water, I bet they will be a little more cooperative about sending us a bit of their floodwater in order to preserve our wonderful diverse diet.

    Or maybe the midwestern farms that have been plowed over and had tract housing built on top of them could be rebuilt. We have plenty of water here and some great farmland after all.

    I don't usually get peeved at Californian attitudes, but this idea that we're going to come begging and pleading to hand our water over to you guys so that you'll keep growing lettuce for us in the desert is absolutely ludicrous. We'll do what we always do – make do. Hell people won't be able to afford that "diverse diet" anyway because they've got no jobs. Bringing some farm jobs back here doesn't sound like such a bad thing. If almond milk lattes disappear because almonds shoot up to a hundred dollars a pound people will be shocked and saddened, but they'll find something else to drink. We'll grow the things we can grow where there is water to grow them and leave the desert to be the desert – which is how agriculture is kind of supposed to operate.

  23. mothra Says:

    As a dweller in an American Southwestern city that figured out a while ago that water had to be conserved, I was gobsmacked when I read that California was just now considering—CONSIDERING—conservation measures. Uh, really? I was also gobsmacked years ago to learn that Phoenicians water their yards by flood irrigation. As other commenters have noted, we will be able to deal with water shortages; we will simply have to use less water, recycle and use gray water for non-potable uses, etc.. Of course Americans are wasteful assholes who don't like to be told they can't have something, so it will probably take a while for that to change.

    But Ed, a couple of nice rains won't fix California's drought problem. They need snowpack AND rain–and once you get in a deficit, it is mighty hard to climb out. At this point, they need years of good snowpack and rain–which climate change is going to deny them. Maybe it's time for them to quit just considering conservation measures…

  24. Anonymouse Says:

    @Heywood; you're from Chico? Good friends of mine live right up the hill in Paradise, and they've been really concerned about water for at least a decade. They're also concerned about the multi-state proposal, because so many people in that part of California are downright terrifying, and if they become their own state, then the schools and hospitals will be the first to go.

  25. dianne Says:

    I wasn't saying we should take water you need, just the extra nor am I saying you will come begging for what we produce. You may not even know what we have been sending out to the markets across the country until it is gone. We have a 9 month growing season. The srawberry patch near my house was planted weeks ago and we are anticipating the crop coming in in just a few weeks. Of course every area of the country has their specialties and farm to market is a big thing here and getting big everywhere.
    But the midwest is still under snow. Even the deep south has had freezing temps. During the winter, the produce can come from here and other western states or it can come from Chili. Why not here?

  26. TomW Says:

    @NonyNony – Amen!

    Every time I read an article about the California drought there are Californians in the comments who seem convinced the whole country is going to starve or suffer a horribly bland diet if California agriculture tanks. There are really only a handful of crops grown in California that can't be produced elsewhere in the country. California has advantages in terms of year-round production, but a pretty basic greenhouse anywhere in the southern parts of the midwest or the southeast can easily produce vegetables year round. I've visited a commercial lettuce greenhouse in North Carolina and my parents live near an absolutely enormous tomato greenhouse in Virginia. Those facilities are producing organic produce for restaurants and high-end groceries that are willing to pay premium prices for short shipping times and the freshest possible ingredients. There is plenty of room and water for those types of business to ramp up production if/when it becomes profitable for them to do so. We will probably lose a little variety and pay a little more, but it's not like we'll never eat a salad again.

  27. Jex Says:

    In Minnesota, Land of 10,000 lakes and seasonal flooding, we still have areas under drought conditions every year. NOBODY HAS "EXTRA" WATER. The Great Lakes are low. The aquifer around the Twin Cities is low. We have relatively more water, but again, nobody has extra.

  28. dianne Says:

    It's all well and good to have hothouse tomatoes – they'll do in a pinch if you can't get the real thing. My farmer's market keeps us supplied all summer.
    By the way, do you have any idea where your ketchup, tomato sauce, spaghetti sauce and salsa come from?

  29. Mo Says:

    And just to kick up the alarm level a notch, there's that thing about mercury from coal-burning powerplants polluting the rainwater… China's shit apparently blows all the way across the Pacific, although they aren't even in the same league as the state government of West Virginia, of course, who believe in dumping the toxic waste directly into the water supply.

  30. Francis Says:

    oh dear. My credentials: I spent about 7 years practicing water law (mostly finding water for new residential development) until the recession hit.

    Two major points: In California, water is local & water is political.

    Thus, anyone who talks about California's water issues as an undifferentiated whole doesn't know what they're talking about. Same for anyone who says we need water 'markets' or that water is too cheap. (There actually is a limited water market system; it's called 'changes in points of diversion'. It is an arcane specialty.)

    California has, for the foreseeable future, only one water problem: how to reduce the amount of acreage planted with trees and vines without causing massive ecological, political or economic damage. Everything else is around the margin.

    But change comes hard and slow in these communities. Telling the farm communities up and down the Central Valley that they should just vanish isn't an easy message to deliver or receive.

    A few additional points: Desal is way too expensive for ag, by almost two orders of magnitude. For cities, reclaiming sewage water all the way to potable water standards is far cheaper than desal. It just requires political leadership to overcome the toilet-to-tap idiots. (San Diego, I'm looking at you.)

    Reclamation to potable is even cheaper than dual-pipe systems (potable in one line, clean-but-not-potable reclaimed in the purple line) due to the cost of digging up streets and running second systems. Also, since mistakes happen, the freak-out that would occur when someone tapped purple-pipe water into a residence is so monumental that it's safer just to supply potable water to both the inside and outside of residences. (Plus who's going to tell the kids not to drink from the hose?)

    Paying for reclaimed water systems isn't cheap, but it's cheaper than about any other source except, of course, reduced demand. However, significant reduction in demand has its own problems as most water agencies put some of their fixed costs (salaries, debt service) into higher-demand water bloc rates. Doing so subsidizes the cost of very low use (so the poor get a break) but leaves the agency vulnerable to revenue shortfall when high users cut back.

  31. mtraven Says:

    Sao Paulo is in an extreme water emergency. That's 20M people, will be very interesting to see what happens if things get worse there.

  32. el mago Says:

    Seems like we've been around the block on this topic here before. It's a vital one. For almost 3 decades I've been talking to the wind about corporate water takeover on a global scale, privatizing communal village wells in India for example. And that's old news. In the early 90's I did research on desertification and am surprised that 20 some years down the line we're not experiencing worse crises. The facts are grim. I grew up and have lived in ag cultures in the U.S., Latin America and Europe and have developed some strong prejudices against modern farming practices and those who practice them. As for golf courses in the desert, gawd, I'll shut up now.

  33. Major Kong Says:

    Desalination may be a player, but it's very energy intensive and produces a lot of waste product that has to be dealt with.

    It's normally only done in places like Saudi Arabia that have relatively cheap energy and expensive water.

  34. Kaleberg Says:

    If California runs out of water, maybe New Jersey will come back as the Garden State. That's what's on their license plates. NJ used to be the tomato capital of the country. Campbell's tomato soup factory in Camden used to be big business. It could be again.

    We're already seeing the water wars. There's a band running around most of the world at around 5-10N latitude which has been at war for some time now. It runs through Africa, the Mideast and across Asia. You don't hear people screaming, we want water as their battle cry. They usually pick something like "kill the other sect of our religion" or the like, but the conflict is often driven by water shortages and migrations, then seasoned with age old resentments.

    Even in the US we are having water problems. I read a report on drought related municipal bond risk. Did you know that Atlanta bond ratings were cut due to water and related river flow worries? We're even worried out here in the northwest. We have way less snow pack than we are used to having. If we get enough years of this, we might even have to consider some serious water related infrastructure. (Granted, in my town, the big news was taking out a hydro dam a few years ago.) Still, it might be telling. Today's Seattle Times reports that Texans have replaced Oregonians as the second largest group moving to the Seattle area. That's after Californians.

  35. TomW Says:

    By the way, do you have any idea where your ketchup, tomato sauce, spaghetti sauce and salsa come from?/

    There is even less reason for those things to come from California than the fresh tomatoes. The items you mentioned are all preserved, there are efficiencies with year round production in a place like California, but tomatoes grow everywhere in the summer. Indiana (to pick a random state) could grow plenty of tomatoes in the summer and make them into ketchup. The ketchup factory would sit idle for much of the year (driving up expenses) but it could be done if California tomatoes became more expensive or unavailable. I'm not saying that California agriculture isn't big or important, I'm just saying that it can and will be replaced when the price is right.

  36. Heywood J. Says:

    Anonymouse:

    Butte County is an interesting outlier politically, as far as rural NorCal counties go. Where nearly all the counties inland from Humboldt and Mendocino are slightly to the right of Attila the Hun, Butte is more balanced (but trending more conservative lately, esp. as crime and homelessness become more and more problematic in Chico).

    Most of my friends tend to be teabagger types, who wholeheartedly support the JeffState idea. I have patiently tried to explain to them exactly what you point out, that schools, hospitals, roads, law enforcement, and all gubmint services would be cut in half or more overnight. They point at this or that sinecured state job that pays someone's idiot nephew six figures. I point out that CA has an annual state budget of about $110bn for FY15-16, that some asshole making $300k on the Air Resources Board is a drop in the ocean from a budget standpoint. And so on.

    The upshot (and I'm sure your friends up on the ridge can attest to this as well) is that these folks are immersed in that magical, providential thinking I mentioned. Something will come along because something always does. The JeffState budget shortfalls will be offset by eliminating "waste" (i.e., about the only jobs that pay a living wage with benefits up here anymore), and revenue from tourism. When I point out that no one is going to spend money to travel up here from SF or LA to see giant balls of twine and exploded meth labs, they get a little butt-hurt.

    There is a lot of beautiful natural scenery up here, to be sure. Mounts Shasta and Lassen, the redwoods, even more locally-known gems like Burney Falls and Whiskeytown Lake. But the idea that hundreds of millions of dollars of lost revenue can be recouped by shaking down campers and hikers just shows you how bad these people are at basic math.

    Anyway, water. That is the one legitimate complaint of the Jeffersonians, I think, but not to the extent that they think. The evil, wasteful Angelenos might be the ones poaching water from the Klamath and Sacramento rivers and such, but it's the homegrown ammond farmers who are draining the Tuscan Aquifer right under our feet. And the fact that the Butte County Board of Supervisors is reneging on their promise to ban fracking just compounds the looming problem. Bad enough the water is disappearing; when what's left is poisoned, you're well and truly screwed.

  37. quixote Says:

    Just burning up the current known reserves of oil will be enough to make climate change severe enough to affect our civilization. You better hope they DON'T come up with a substitute cheap enough to use for fuel. Expensive substitutes, such as you might need to make some pharmaceuticals, can already be made from soybeans.

    As for desalination, yes, current industrial-scale technology is a luxury item. But unlike, say, faster than light travel, it doesn't take new physics to deslinate seawater using wave, wind, or solar energy. Since California has quite a bit of coastline, they may be able to do more in that line than a linear extrapolation of current technology suggests. Of course, if they can't get BigAg and all us suburban lawn waterers to stop being stupid, NASA would have to tow in a water asteroid to save us.

  38. quixote Says:

    (Francis and el mago, among other commenters, make excellent points. *Obviously*, recycling to potable, using grey water for landscaping, water conservation, are the first things to pay attention to. I just wanted to point out that at the scientific edge, there have been quite a few interesting desalination inventions recently that don't take lots of energy and expense to work.)

  39. doug Says:

    There is a a lot of good farm land not in CA. I know it is hard for Californians and others to contemplate this. Midwest, someone up thread mentioned NJ, plenty of the SE, etc.
    Other places will take up the slack.
    Some seem to think CA will come to some kind of easy resolution and banish wasteful farming practices before real crisis. Not very likely, given human nature. It will be ugly, and a disaster for land values in CA. That is how we humans roll.

  40. Interrobang Says:

    My tomato products, and I'd be willing to bet quite a few of the tomato products available in this general area on both sides of the border, come from Leamington, Ontario, where they have some womdigious number of acres under glass. They grow all kinds of things year-round, and there's no reason why other places in the Great Lakes watershed area couldn't do the same.

  41. Chicagojon Says:

    I think I've mentioned before that I follow 4 people on facebook and 2 are G&T and the Dalai Lama. Great minds thinking alike today:

    Dalai Lama
    12 hrs ·
    Because past environmental destruction was the result of ignorance, we can easily forgive it. Today, we are better informed. Therefore, it’s essential that we make an ethical examination of what we have inherited, what we are responsible for, and what we will pass on to coming generations. Ours is clearly a pivotal generation. We have global communication and yet confrontation is more common than dialogue.

    Another follow IFLS has a link to China developing the world's first hydrogen-powered train. Honestly at this point I've given up on the US. Greed and incompetence have one and until this empire goes down there is not going to be nearly enough planning ahead.

  42. Heisenberg Says:

    #1 @ Francis: FYI, San Diego has come full-circle on "toilet to tap" recycling. Just a few months ago the SD City Council approved moving forward with this program, to the tune of $3.5 BILLION (http://bit.ly/1xhhThC). Amazingly, there was NO organized opposition at City Hall. None.

    (Just pause for a moment to appreciate the fact that a multibillion-dolllar public spending project didn't have ANY opposition… has that ever happened??)

    #2 @ Francis: I would love to learn more about your take on these issues, specifically:
    a) why the market argument (water is priced too cheaply) doesn't fly, and
    b) why the singular water problem facing CA is actually "how to reduce the amount of acreage planted with trees and vines." Can you provide more info or links?

  43. Anonymouse Says:

    @Heywood: "When I point out that no one is going to spend money to travel up here from SF or LA to see giant balls of twine and exploded meth labs, they get a little butt-hurt."

    Don't forget the Little Chico river, a.k.a. "that puddle in the concrete skateboard park"! What about that really nice Williams-Sonoma! What are you thinking, man? (or woman, as the case may or may not be) Oh! I nearly forgot the "little grand canyon" as you drive up from Chico to Paradise, and heck, who *wouldn't* pay good money for their picture taken next to the "Welcome to Paradise" sign?!? Why, surely the potential earnings from those could outstrip actual federal funding. Right? Right?

    Before you think I'm mocking (I'm really not): I live in a state where pretty much the only jobs are related to the federal gov't–bio-research, military, fed & state gov't, state parks, etc. Despite this, we've got our own loonies who despise the "gummit" and would love to secede from the USA.

  44. Anonymouse Says:

    @Tom W: I agree that food production is possible outside California. Before trains, before centralized ag, people all over the USA were growing their own foods because there really was no other option. People in Maine, Vermont, Wisconsin, etc.–they all had gardens (or knew people who did). If it gets too prohibitive to haul food from California, people will turn to their own back yards (or town farmer's market) for their food.

  45. Francis Says:

    On markets: Among the characteristics of markets is multiple sellers and substitutability of the goods. So, how many water pipes in your street? Can you switch suppliers? Can you live without? Retail water deliver, either to house or to field, is the purest of natural monopolies.

    So at best the 'market' consists of wholesaler exchanges, with the occasional individual rights holder (mostly rice farmers) also selling into the system. But wholesalers are virtually all governmental agencies. When the Imperial Irrigation District (which held rights to about 3 million acre feet of water annually – a truly staggering number) sold about .5 MAF to the San Diego County Water Authority, does anyone think that was a true market transfer?

    The next major issue, after market participants, is transport. You don't put industrial volumes of water in a tanker truck. It gets carried in aqueducts owned by public agencies. So if someone wants to be a water broker, he needs to find a buyer, a seller, and then rent space in the water system that connects the two, if any. So, for example, selling Colorado River water to the City of San Francisco is never going to work; they're not connected. (Sure you can try to swap water in the big Central Valley water banks, but that's a real specialty practice.)

    Now, since this water will have the lowest priority, it may never move at all (eg due to Delta pumping restrictions). If it does move, it gets carried on the top and suffers the highest evaporation losses.

    These are among the reasons no one brokers water. The only participants are the big wholesalers, like MWD, buying direct from rice farmers.

    California ag has to shrink and it has to build in flexibility to accommodate greater variation in annual deliveries. Shrinking is hard; it involves telling politically power groups that they are forever going out of business. Who wants to hear that message? Who wants to pay to buy out land that in a few years is going to be worthless?

    Flexibility requires tearing out trees and vines, and substituting annuals. Farmers of tree-based crops cannot keep pumping their groundwater basins. Sooner rather than later those resources will be destroyed or uneconomic to pump. And when the basins are down that far, there are significant collateral effects, like subsidence and damage to the infrastructure embedded in the subsided land: roads, pipes, buildings.

    But trees produce the highest value crops, like fruits and nuts. So now we're telling the ag industry both to fallow land forever and to reduce the value of the crops on the remaining land.

    The legislation passed last fall took an indirect approach by requiring local governments to assess the status of their groundwater basins and to prohibit overdrafting if the basin was depleted, allocating sustainable rights among the community. This is called an adjudication and they commonly take at least 15 years to litigate, which is why the legislation set a 10 to 15 year window for completion.

    More direct approaches are kicking around. But at the end of the day they all involve reducing farming and farming communities throughout California. How would any of you like to be told by your government that you could no longer exercise your chosen profession and would have to move? No matter how illogical, no matter the externalities you caused, you'd push back.'

    Read "On the public record" blog.

    Note that my approach of preferentially reducing permanent crops in favor of annuals is in direct opposition to Earl (and many others) who assert that rice and forage growing is wasteful. Not a lot of people get to be told by others that the way they exercise their chosen profession is a waste (a legal term with very specific meaning, I'll note), and especially when you're accused of wasting something you own. Race car drivers? Doctoral humanities candidates? Among the appropriate responses to such accusations is "Prove It" (the California State Water Resources Control Board entertains water waste petitions) and "Go Fuck Yourself".

  46. Ahab Says:

    Suddenly, Fremen stillsuits are starting to look like good investments.

  47. Barry Says:

    "When the country goes without these common fruits and vegetables for a few years because of no water, I bet they will be a little more cooperative about sending us a bit of their floodwater in order to preserve our wonderful diverse diet."

    In a discussion elsewhere, it was pointed out that moving water uphill is rather energy intensive. Desalinization is cheaper than moving water across the entire Rockies to Southern California.

  48. Felixmoronia Says:

    We could always repurpose the Burrito Tunnel.http://idlewords.com/2007/04/the_alameda-weehawken_burrito_tunnel.htm

  49. Tom Says:

    People seem to not know that California has moved ahead with construction of a desal plant, http://carlsbaddesal.com/ I actually drove by it earlier today. The same corporation is looking to build a similar plant in Huntington Beach but is receiving significant opposition from NIMBY and environmental groups. The area alt weekly had a good article on the local politics involved.
    http://blogs.ocweekly.com/navelgazing/2015/03/poseidon_desalination_water_drought_california_huntington_beach.php
    Price has been a big issue in negotiations as well, with San Diego promising to buy 30 years worth of output from the Carlsbad plant.

    I also always find it laughable when one of the State of Jefferson, 6 Californias, or similar plans are discussed as the political reality is they will never ever happen. The other states would never allow for their relative representation in the senate to be diluted while California's increased. Any talk of the benefits or drawbacks of such a plan is time wasted.

  50. Schmitt trigger Says:

    This blog is one of the very few on which the comment section is as interesting-sometimes more interesting- than the blog itself. I wish I could explain myself 1/3 as eloquently as some posters here.

  51. Heisenberg Says:

    @Francis – Thanks for the further explanation.

    Regarding the market/pricing issue, I agree with you that a truly private market for water is unlikely to work. But I was referring more to market interventions – such as policies that would provide financial incentives for farmers to stop growing such impractical, water-intensive crops in the California desert.

    This Atlantic article (also linked above) discusses this. In short – raise the price of water for agriculture, and change ALL rate structures to better promote conservation.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/03/finding-the-right-price-for-water/388246/

    "Glennon estimates that a 4 percent reduction in agriculture and livestock water consumption would translate into a 50 percent increase in water available for all residential, commercial, and industrial users."

  52. Francis Says:

    Heisenberg:

    The agencies delivering the water to the ag users are public agencies controlled by the farmers themselves. It is, therefore, a core mission of these agencies to deliver low cost water.

    How many people do you know who are willing to impose a tax increase specifically to drive the weakest members of their own community out of business? How long would that elected official keep her job? (Yes, there are legal tools that allow water districts to implement tax increases to fund demand reduction programs. But first you got to get the votes.)

    It is unclear to me that the best use of water is to go to those with the most money, or that municipal & industrial users are so short of water that moving water to them would result in an economic benefit to the State of California.

    It remains a very hard problem. And different people have very different views of what the problem actually is. Are we just worried about the destruction of groundwater basins? Or is there an unstated preference that M&I use is to be preferred over ag use? Internet libertarians say that they want water markets, but when you poke a little deeper many of them actually show deep contempt for the idea that poor people own something (individually or collectively through their local government) that rich people want — rights to water.

  53. Xynzee Says:

    Francis:
    Thanks for the informative posts.

  54. eau Says:

    Very few people here are mentioning meat production, and then only in passing. Strange. Meat (especially red meat) production is incredibly water-intense. Factory farming methods compound this usage. Not to mention the crops that are grown to be fed to livestock: even more water. Toilet bowls? Evaporation? Rice? Piddling, compared to meat. But people like the taste or something, so conversation over!

    Also, read Paolo Bacigalupi's new novel when it comes out (May 2015, I believe). It's an SF novel about the coming water wars in the US. But I already outed myself as a vegetarian, so only one or two of you are still reading at this point.

  55. Khaled Says:

    @Eau- as a fellow veg, I picked up what you were laying down. Getting people to not eat meat for environmental reasons will be hard, not to mention the political blowback that would occur from the big ag companies. They call people filming in slaughterhouses "terrorists", so anyone suggesting that consuming tons of meat may not be in the best interest of everyone will likely get you labeled as a commie or wacko or something.

  56. dianne Says:

    Our climate change is your climate change. The jet stream (which used to bring us our life giving rain in the winter) is being deflected by a persistent high pressure system off the coast which is sending it upward toward Canada. The best guess is it's caused by higher water temps. The jet stream then whipsaws back down into the east pulling colder Canadian air behind it.
    A weather map I saw yesterday showed the country cut in half – orange in the west for much higher temps and blue and purple in the east for much cooler temps with the jet stream as the dividing line.
    We will lose the orchards, I guess. My plea was just to save them. I love our fruit so it was admittedly selfish. I know they won't come back after they are allowed to dry up. You in the east will have to take over food production but I'm not so sure the colder temps and shorter growing season will allow for nectarines and mandarins to even be produced.

  57. Heisenberg Says:

    @Francis- Thanks again for contributing. I think where our discussion diverges is our assessment of what the real problem is.

    Based on the rhetoric and recent news converge, the typical citizen is led to believe that CA is rapidly coming to a point where it won't have enough water to provide for its (current) needs. As someone who lives in SoCal, this is obviously concerning – we don't want our region to become uninhabitable. (As Ed said: "They'll be back when they finally kill the Colorado River.")

    But after reading things like the Atlantic article linked above, it seems that the problem isn't actually one of physical supply – there IS enough water to sustain CA – but rather of inefficient allocation. Simply put, 80% of our water is used by Ag, and a lot of that is used on highly impractical crops and inefficient irrigation. As noted above, a 4% reduction in Ag usage would provide 50% more water for every single resident and commercial business in the state. That's a pretty good cost-benefit ratio.

    So despite the rhetoric, the problem isn't actually one of physical supply. Rather, it's a problem of poor allocation – largely due to archaic economic and legal arrangements.

    Where we differ is that you seem to think that changing these arrangements is simply not an option. Your writing keeps returning to the idea that it is politically infeasible to raise the price of water for farmers, or otherwise change the structure or incentives of the water market. While I agree that this will be politically difficult, it is certainly not impossible. Public policy created the current (archaic) arrangement of water rights and agencies, and public policy also contains the tools to address its current problems. All we need is the political will to do it.

    This may seem like a long shot now, because Big Ag has a lot of muscle in Sacramento. But there is no rule saying they will always be the priority. Just wait until the water situation gets more dire in the future, and threatens to have a REAL impact on the livelihoods of SoCal's 23 MILLION residents.

    When the shit hits the fan, I think you'll see that the SoCal mega-region can muster quite a bit of political influence.

  58. Francis Says:

    H: Virtually all of my writing is in response to gross inaccuracies and magical thinking. I harp on the old structures because so many people simply don't understand how the existing system works.

    With regard to the future, I think the Legislature will ultimately act in the face of this drought. I can easily see a statewide ban on groundwater pumping unless all the pumpers collectively can show that their pumping is having no adverse impact. I can see billions in funding for water projects like groundwater restoration, sewage reclamation / recharge. I can see some efforts to ease the restrictions on water sales, but I suspect that this will have only marginal impacts.

    And who knows what the future holds? If the drought is bad enough, we'll change the Constitution, and maybe in ways that actually help.

  59. bb in GA Says:

    Don’t fall into a static analysis on the Cali agricultural situation. They have about 43 million acres in agriculture (16 mill grazing and 27 mill cropland)

    The lower 48 states have almost half the land in crops, pasture and range. While much of the land is used to raise meat and the crops that feed the meat, there are plenty of acres that can raise most of the crops raised in California just not as productively. There are some crops that we probably can’t cover elsewhere in the US.

    The other important fact is that most everything is raised on #1 land everywhere because of the economics of farming.

    There are multiplied millions of acres below the #1 level in the US where we can grow stuff, it just won’t be as cheap as the California production.

    No, Mr and Mrs America we will still be able to feed ourselves without the Golden State’s contribution (should it come to that) We just won’t like the bill.

    //bb

  60. jon Says:

    Americans are so wasteful, we'll probably be able to cut back on our energy and water and many other resource usage enough to get through shortages, even those lasting forever. If only the rest of the world was so lucky.

  61. Procopius Says:

    This brought back vague memories of a science fiction story I read many decades ago about a near-future world where a large bureaucracy was in charge of controlling water. It started out with the protagonist flying over a snow field on some mountain and deciding that a certain area should be sprayed with carbon to increase melting. Kind of a pointless comment since I can't remember the name of the story or the name of the author or how things worked out.

    Was interested by the first poster's comments on how much water is wasted in California agriculture. It sounds like there are realistic opportunities there. Otherwise I think we're going to have to hope for a breakthrough in fusion research, but it may turn out that never comes to fruition. Like in the microchip industry thirty years ago, "Gallium arsenide is the material of the future. Always has been, always will be."

  62. Spiny Norman Says:

    A reminder: you can remove shit from water much more easily than you can remove salt.