The Consequences of the Drought in California

California's drought is impacting its growth.

One of the first things I learned when I started working out with a personal trainer was to drink a lot of water — and the colder the better. The cold water is refreshing and your body burns calories warming it as it sits in your stomach. It is a two-for-one benefit.

Water is such an essential part of life, and yet we take it for granted. In California they have learned that you can’t take it for granted and it has to be managed according to essential priorities.

I sat on a water task force for several years during the last long drought here in western South Dakota. Reservoirs are vital to support business, agriculture and the community. When they shrink, people panic, but my experience is that the resolve to effectively manage water evaporates as soon as it starts to rain again.

The real drought in California has been a lack of planning…

Southern California is naturally arid while the northern half of the state usually gets ample rainfall. There are regular cycles of drought as the ocean’s surface temperature fluctuates and shifts weather patterns. Everybody knows about the drought cycles. That’s why the state is sprinkled with more than 1,300 reservoirs.

Despite the system of reservoirs, California finds itself desperately short of water. The shortage is not enough to force rationing in major cities, but it has forced ranchers to sell off cattle herds, nut and fruit orchards to be thinned, and lawns to go brown.

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If reservoirs did not exist, rainfall during wet years would flow straight to streams and eventually out to sea. During dry years, those streams and rivers would just dry up. The reservoirs create the illusion of a plentiful water supply, keeping streams flowing even when it does not rain — until they themselves dry up.

Decades ago, California started managing water to protect endangered species rather than to protect against drought cycles. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with protecting endangered species — no one wants to see critters become extinct. It is a tough decision to choose between life and death for an animal that can’t defend itself.

The fact is California’s growth is limited by its supply of water. The population is now 38.7 million and the Department of Finance expects it to grow to 42 million by 2025 and 49 million by 2050. But what will they drink? Where will they live? Without reliable access to one of the most basic needs of life, we’re looking at a state with limited growth potential.

Running Out of Options

Governor Jerry Brown’s statewide mandate to cut water use by 25% will likely lead to even tougher local restrictions, impacting the housing market throughout the state.

One unknown for home builders is whether or not local government will restrict the number of new connections to municipal water supplies. It is impossible to plan new developments if you don’t know if water will be available.

New home construction already needs to conform to arid landscape designs, which incorporate arid plants, rocks, and drip irrigation of recycled water. New homes have needed low flow fixtures for years, too.

The governor’s mandate to cut water use by 25% may not be enough to help the state in the long haul. As new home construction slows it will restrict the number of workers who can move into the state to take new jobs. That means California’s economy will gradually slow — and that’s not good for a state that relies on high taxes to sustain itself.

California, especially the southern half of the state, is an arid climate and there is a possibility that the state is fast approaching its limit for growth. There’s only so much water to go around even if residents turn their lush lawns and swimming pools into rock gardens.

A State of Change

The rain will return during next winter’s rainy season, mostly due to the dwindling impact of El Niño. Reservoirs will start to be replenished. Of course, it’s difficult to predict how fast the reservoirs will recover. For example, despite good Northern California rainfall this winter, almost everything flowed out to the ocean to support the Delta smelt.

But even as water levels improve in reservoirs, old habits die hard. There will likely be a rush to return to old lifestyles. Water restrictions will be shed and water will flow out of reservoirs as if there will never be another drought despite the state’s long history of water troubles.

The real drought in California has been a lack of common sense.

Reservoirs are vital to support business, agriculture and communities. California has to resolve to effectively manage water even then it starts to rain again, looking for as many two-for-one benefits as it can. It might mean that the state’s economy will be forever limited. Farmers might be forced to shift from water-needy crops such as almonds and lettuce, changing the agricultural landscape of the state. The citizens and regulators will have to decide exactly what the state’s priorities are over the course of the next decade, opening the door for more investment in infrastructure and better water management.

There’s a silver lining in every cloud,
Chris Orr
Chris Orr
Certified Consulting Meteorologist