California is experiencing a devastating water crisis, by some accounts the worst in the last 1,200 years. Drought is hammering the two primary water delivery systems on which millions of Californians rely — the Colorado River and the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Most of the state — and especially the south San Joaquin Valley and Kern County — is suffering badly. Extensive planning, and solid investments funded by large coffers, have enabled large portions of Southern California to get through 2021 without rationing. But the experience here in the Central Valley is far different. Thousands of acres fallowed. Jobs lost and hours cut. Multiple cities with water restrictions. Wells running dry. These disparate outcomes are highlighting the current inequalities in drought preparedness and a broken system. There is also the sobering reality that Southern Californians may too be thirsty again soon.
Historically, snow melting in California’s Sierra Nevada provides nearly 30 percent of the state’s water, but not this year. The State Water Project is delivering only 5 percent of contractual entitlements. Meanwhile, Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States in terms of capacity, is at its lowest level since first built in 1936. Lake Powell, the second largest, also hit its historical low this year. Whispers of Lake Mead crashing are now clearly audible, and the concerns are real. This would further pressure southern California’s supplies.
Once, there was redundancy in supply, sufficient storage, and ample conveyance facilities to survive the dry cycles. Not today.
At one time California’s vast groundwater resources were tapped to help us to ameliorate shortages, but historical depletions of our reserves combined with the adoption of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act has put this tool on the shelf. SGMA committed to the goal of maximizing groundwater use while avoiding harm through groundwater sustainability plans. That we wouldn’t even need if we were allocated our surface water, that is paid by our assessments.
The last three decades have resulted in aggressive conservation efforts that have been met with slashed per capita water use in urban environments to a mere fraction of what they were a decade ago. Agriculture too has done its part, with efficiency improvements exceeding 90% in large areas of California. However, the demands of a state with nearly 40 million people have hardened and there is little room to give.
But very little has been done to offset the lost supply or improve our storage and conveyance infrastructure. There is more attention given to tearing down dams than there is in using the natural advantage of developing aquifer storage. None of the $2.7B allocated for storage by voters in 2014 has been spent. The pathway to project approval is expensive, unwieldy, and grueling, regardless of the true human cost.
Drought’s devastation is profound. The people hit hardest live in historically underserved communities that lack access to back-up supply sources of clean drinking water. Some are the farmers who have been forced to plow under orchards, causing unemployment and driving food costs higher. The history and the future of these two communities is inseparable; both will benefit from thoughtful and creative approaches to water infrastructure or bear the brunt of inaction together.
Water is available if we can store it when it rains. Storage opportunities can be sustainable if they are intelligently designed and strategically located. Enhanced conveyance and infrastructure need not be massive or disruptive to be effective. We need to work towards a goal of reaching the solutions that provide relief, equality of opportunity and water resiliency for all Californians, regardless of their ZIP code.
Americans, especially Californians, are the most innovative people in the world. History says this is true. It’s time for the people that comprise the world’s 5th largest economy to deliver on the promise of water equality. Time to step up.
Jason Giannelli is a husband, father and fourth generation Kern County farmer.