A three-year drought has shrunk Shasta Lake to about 60 percent of its long-term level, reducing water to cities and farms.
A three-year drought has shrunk Shasta Lake to about 60 percent of its long-term level, reducing water to cities and farms.

California's Pipe Dream

A heroic system of dams, pumps, and canals can’t stave off a water crisis.

On a blistering day in the megalopolis that is southern California, Shivaji Deshmukh of the Orange County Water District offers me a cup of cool, clear water that just yesterday was swirling around in an Anaheim toilet bowl. We're standing outside the second largest water-reclamation facility in the world, a high-tech assemblage of micro-filters, membranes, and UV lights that every day recycles 70 million gallons of Orange County sewage into water so clean it's almost distilled. "It's OK," Deshmukh reassures me, casually taking a slug from his own cup. "It's the same technology they use on the space station."

After spending the past century building one of the most elaborate water-delivery systems on the planet, replete with giant pumps and thousands of miles of pipes and canals, California has come to this—akin to the last desperate act of lifeboat-bound sailors drinking their own bodily fluids. The reasons are multiple and complex, but the bottom line is that the state's world-renowned plumbing is now perilously stressed. A three-year drought has drained most of the state's major reservoirs to their lowest levels in nearly two decades, forcing mandatory water restrictions for many residents. And warming temperatures have been shrinking the all-important snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, the largest storehouse of surface water in the state.

The biggest and weakest link in the system is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a former 700,000-acre marsh that has been drained, diked into islands, and farmed for more than a century. Much of the land has subsided, and many islands now sit more than 20 feet below sea level, creating California's own little slice of Holland in the middle of the Central Valley.

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