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Can You Solve California’s Drought?

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Folsom Dam, which regulates the water for half a million people who live in Sacramento, has dropped below 20 percent of its normal capacity this year.

You’d have to be hiding deep in a well somewhere to miss news about California’s crushing water shortage. More than 80 percent of the state is in severe or exceptional drought, a scientific classification not seen since before California’s 1849 gold rush.

Here at National Geographic, my colleague Dennis Dimick, the magazine’s environment editor, took a deep dive into the cracked dirt around the part of the country we both come from. Dennis covers enough ground to know that aquifers are being overtaxed and wells are being drilled to new depths. The damage to farms and the crops they grow is immediate. To say nothing of the businesses and residents that have been strained to cut back their water use by 20 percent following a request from the governor.

Those strains won’t simply disappear the first time it rains. Dennis explains:

Long-term studies indicate that snowpack is slowly shrinking across the region as the snow season shortens and runoff occurs earlier in spring. Climate forecasts—including the recently released National Climate Assessment—indicate that the Southwest can expect shrinking snowpacks, rising temperatures, more evaporation, and reduced streamflows. The number of wildfires also is expected to rise as rain, snow, and soil moisture decline.

Not to pile on to the list of doom, but California’s other problem is a small area of study called snowmelt timing. Gerald Meral, director of the California Water Program at the Natural Heritage Institute, explained to me recently that the way the west uses water runs on a schedule. Snowpack in the winter is supposed to melt slowly all spring and summer until rains come again in the fall. Less snow is okay for the spring, but terrible for the late summer, when the trickle quite literally stops. No water, accompanied by tapped out wells, will change the face of farming much faster than long-term climate changes. Even farmers who grow low-water crops like oranges or lemons can’t sustain weeks of zero H2O.

The real issue of the drought, though, is when any of this begins to matter to people outside the parched west. We know that nearly half of all U.S. fruits and vegetables come from California. It’s also true that the drought will cost the agriculture industry and its supply chain more than 17,000 jobs, according to a recent study from UC Davis. Only when things become too taxing to people further east might policy makers and hungry businesspeople get serious about how to reduce humanity’s water appetite. It’s not an easy puzzle to solve, but there’s a lucrative reward waiting for the person who does. And it’s getting bigger every day.