How California Is Winning the Drought

Lessons to learn from the effective techniques that California is applying to combat the drought. This New York Times’ piece looks at what California is doing right where this current drought is concerned.

FOR California, there hasn’t ever been a summer quite like the summer of 2015. The state and its 39 million residents are about to enter the fifth year of a drought. It has been the driest four-year period in California history — and the hottest, too.

Yet by almost every measure exceptprecipitation, California is doing fine. Not just fine: California is doing fabulously.

In 2014, the state’s economy grew 27 percent faster than the country’s economy as a whole — the state has grown faster than the nation every year of the drought.

California has won back every job lost in the Great Recession and set new employment records. In the past year, California created 462,000 jobs — nearly 9,000 a week. No other state came close.

The drought has inspired no Dust Bowl-style exodus. California’s population has grown faster even as the drought has deepened.

More than half the fruits and vegetables grown in the United States come from California farms, and last year, the third growing season of the drought, both farm employment and farm revenue increased slightly.

Amid all the nervous news, the most important California drought story is the one we aren’t noticing. California is weathering the drought with remarkable resilience, because the state has been getting ready for this drought for the past 20 years.

The future of water is going to be turbulent for all of us — not far away, but right where we live; not in some distant decade, but next month or next spring. A sense of water insecurity is coming to many places that have never had a water worry. Here’s what California’s scorching summer of 2015 is showing us: We know what to do. We just have to do it.

Cannon Michael, 43, is a sixth-generation farmer in California’s Central Valley, growing tomatoes, cotton, melons and wheat on 10,000 acres of dirt that were part of the holdings of his great-great-great grandfather Henry Miller, a rancher who was known as the “Cattle King.”

Mr. Michael returned to work the family farm in 1998, and has gradually transformed the mix of crops and how they are grown. In the past 10 years, he has spent $10 million installing drip irrigation on about half the land. When he grows tomatoes using drip hoses that squirt water right below where the plants emerge from the ground, he uses about 35 percent less water per acre than he would with traditional irrigation. But the plants produce more tomatoes — he says that he gets at least 70 percent more tomatoes per 1,000 gallons of water.

Mr. Michael isn’t an isolated example. He’s part of a trend. Since 1980, the amount of California farmland watered by drip- or micro-irrigation has gone from almost nothing to nearly three million acres, 39 percent of the state’s irrigated fields. In perfect parallel, farmland that is flood-irrigated — using more water to produce less food — has fallen to about 3.5 million acres from more than six million.

California’s urban areas are also slowly transforming themselves. East of Los Angeles is a quietly innovative water district called the Inland Empire Utilities Agency, providing water for just under a million people.

The agency has an aggressive water recycling program, which cleans and resupplies 52 million gallons of water a day for an immediate second use, on farms, in factories and commercial laundries, in recharging the area’s groundwater.

And although it is dozens of miles from the Pacific Ocean, the agency also desalinates water. The Inland Empire sits over an aquifer that has been polluted by a legacy of careless agricultural and human habitation. Thedesalination process removes chemicals and salt, turning 35 million gallons a day of tainted brine into water at least as clean as tap.

Those techniques expand Inland Empire’s water supply without actually requiring any new water, and they represent the leading edge of an effort in Southern California toward “water independence.” In water terms, California is famously a kind of teeter-totter: Most of the water is in the north, most of the people are in the south, and the water flows to the people.

But across Southern California, the progress is quietly astonishing. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California now supplies roughly 19 million people in six counties, and it uses slightly less water than it did 25 years ago, when it supplied 15 million people. That savings — more than one billion gallons each day — is enough to supply all of New York City.

California’s resilience is fragile. It won’t last another two years, it might not last another year.

And to say that the state is weathering the drought is not to trivialize the damage. This summer’s wildfires — which have killed one firefighter, have already burned more acreage to date than last year’s fires and have destroyed dozens of homes — are just one example.

In the town of East Porterville, in the central part of the state, the drinking wells began to go dry a year ago or more. Many residents rely on bottled water and water distributed at the fire station. Their taps, their toilets, their showers are dry — an astonishing level of deprivation in a state with great wealth.

Farm production numbers look good partly because prices for produce are high. Irrigation water, which comes from surface water sources mostly in the north, is allocated based on history, law and availability. Despite cuts of irrigation water of up to 100 percent, farmers have continued to get water, pumping it from aquifers under their land.

California is the only state in the nation that has never regulated groundwater — farmers are largely free to pump as much as they want, without even tracking what they use. In wet years, pumping well water is generally unnecessary and expensive. In dry years, it’s survival.

In 2014, California farmers were able to substitute groundwater for 77 percent of the irrigation water they did not receive. In 2015, farmers areincreasing their pumping by an astonishing one billion gallons a day, but the irrigation cuts are so severe that they will replace only 71 percent of their water.

The farmers are saving themselves now, but they are inflicting long-term damage to the vast underground water supply that is really California’s only remaining water cushion.

What can we learn from California’s resilience in this drought? The first lesson goes back 20 years before it started, when cities began to put conservation measures in place — measures that gradually changed water use and also water attitudes. If cities look at the water they have — rainwater, reservoir water, groundwater, wastewater — as different shades of one water, they quickly realize that there’s no such thing as “storm water” or “wastewater.” It’s all water. You can start giving yourself new water sources quickly by cleaning and reusing the water you’ve already got.

California’s progress has been bumpy. The second lesson is that a drought starkly reveals water absurdities that need to be fixed, often urgently.

How can the largest agricultural economy in the country not require farmers to report how much water they use — and allow them to use groundwater without limit?

How can the water-starved city of Los Angeles have an elaborate system of drains and pipes to collect the rain that does fall — often in brief, intense torrents — only to discard it in the Pacific instead of storing it?

How can it be that in Sacramento nearly half the homes have no water meters? Residents don’t know how much water they use and can’t see how much they conserve if they want to.

And the third lesson is how to use water insecurity to create its opposite. A drought like this one creates the opportunity to change things — even really big things — that couldn’t be changed without a sudden sense of vulnerability.

Last fall, prodded by Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration, the California Legislature passed a sweeping groundwater law, taking California from having the least regulated groundwater in the country to being a model. The concept is simple: No community will be allowed to pump more water from the underground aquifers than can refill those aquifers — either naturally, or with human help.

The law is so innovative, it will eventually remake water use across the state, and if other states pay attention, across the nation. The law could inspire new techniques for getting rainwater to refill overtaxed aquifers.

In a similarly future-focused move, San Francisco just passed an ordinanceto require that new buildings of a certain size have on-site water recycling systems, and reuse their own wastewater. It’s the first city in the United States with such a requirement.

In May, the water district for all of Southern California decided to use the drought to change attitudes about lawns. It increased funding more than fivefold for a program that gives rebates to homeowners who replace their lawns with desert-appropriate landscaping. Las Vegas helped pioneer such “cash for grass” programs as a water-saving technique, removing 170 million square feet of turf — thousands of lawns — since 1999.

The response in Southern California, where $340 million was allocated for the program, stunned even experienced water managers. After five weeks, all the rebate money had been spoken for. The amount of turf set to be removed: about the same square footage that Las Vegas needed 16 years to take out.

For a century, California has pioneered innovations that have changed the way we all live. Without much fanfare, the state is doing that again, with water, moving to make standard what has been novel. A lawn landscaped with rocks and cactus instead of turf, morning coffee brewed matter-of-factly with recycled water, cities designed to return rainwater to the ground — these aren’t just symbols, they are how you handle water when you understand its value.

One of the wonderful ironies of water is that the more attention you pay to it, the less you have to worry about it. By the drought of 2045, the way California uses water will have been transformed again. Just as powerfully, the way ordinary Californians regard water will have been transformed. More than any water conservation practice in particular, it’s that attitude that will save the state — and the rest of us, as well.

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