Peak water

Bigger reservoirs and deeper wells won’t end California’s water crisis

  • Water well drill rig near Mendota in California's Central Valley.

    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

At night, in the parched pasturelands in the southern reaches of California's Central Valley, strange constellations glow on the horizon: beacons atop rigs that are drilling for water. Applications to drill new wells skyrocketed after state officials announced in February that, after the third year of pitiful precipitation, no water would be delivered via the concrete rivers of the massive State and Central Valley water projects. In Fresno County between January and April, 226 well drilling permits were issued compared to just 69 during the same period last year – prompting some to fear irreparable damage to aquifers.

In the daytime, signs planted in desiccated orchards come into view, declaring: "Congress created Dust Bowl" and "Man-made Drought," expressing the widely believed myth that regulations to protect endangered fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are responsible for water shortages on Central Valley farms.

In February, House Republican David Valadao proposed lifting endangered species protections and invalidating the federal mandate to restore the San Joaquin River, so that pumping from the Delta to the Central Valley could be increased. In March, Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer sought more "flexibility" to transfer water from wetter northern regions to the south's water-starved farms and cities, and to expand Shasta Lake, California's largest reservoir, for storing more water. Just last week, five Central Valley water agencies announced their own audacious plan to overcome the drought: Fill the California Aqueduct with groundwater and reverse its normal flow along one roughly 50-mile section in order to deliver moisture to the valley's bone-dry western edge.

In California, the worst political sin during times of extreme aridness is the appearance of idleness. But while politicians maneuver for temporary engineering fixes and regulatory rollbacks, other Westerners argue that the old solutions to water scarcity won't end the current crisis, or protect us from future ones.

Water expert Peter Gleick says California and the West have reached "peak water," with more water promised to farms and cities than mountains and rivers can provide. Worse, the region could fall into a "megadrought," lasting decades or centuries. Bigger reservoirs and new wells will bring no relief without an adequate water supply. Which raises the question: Will California take realistic measures to deal with its water crisis, or succumb to political inertia and lack of rain?

The last decade's unrelenting droughts have forced Westerners to re-evaluate the definition of a "normal" water supply. Lynn Ingram, a University of California earth science professor and author of The West Without Water, didn't have to look far to find major periods of aridity in the past. There was the 1930s Dust Bowl, and the 1976 to '77 drought, known in California as the "year of no rain." And yet, as economically and socially damaging as these events were, we have not witnessed the worst possible extremes – not by a long shot, says Ingram. The mid-Holocene drought, for example, persisted for 1,500 years, forcing vast migrations of Native peoples.

Add climate change to the risk of natural megadrought, and the future looks even bleaker. "The data shows that there are certainly periods of dryness that were longer and more intense than what we have in our 100 years of records," says Elissa Lynn, program manager of the Climate Change Adaptation team at California's Department of Water Resources. "The problem is that today it's hotter than it was in those periods – and that will exacerbate any drought problems we have."

Lynn points out that the state's snowpack, the source of about one-third of its water, is expected to decline by 48 to 65 percent this century. Already, it has dropped by 10 percent over 20 years. In early May, the water stored in remaining snowpack was just 18 percent of average. "We have to start making plans for its loss," Lynn says.

The White House's National Climate Assessment, released this month, reinforces that mandate. According to the report, temperature increases resulting from carbon pollution have played a large role in the snowline's rapid retreat. Rising temperatures and shrinking water supplies are a double blow for farms: "The combination of a longer frost-free season, less frequent cold air outbreaks, and more frequent heat waves ... increases agricultural water consumption," the report says. "This combination of climate changes is projected to continue and intensify."

Ingram says California and most of the West have entered an era in which water shortages can't be solved through brute-force engineering. "We need to acknowledge how unreliable and uncertain our water supply is. It looks variable over a century. But if you go back in time, it's even more variable. And that's a little scary," she says. "You can build bigger reservoirs, but if we're heading into a drier period, you're not going to have the water to fill them."

She has some practical advice: "We need to be thinking about local efficiency – the use of wastewater recycling and rainwater harvesting," she says.  And in agricultural regions where the bulk of the state's water is consumed, efficiency and groundwater monitoring must be priorities. (California doesn't regulate groundwater pumping, and the more aquifers are depleted, the less they can be leaned on during future droughts.)

Lynn of the Department of Water Resources agrees, pointing out that reduced snowpack and earlier snowmelt will force water managers to take a "portfolio" approach – diversifying water supplies, increasing water conservation and recycling, and devising new storage methods, like banking water in aquifers in wet years, rather than in reservoirs.

The drought currently ravaging California is, indeed, partly "man-made." But those responsible for "making" the drought are not politicians or regulators with soft spots for endangered fish. This drought, while natural in some sense, has likely been intensified by anyone who puts gasoline in a car, flips a light switch powered by coal- or gas-burning power plants – or turns on a faucet. In California, roughly one-fifth of the state’s electricity is used for “water-related” purposes, including treating, heating and moving it to places it doesn't naturally flow. To a greater or lesser extent, we are all to blame.

Correction: The original version of this story stated that about one-fifth of California's energy is used to transport water, but the story has been corrected to say that one-fifth is used for "water-related" purposes.

Warren Anderson
Warren Anderson Subscriber
May 26, 2014 12:10 PM
Once again a California water article by a science denier that can't comprehend the fact that California's problem is overpopulation. And it gets worse: because of America's policy of mass immigration, the population of this country will triple during the 21st century with 150 million more Americans by mid-century. In other words, by 2050 there will be several more tens of millions of Californians in a state that's already out of water. I don't know what they'll drink but it won't be water. All of the suggested cures for California's water crisis will fail to make a difference because of this fundamental demographic fact. There are plenty of villains in this sad story but if you could point to one group, it would be the believers in the abysmal pseudoscience of economics. They think that the only way to measure the success of a society is by how much it grows and that growth can continue in a finite world. There is no way that the USA can produce enough food, energy or have enough water for the 1.2 billion people expected during the 22nd century, so water is just one of the many crises on the horizon that will result from overpopulation.
Toby Thaler
Toby Thaler Subscriber
May 26, 2014 03:25 PM
Warren Anderson is correct; we are not addressing the limits to growth and until we do, all we're doing is making future crises worse. Here's a good site that explores economics and limits:
Bruce Vojtecky
Bruce Vojtecky Subscriber
Jun 08, 2014 08:40 AM
Everybody should have the World Population Clock on their computer screen. Halfway through 2014 the world population has grown 35 million. It is 9AM here in Cheyenne and the world population has grown 60 thousand already today.
Overpopulation is the root cause of all the worlds problems and needs to be addressed now. Perhaps all those movies about Earth colonies on other planets are more truth than fiction.
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Jun 09, 2014 09:55 AM
climate change, should be called by the reason it is happening, the cause and fix. Human over population.
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Jun 09, 2014 10:03 AM
How about instead of a carbon tax on industry, we put a carbon tax on having kids. That makes sense, more people born, more carbon burned, virgin prairie plowed up, water used on and on.But will people vote for what is right and logical, when it impacts their pocket book?
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Jun 09, 2014 03:07 PM
There seems to be nothing in our system capitalism ,about conservation. Especially how it is related to natural resources.It's about use them up as fast as you can, so you can make more money.Not about only taking what is replenished sustainability.Or even making the resource last longer maybe leaving oil and gas for kids generation.If we thought about what globalization is doing to our natural resources.Water is exported out of this country in the form of agricultural.Eighty percent of Montana wheat leaves this country, as well as a large percentage of other crops, is it our responsibility to feed the planet when we might not be able to have the resources to feed ourselves someday?
Warren Anderson
Warren Anderson Subscriber
Jun 10, 2014 12:48 PM
Kirk: The problem for the United States is immigration. Without it the population of the USA would slow and begin to decline. With it the country will triple its population during the 21st century. Unfortunately it's a sacred cow. It seems ironic that President Obama is angry at Congress for not giving him a bill to sign that would increase the population of the country by 10% (11 million legalized and 20 million new visas for special interests), while at the same time trying to move to a green energy economy that will be able to provide maybe 50% of the energy that we use now.
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Jun 10, 2014 01:28 PM
I agree, much does not make any sense. He is taking about restricting our use of coal. While at the same time Montana is talking about increasing coal shipments four fold by rail to the west coast ports to ship to china to burn. It's one atmosphere.We should be working on zero population growth that should be our goal, at least for this country. That is sustainable, the problem I worry about, is our economic model doesn't work with zero growth we need a different model.
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Jun 10, 2014 03:40 PM
wouldn't it be nice if emigration was tied to population. And only allowed if our population numbers actually dropped.
Warren Anderson
Warren Anderson Subscriber
Jun 11, 2014 07:45 AM
No, zero population growth isn't sustainable. Numerous studies like the Rockefeller commission, the Cornell study, the Scientific conference, etc. have tried to determine what a sustainable population would be for the USA. They all agree that after we run out of oil and other natural resources, the population of the USA will have to fall to 150 million or less - in other words less than half of what it is today.
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Jun 11, 2014 07:58 AM
I agree with you Warren, but at least it's a start, better then going to 12 billion.What would be the number of people on the planet all burning carbon, that the forests and planet could deal with and absorb the CO2 we produced, that would be a good number.
Howard Ahmanson
Howard Ahmanson
Jun 11, 2014 05:49 PM
Well, California has done a good job pricing a lot of people out of the market in its coastal cities! There's "population control" for you!