Droughtful State of CA

Governor Jerry Brown has declared a drought emergency in California, mobilizing the state toward mass conservation efforts and federal funding to compensate for the water shortage. He’s upping the number of firefighters and assistance to small farmers for this upcoming year. And though nothing has yet been mandated, he is strongly encouraging a voluntary 20% reduction in water usage statewide.

We’ve actually been experiencing a drought since 2011, but the fact that 2013 was officially the driest year for the Golden State since its establishment in 1850 is the main stressor for water shortage concerns. But in order to plan for the future, we want to know how bad this drought is going to be, exactly. And how is it going to impact us?

According to studies of ancient tree rings, we may be headed for a mega drought and can expect sparse rain for the next few decades; this interpretation is highly disputed; however, as other scientists believe that dry spells commonly last only two or three years. Whichever the case, what we can say for certain is that we have been in a drought for some time now, and we are expecting minimal rainfall for the next few months, so we should prepare accordingly. The cumulative effect of this long duration without rain has already impacted us, as water reserve levels have fallen and the number of wildfires has risen. The great momentum with which the Rim Fire spread through Yosemite last year was permitted by the record-dry weather.

The governor is taking a very pragmatic approach by convening a drought task force and alerting Californians that the situation is dire and that we can definitely anticipate water shortages. He’s also taken a wise decision to wait and monitor drought forecasts instead of prematurely passing water conservation laws to emphasize his point. Should he have to plan for a long-term solution, however, it will require much more meticulous ideology than asking for water transfers, reducing individual water footprint, and federal aid.

In a worst-case scenario, Governor Brown ought to start handling the agriculture industry before he starts assigning water rations for people at home. 93% of California’s water goes to agriculture, and the most expensive foods of all are the animal-based products: one study found that 1,600 gallons of water are needed to produce each pound of beef.

Raising and maintaining cattle and cleaning meat is a thirsty process compared to plant-based food production. Though the cost is kept low thanks to subsidies from the federal government, but in a prolonged drought situation, it would be better extract that monetary advantage away and give it to farmers willing to raise more fruits and vegetables. We also have to think about our economy; California’s big revenue generators are fruits, vegetables, and nuts, so it is imperative that the state government promote their production over meat.

Even if we don’t find ourselves in the middle of a two hundred year mega drought, this measure is a good long-term investment.  We eat a little healthier and waste less water. Doesn’t seem so bad to me.


Seema Wadhwani is a fourth-year biological sciences major and can be reached at wadhwans@uci.edu