California, where a sizable percentage of the food Americans eat is grown, is in the middle of a historic three-year drought. And yesterday, the state issued its first mandatory water restrictions just in time for the height of the state's wildfire season and hot-weather energy demands.
The State Water Resource Control Board (SWRCB) voted on Tuesday in favor of a new set of emergency regulations limiting outdoor irrigation and other wasteful water uses including landscaping and watering sidewalks. Public officials would also be given the authority to issue fines of up to $500 for violations.
“Immediate action is needed to effectively increase water conservation so that remaining supplies are maintained to address the present drought emergency,” read the proposal from July 8.
According to the state government, California is currently experiencing one of its worst droughts ever. The crippling water shortage is affecting everything from agriculture to local water supplies to recreational activities.
“It’s a pretty serious drought," said David Feldman, a water resources management expert and professor at the University of California, Irvine. "The State Water Resource Control Board is looking at efforts that will really send a strong signal to the public and local decision makers that something more is needed."
In January, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, asking local officials to take all precautions to deal with the drought. More recently, Brown ordered a 20 percent reduction in water use throughout the state through voluntary conservation efforts. Survey results from the SWRCB released on Tuesday, however, indicate that water consumption in California actually grew by 1 percent.
According to the SWRCB proposal, the voluntary goals for urban water suppliers “will not provide for timely and effective attainment of the state’s conservation needs.”
"This is just a very unprecedented drought and we’re just really not getting it."
"Not everybody in California understands how bad this drought is,” SWRCB chairwoman Felicia Marcus said, according to the AP.
Feldman agreed that the state’s voluntary policies have been ineffective, especially as individuals are not taking enough accountability for the problem. He said that while most Californians recognize there is a drought, they are expecting someone else to figure out a solution.
“The problem is this is just a very unprecedented drought and we’re just really not getting it, we’re not taking it as seriously as we should,” he said. “It’s not something most of us on a personal level take as seriously as we need too.”
Corporations could be neglecting drought warnings as well. According to a report from the Desert Sun on Monday, a Nestle-owned bottling company has continued pumping water out of a desert aquifer located on a Native American Reservation. The water is sold as Arrowhead 100% Mountain Springwater, and it's unclear how much is being produced. Because the reservation is a sovereign nation, Nestle's operations are not subject to state oversight.
And it’s not just California who should be concerned about the water scarcity issues plaguing the state. The drought has already had wide-ranging effects on California’s $44 billion agriculture industry, which provides up to half of the country’s produce. An impact study released on Tuesday from the University of California, Davis determined the drought could cost California $2.2 billion this year, with $1.5 billion of that hitting the state’s agriculture industry. More than 17,000 jobs will be lost, as almost 430,000 acres are expected to remain unplanted this year.
“We have to do a better job of managing groundwater basins to secure the future of agriculture in California,” Karen Ross, the Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said in a statement. The department of food and agriculture was a major funder of the UC Davis study.
"We may need to start thinking in terms of drought being the new normal.”
Richard Howitt, the study’s lead author, called the groundwater situation a “slow-moving train wreck.”
According to Feldman, issues of chronic unemployment have cropped up in the state's Central Valley as the agriculture industry there has taken a heavy hit from the drought. Not only will this continue to affect local unemployment, but the rest of the country could see an effect on food prices and the availability of California-grown foods like artichokes, almonds, and grapes.
While the SWRCB’s new rules may help reduce water use, the drought that has taken hold in much of the western and southwestern US in recent years is likely more than a short-term problem.
“We may be entering a longterm period where water supplies are becoming more precious," Feldman said. "We may need to start thinking in terms of drought being the new normal."
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