The Long-Term Legacy of California’s Water Crisis
Everybody knows that California is one of the biggest producers of agricultural products in North America. In fact, despite having been in a drought situation for five years in a row, the agriculture industry generated record revenues in 2014, and employments levels reached a record high.
But that’s short-term stuff. Experts and concerned voices of the general public have been asking what are the long-term effects of such a long drought? Despite the crisis having been officially declared at an end on April 7th, the legacy of California’s water crisis can already be felt across industries, from the agricultural sector to the state’s symbolic golf courses, as well as in both urban and rural areas. As a result, water conservation practices continue to play an important role in the state, as there is no doubt that there will be more droughts in store. It’s just a matter of when.
Despite the drought being declared “over”, the state’s ecological and economic future continue to remain at risk. Sustainability is a particular issue at hand. Record agricultural revenues and employment records invariably come at a cost when a region happens to be suffering from long-term drought. If the state has fared relatively well thus far, it is only because farmers have resorted to pumping up astounding amounts of groundwater – a practice that most certainly has a deadline drawn by Mother Nature.
Pumping groundwater has already caused visible effects across the state. Rural areas in particular have been hit hard as households that are dependent on wells have been left without water. Meanwhile, parts of the state have begun to sink at increasingly rapid rates from over pumping. Up to 18 native fish species and water-bird populations are also at risk of total extinction or decline.
All in all, it is clear that the agricultural sector’s attempt to thrive despite a drought has wreaked havoc on the environment. Unfortunately, a lack of data makes it difficult to propose regulations that could deal with disastrous over-pumping. Though the latest drought is technically over, if harmful watering practices continue, there may not even be a habitable California in the future for there to be a legacy left behind at all.
A culture of conservation
The frequency and duration of California’s droughts has led to the development of a culture of conservation in recent years. Regulations developed since the last disastrous drought have resulted in water conservation practices becoming the default behaviour of many Californians. Studies have conducted in order to identify how much energy is saved as a result of water conservation practices, in addition to evaluating the impact of conservation culture on municipal water treatment plant operations.
This water conservation culture is extremely important given that rural and urban areas are often at risk of destruction due to wildfires. A disproportionately large number of wildfires have occurred in California over the drought years, permanently damaging the ecosystem and destroying lives in the process.
As such, conservation strategies also involve advocating for better forest management practices, which could potentially save lives and the ecosystem with proper execution. This includes both suppressing existing fires and preparing for potential fires in the off-season. That said, recent cuts to the Department of the Interior amount to $1.5 billion. Vaguely worded promises to responsibly budget the wildfire suppression program make it difficult to say just how this already underfunded initiative will be able to contribute to safeguarding California in a meaningful manner in the years to come.
Golfing goes green
The negative effect of droughts on California’s legacy can also be seen on the state’s iconic golfing greens. While dead grass is perhaps less important than a raging wildfire, the fact remains that golf courses have been an important part of the state’s identity. Continued droughts could do lasting harm to this particular aspect of Californian culture.
With Californian golf courses using close to 300 million gallons of water a year, there is no question as to why Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive 25 percent water reduction order across the state, with special attention given to golf courses. However, up to three-quarters of the state’s golf courses have been using high-tech, responsive sprinklers that are water-efficient for many years. Another one-third of golf courses are watered specifically only using reclaimed, non-potable water.
Unfortunately, a certain number of regions have been lackluster in their efforts to champion conservation culture. Some regions have implemented far more aggressive water-reduction measures than others, meaning that conservation efforts vary from golf course to golf course and that the burden is not shared equally.
Ultimately, golf greens will matter very little to California if the state continues to suffer from serious long-term droughts as it has over the past five years. No amount of water reduction orders or last-ditch efforts to pump out groundwater will be able to save the region if widespread agricultural practices don’t change and conservation efforts aren’t stepped up a notch. An increase in wildfires during drought periods will also continue to pose another major risk to Californian homes and businesses. It remains to be seen how President Trump’s new budgets will affect the current state of affairs – and just what will become of California’s legacy.