California is in the midst of its worst drought in recorded history. Nearly half of the state is classified by the U.S. Drought Monitor as being in “exceptional drought,” the most severe category. All three main water sources — snow pack, groundwater, and reservoirs — have suffered unprecedented declines. Entire lakes have dried up, and a half-million acres of agricultural fields throughout this normally abundant land have been forced out of production.
Scientists warn that the water crisis has been worsened by global warming, and temperatures are at an all-time high. While some reductions in use have been mandated, corporations and the wealthy often exempt themselves. Ultimately, what is needed is systemic change that takes the most effective, not the most profitable, action.
Corporations waste water. The state passed new regulations this summer to limit residential water use by 25 percent. State and local governments have cracked down on lawn-waterers, car-washers, owners of leaky pipes, and restaurants serving water to customers unless it has been requested. But individual usage accounts for less than 20 percent of human, non-environmentally mandated, water use.
While private citizens are ordered to let their gardens die, leave their cars dirty, and take short showers, Gov. Jerry Brown’s executive order imposes no cuts on the most serious water wasters. These are large corporations such as massive agribusinesses persistently using flood irrigation methods, and petroleum companies who use — and pollute — huge amounts of water for oil and gas extraction. At the same time that precipitation is lower than ever, these profit-driven monsters are cornering much of the little water there is, gravely deepening the crisis.
The practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is especially outrageous. And it is expanding rapidly. It is a method of mining in which water is mixed with sand and toxic chemicals and blasted underground at high pressure in order to break up rock and expose oil and gas deposits. Fracking is extremely damaging to the environment. Immense amounts of water are expended in the process. Statewide, 75 million gallons of water were used for fracking in 2014. Not only is that water heavily contaminated, it has been found to infiltrate aquifers and drinking water supplies in many parts of the country. Some of the water is partially cleaned for re-use, but it remains a dangerous sludge that must be dumped in landfills. And the fossil fuels should be left in the ground anyway to avoid making global warming worse.
Large agribusiness is another significant offender. About 80 percent of California’s discretionary water supply is used for agriculture. State and federal water projects are only delivering a fraction of the water they normally provide, so farms have turned to diverting waterways and pumping groundwater. These practices use up enormous amounts of water and are clearly unsustainable. Yet local water agencies are only required by state law to become sustainable by 2040. We do not have the luxury of waiting nearly that long. All of this has deepened the polarization of the economic fortunes of the region’s farms. Large agribusinesses that can afford to irrigate fields and fatten livestock are weathering the drought far better than small-scale family farms that are starved for water and falling into financial ruin.
The bottom line is that California’s big farms and gas fields are pumping water out of the ground at a much higher rate than it is being replaced by nature.
As water levels fall, prices rise. The market-driven response to the lack of rain has imposed economic hardship on working-class Californians in the form of higher water rates and more expensive food. At a time when housing costs are higher than they have ever been in many regions, the drought has compounded the exorbitant cost of living to the point that economic displacement has reached crisis levels.
Water companies and city water departments are raising rates and imposing steep drought surcharges. Since 2013, the average water bill for a single-family home in California has increased by a staggering 30 percent. But increased usage rates and fines are easily ignored by wealthy celebrities such as the Kardashian clan. And commercial, industrial, and institutional properties are generally exempt from rate hikes, fees, and penalties.
The drought also means food prices are rising as local agricultural production falls. California has always been this country’s most concentrated and productive breadbasket. The state has produced over 90 percent of the country’s almonds, broccoli, celery, kiwis, lemons, nectarines, pistachios and plums. Now, the unprecedented water shortage is translating into higher food prices for all.
Not just California’s problem. The “California” drought has consumed the majority of the American West. This summer has brought record-breaking temperatures and dry spells to much of the region, even the normally cool, well-watered Northwest. Wildfires have been blazing at a number and severity unparalleled in modern history in California, Idaho, Montana, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and even in the marine climates of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Streamflow is alarmingly low, which has negatively impacted wildlife habitats. Echoing California’s agricultural woes, key northwestern crops such as Washington apples have suffered significantly.
A better future with a more secure water supply is possible, but it will take a fight to achieve. The drought is compounded by climate change, and only a large-scale and coordinated effort can mitigate the damage.
The measures needed include imposing stringent conservation requirements on corporate exploiters, requiring water-efficient irrigation methods, shifting away from fossil fuels as rapidly as possible, and using public funds to pay for free, fast, mass transportation. Also necessary is ending the USA’s imperial pretensions and its hugely destructive, energy intensive wars.
Capitalism demonstrates daily that it is incapable of reforming itself on such a massive level. Now it’s up to working people to enforce change.
Sam Rubin is a San Francisco native and special education resource teacher at a public high school. Send him feedback at email@example.com.
To listen to this and other articles from this issue, click here.