It’s hard to know how much to panic over California’s dwindling water supplies. The state has never really had enough water, after all, yet lawns in Beverly Hills somehow remain perpetually green. Earlier this month, however, came a sign that life might soon be getting more uncomfortable for more Californians.
On August 3, the State Water Resources Control Board voted 5 to 0 to issue an “emergency curtailment” order for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed. Last week the order was submitted to the state’s Office of Administrative Law, which is likely to approve it.
The watershed covers about 40% of the state, stretching roughly from Fresno to Oregon, and is California’s largest source of surface water. About 5,700 holders of water rights, largely in agriculture and business, will be affected by the reduction in water access. Although many farms have already drawn most of the water they need for the season, the board’s move was a sign that ancestral water rights won’t be a guarantee of actual water if drought persists.
America’s most populous state, home to many of the nation’s richest home-grown industries as well as its most lucrative agriculture, needs a lot of water to keep the miracles fresh. Movie and television productions, like the technology industry and the powerhouse universities that fuel it, don’t technically run on water. But they won’t run without it, either. And many of California’s high-value crops, including almonds and, increasingly, cannabis, are water hogs.
On the other hand: When a state has successfully defied nature and geography for so long, it seems unwise to presume the end is near.
Three quarters of California’s rain and snow falls north of Sacramento — though in recent years not much has fallen there, either — yet about 80% of water demand originates in the southern two-thirds of the state.
Water may flow downhill elsewhere. In California it arrives where nature never intended it after working its way through a series of dams, reservoirs, power plants, pumping stations and aqueducts managed by various federal, state and local authorities. At one point on a journey south, water is pumped 1,926 feet upward over the mountains, a vertical lift unequaled anywhere in the world. Some 20% of electricity used in California, according to the public journalism site CalMatters.org, and 30% of the natural gas, is dedicated to moving water around.
Yet to pump water, there must be water to pump, and supplies are unquestionably running low. Most of the state is currently under a drought emergency declaration, and Governor Gavin Newsom has asked consumers to reduce usage by 15%. Over the past two decades, there have been three dry years for each wet one.