California Water Crisis: What’s Next

By Ben Hale, Aesthetic Ecosystems:

California reservoir drought

In recent news, there has been significant coverage of California’s struggle with its below average precipitation in the past several years.  Yes, they call it a drought.

Governor Jerry Brown and California State Water Resources Control Board have come forward with restrictions on water use, primarily in urban and suburban areas.

People are ripping up lawns.

Landscape designers are drooling (not too much) over the opportunity to redesign so many areas for better water conservation.  Many are replacing lawns with cookie-cutter designed ‘xeriscapes’ or ‘desertscapes’ such as this one.

Urbanites are pitted against agrarians saying the other is more responsible.

One recent interview on NPR highlights cemetery caretakers wondering “if cemeteries, particularly for veterans, shouldn’t play by different rules than, say, a suburban lawn”?

And now, there’s a struggle between allowing salmon to spawn and the ability of Bay area residents to drink water that doesn’t taste funky.

This is where I follow up with saying, ‘The end is near!’

OK so perhaps I’m making light of the situation a bit. This is a serious situation. But we have gotten ourselves into this mess.  We have been deliberately diminishing our water resources in the western US for a long time.

It’s just that the thought of water scarcity is a bit more evident now.

The good news?  We’ve gotten ourselves into this mess, and we can get ourselves out.  But it won’t be easy and it won’t be painless. Those in California are already beginning to feel the pain.

But change needs to happen.  The current system cannot and was not designed to support itself. We have designed our landscapes and buildings in water sensitive areas with little thought to responsible design and responsible water management.

What is the problem?

Is it nature?  After all these years of reliability, it has decided to turn its back on us. Really? Come on.

Perhaps it’s a manifestation of ‘climate change’? Is it that humans shouldn’t live there? How about a design problem? Yeah, let’s go with that.

This is a failure of responsible, conscious design.

Since pre-industrial times the area that is now the state of California has encompassed some very water sensitive areas.  By this, I mean that there are some areas where water is not freely flowing within close distance nor falling from the sky on a regular basis.

Coachella Canal

Yet as the population of California grew, we have adapted nature to fit our needs.  We dammed rivers to build up huge reservoirs to supply water.  We tapped into ever deeper groundwater systems.  We built canals, irrigation lines, and pipelines to carry water across miles, and then hundreds of miles.

Such a precious, necessary resource.

And then supply was no longer an issue.  We had all these wonderful systems in place – feats of modern engineering.  So we built elaborate landscapes to look like the Midwest and the sub-tropic regions.  We established endless acres of plantations fed by massive, intricate irrigation systems.  And then we became addicted to our landscapes and dependent upon our farms.

And there is the problem.

California Multi-Year Droughts

We have built systems that treat the fresh water of the west as a vast, endless commodity, assuming that there will always be more available.

The snows would always provide new steady melts each year.  The groundwater systems would replenish themselves.  And the rivers would always flow from greener lands.

But they aren’t vast and endless.  We have drained fossil aquifers that won’t refill themselves for unthinkable lifetimes.  We have sucked rivers dry.

This is not the first California drought, and it won’t be the last.  In fact, official drought conditions occur about every 3-10 years in California, with various levels of severity.  So why the big deal now?  As I just stated, we have sucked rivers dry, we have drained fossil aquifers.  Our reserves to weather these droughts are diminished.  That diminished reserve, combined with the increased draw on the water systems gives us our current predicament.

How much longer can we allow this to continue?  It appears that we will allow ourselves to continue this process until no longer economically viable.  Yes we are seeing California water restrictions put in place by the government, but they are reductive restrictions.  In other words, we are moving from chugging our cup to drinking our cup – while it is only being filled by a slow drip.  We will eventually reach the point where any further restriction will no longer ease the situation.

There has been significant debate as to where the blame lies in this situation.  The current California water restrictions are only being placed on urban areas.  This means lawns, showers, washing machines, drinking fountains.  Rural areas are out of scope.

There are certainly two sides to this debate.  On the one hand our agricultural system in California ‘feeds the nation’ and has commercial importance, while urban areas only use water for lawns and household use.  On the other hand, big agriculture has pressured urbanites to take the toll for overuse of the water systems while they continue unabated.

For example, there is passionate debate around almonds and how much water they use (supposedly 1.1 gallons per nut), with heated defense about how many by-products almond trees produce and how agriculture is the fuel for California’s economy.

Before any tempers get heated here, let’s take a step back.

In rural areas, we have wide open fields where water is pumped – often through open ditches or old irrigation pipes – to massive open wind-prone fields with high solar exposure.  There, the evaporation rate is high, and the possibility of runoff is also high.   Nut plantations and orchards have trees spaced evenly in isolated row formations with bare, exposed earth between.  The irrigation demand for such trees is incredibly high in conventional agricultural design.

Almond orchard with bare soil

Agriculture utilizes 80% of the state’s water supply, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

Broccoli field in California with sprinkler irrigation

Look, the number speaks for itself.  No need to cast blame.  Instead, let’s look at this from another perspective. Our agricultural system has a severe dependency on imported water.  This is clearly evident for our farmers in California.

Rather than continuing to fight for diminishing resources, we should instead build resilient agricultural systems that can thrive in any climate.

Simply because urban areas only account for the remaining 20% of the state water supply doesn’t mean they’re absolved of responsibility.  Not blame.  Responsibility.  We have lawns in California that are irrigated to look pretty.  And then we cut them so they look good.  Don’t get me started.  Likewise, many plantings are established that are not adapted to the low water conditions of the site.  Our in-house water systems are designed for single use before exiting the house to a sewer and treatment system.

If we as a society operated with more foresight and long term consideration, we would realize we are destroying the future of our children and their children for our own benefit today. Sound crazy?

Think of the hurt we’re in now.  Now think what it would be like in 40 years if we continue on this same path: you tell your grandchild how you used to eat strawberries and carrots year round from California and Mexico.  They ask you where all the water came from.  You tell them they used to pump it from the ground and that there used to be a river that filled up a bunch of lakes.  Where did it go they ask?  Well we grew a lot of food with it.  ‘Why didn’t you save any for me?’   …’I don’t know, dear, I don’t know.’

So yes.

We’re stealing the water from our neighbors and children for our own benefit today.

Altogether, we have a massive opportunity here more than a problem.  Sometimes it takes a little discomfort or pain before the need is fully understood.  Well consider this our pain.  It is now time to redesign the way we live and thrive in water sensitive regions.

So let’s talk solutions.

One word could summarize the solutions proposed here: responsibility.

With more responsible management of our lifestyles, we can not only preserve water resources for future generations, but also rebuild the resources we have taken to yield a system of abundance.

As agriculture is the primary drain on the water resources, let’s first look at solutions with the California agricultural system.

Large-scale agriculture with row cropping of giant monocrops and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is dead.  It’s antiquated and naïve.  Many just don’t know it yet.  Industrial agriculture is being pumped full of support by big ag suppliers as the solution to feed the world, while we massively deplete our soils and water resources.  It provides inferior quality foods with poor nutrient content from weak, disease prone plants.  It’s a natural biological system being treated as an inert chemical system.

A large strawberry field with workers

Think of growing a plant like the human body.

We have been treating the human body in a similar way over the past century, looking into drugs that have been sold to us as a universal cure.  Take antibiotics for example.  First, they were touted as this great and wonderful thing.  And they did work wonders for a while.  Then they’re overused.  Then we begin to realize that the body and the microorganisms living within the body may be very important to overall function.  And those antibiotics can greatly disrupt the productivity and balance between the human body and its microbial community.

Similarly, agricultural systems are living systems that are a reflection of the systems they grow within.  Derived from a natural state, plants and soils are evolved to live in diverse communities with each other.  When you isolate plants from their natural system and disrupt their connection with healthy soils, you end up with disease-prone systems that require heavy inputs to produce a yield.  This is our so-called advanced modern system.

There are several sustainable agriculture practices and systems that have been developed over the past fifty years and many others that are rooted in ancient cultures.


As defined by its cofounder, Bill Mollison:Sustainable Design - Bill Mollison

“Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.”

Permaculture is a design science and philosophy that focuses on designing regenerative systems with minimum long term inputs and maximum sufficiency and yield. It is more of a mindset and a systems understanding rather than specific tools and tactics.

For those of you that may think it isn’t practical, profitable, or applicable to California – think again.  This is a proven system in more climates than conventional agriculture.  Regenerative systems have been established in some places for thousands of years, providing a yield year after year.  And permaculture models are in place for profit already.

Permaculture systems are built to work with the land, ecosystems, and soil.

Rather than being a system of extraction, permaculture builds resilience.  Resilience builds diversity.  Diversity yields abundance.  Abundance yields surplus.  There is always a return into the system to allow it to regenerate and rebuild. Such systems have been established in nearly every climate, from cold climate to desert climate.  So if you’re thinking we can’t grow without irrigation in California, think again.

For an example of cold climate systems, check out the work of Ben Falk of Whole Systems Design in Vermont.  In short seasons, he has produced large abundance.  More info here, and this TEDx talk:

Permaculture agricultural systems have been built for profit here in the US.  The key is diversity and multiple systems of yield.  Check out the work of Mark Shepard of New Forest Farms in Wisconsin. Mark has multiple yields each year.  To name only a few: chestnuts, grass-fed beef, pastured pork, apples, mushrooms, cut flowers, peppers, and hazelnuts.

From a 2012 interview with Grist news site: “[Shepard] believes this approach will be crucial for farmers facing the unpredictable, potentially destructive weather of the future. ‘This summer was the driest on record in our part of Wisconsin and we had the finest cattle and hogs we’ve ever had,’ he says.”

Read more about Mark’s farm here and here.

But California’s dry.  There’s no way that would work in California.

Check out these swale systems implemented by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s outside Tucson, AZ, where the average yearly precipitation is 11.8 inches:

These swales are passive earthworks that increase water absorption into landscapes and support soil health and plant growth.  Here is a view of these same earthworks in Google maps, compared to the surrounding landscape.  Swales are just one tool that, if used properly, can help form the backbone of a well-designed and water-conscious system.

Permaculture teacher and designer Geoff Lawton has proven time and again that permaculture can build resilient agricultural systems in incredibly harsh landscapes.  Geoff designed one project in Jordan, one of the most water stressed regions in the world, with less than 4 inches of rain annually in this location.  If abundance can be achieved here, it can be achieved in California.

Here is a video teaser on the results of Geoff’s Jordan project:

These systems are proven, they are abundant, and such system design is ready for widespread implementation.  We must educate ourselves, think long term, and build resilience into our agricultural systems.

Agriculture in California will eventually die without regenerative systems design. 

Here’s what will happen if we don’t change how we produce food in California and other water stressed areas:

  • Fossil aquifers will continue to be drained until they cannot be used again for hundreds of years or more.
  • Rivers will continue to be sucked dry in the region.
  • Water will be pumped over hundreds of miles at great expense.
  • Water rights will become a major politically and economically divisive issue.
  • It will no longer be economically viable to support conventional agriculture in California
  • Farmers will look elsewhere or we will become dependent on foreign systems.
  • The land will be stripped bare, salted, and desertified.

And here’s what will happen if we do change to a resilient permaculture model of agriculture:

  • Water will become less of a scarcity issue and a more available resource
  • Natural systems will be returned to the land, including rivers
  • Farms will produce a wide variety of perennial and annual yields for greater year-to-year stability
  • Systems will be designed to fit the needs of the region, not the other way around
  • We will become less dependent on the high labor and highly variable yields of annual crops
  • We will become more supported by low input and steady yields of diverse perennial and annual systems.
  • Soils will become healthy and support higher nutrition in harvested crops
  • Pest problems will be reduced
  • We will become less dependent or independent of synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides
  • Erosion will be reduced

You get the picture.

Permaculture requires thoughtful design up front, coupled with initial work to implement systems appropriately. The long term payoff is witnessed in the above examples and resources. By Ben Hale, Aesthetic Ecosystems

40 million people, including the folks in Los Angeles, depend on its water. Read…  Water Crisis: Lake Mead, Largest US Reservoir, Faces Federal “Water Emergency,” Forced Rationing

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  17 comments for “California Water Crisis: What’s Next

  1. Capt. Bill says:

    Why reinventing the wheel?

    Just look how Israel is managing their water shortage?

    Recycling 85% of ALL their wastewater and operating the
    largest desalination plants, while still exporting their agri

    • Wolf Richter says:

      Capt. Bill, we have desal plants in CA too. Desal plants produce THE most expensive potable water on earth. They’re a huge energy hog. And when they put the leftover brine back into the ocean, it screws up the ocean water in the area. Desal plants are – and should be – the last option.

      • Jerry Bear says:

        I thought of a different concept of desalinization that would avoid all of these drawbacks. I have been trying to spread it around on news sites discussing Mr. Shatner’s politically impossible and fundamentally crack brain notion of stealing it from Washington State (they will declare war on California first) but nobody bothered to read it. I was checking out the sort of pressures needed to desalinate seawater into drinking water quality freshwater (less than a 20th of a per cent of salt) and I got some interesting results. The osmotic pressure of sea water versus fresh water that needs to be overcome in order to desalinate is about equal to the pressure of the ocean about 900 feet down. To overcome certain inefficiencies and see some fresh water steadily form, you need a pressure equivalent to about 1000 feet down. For a useful flow rate for commercial purposes, try using a pressure of about 1200 feet down and typical commercial units generate pressures corresponding to from 1300 feet to as much as half a mile down. An important consideration is how much freshwater gets separated from the stream. Commercial units typically separate about half the water, leaving a salt water stream twice as concentrated as normal seawater. If you can find a way of considerably increasing the flow of seawater through the unit and only extracting about 10% of it as freshwater, then the process becomes a lot easier and more efficient. You can use lower pressures and get more output, the osmotic membranes are not so likely to foul and everything goes more smoothly.

        my idea would not work in most areas, but California is characterized by steep drop offs in the ocean not too many miles from shore in many areas as opposed to hundreds of miles to reach the continental shelf in many Eastern coastal areas. This idea is then particularly appropriate to dealing with California’s water problem. Basically you place passive reverse osmosis units in at least 1200 feet of water. I envision concrete blocks with windows of reverse osmosis membranes (actually they would be accordian pleated and placed in window openings in the bunker like blocks. Appropriate protective filters would be placed outside the osmosis units to keep out particulates and sea life and that sort of thing. These concrete block bunkers would be best placed in reach of ocean currents, which fortunately steadily run all along the coast from B.C. to Baja. Special deflectors would divert water from the prevailing current through the osmosis units.

        the interior of the block is strongly sealed off from the ocean and kept at a pressure equal to the surface. A small pipe might accomplish this. The pressure difference will drive a constant flow of high quality fresh water into the interior of the block where it can be pumped out through a strong pipe to a discrete shore station from which it can be sent on to where it is needed. Perhaps a number of such shore units further north could pump their output into a larger pipeline gathering all their waters and sending it south to L.A. As I envision it, each osmosis unit in the deep sea would work purely by local natural forces. The natural shore current would move cent of salt) and i got some interesting results. The osmotic pressure of sea water versus fresh water that needs to be overcome in order to desalinate is about equal to the of the ocean about 900 feet down. To overcome certain inefficiencies and see some fresh water steadily form, you need a pressure equivalent to about 1000 feet down. For a useful flow for commercial purposes, use a pressure of about 1200 feet down and typical commercial units generate pressures corresponding to from 1300 to as much as half a mile down. An important consideration is how much freshwater gets seperated from the stream. Commercial units typicaly separate about half the water, leaving a salt water strean twice as concentrated as normal seawater. If you can find a way of considerably increasing the flow of seawater through the unit and only extracting about 10% as freshwater, then the process becomes a lot easier and more efficient. You can use lower pressures and get more output, the osmotic membranes are not so likely to foul and everything goes more smoothly.

        How does that sound, endless wells of fresh water from the sea using inexpensive unobtrusive non-polluting simple mature technology? As opposed to the huge, unobtrusive, messy and expensive current desalinization technology? For obvious reasons this would work best for providing for the water needs of coastal cities but that is where the biggest population lies. It would reduce pressure on inland water sources a lot and that would certainly help things. Best of all this sort of water can never run out nor does it risk depleting other sources. As long as you take care of the technology it will faithfully provide.

        • Jerry Bear says:

          Wolf,could you be so kind as to remove the duplicated paragraphs in my message to make it easier to read? ^,..,^ I find this text editor maddening to use. It really seems to try hard to screw up my messages and I dont always catch its villanies before I post my message

        • Wolf Richter says:

          No problem. I think I got them.

  2. Al Tinfoil says:

    Twelve years ago I was listening to reports on NPR of cities buying up farmland for up to $4,500 per acre to strip off the water rights (typically two acre-feet per acre per year) and then selling off the land bare of water rights.

  3. NOTaREALmerican says:

    As long as we don’t throw out the baby with the bath-water, I’m fine with our perpetual increasing growth, forever and ever (amen).

    If Greece can grow its way out of debt, California can surely grow it’s way out of drought.

  4. Michael Gorback says:

    Why not learn from the successes of other drought – stricken areas such as Melbourne and Adelaide in Australia, Zaragoza in Spain, or Denver in the USA?

  5. Ray says:

    “It appears that we will allow ourselves to continue this process until no longer economically viable.” – That is the crux of the problem. When governments intervene, coupled with the distortions of the fiat money system, the lack of economic viability can be hidden for decades before they eventually come crashing down. If economic activity is left to the free market there is no robbing Peter to pay for Paul’s folly.

  6. john tucker says:

    There seems to be a lot of folks who have nifty technological solutions to offer. I just find myself wondering if anything good would happen if California abandoned its communistic, centrally-planned system for distributing water, and tried a capitalistic system instead. let the price of every drop of water be determined by supply and demand … whatever someone is willing to pay to have it, whatever someone is willing to accept to provide it? Just a radical thought ….not likely to be implemented, eh?

    • Wolf Richter says:

      Have Goldman decide who can afford water and who can’t? That would be fun. Water isn’t like stocks or gold. You need water to live!

      That said, the water rights system and in some communities the distribution system (no water meters!) are truly terrible.

  7. Jerry Bear says:

    A number of 3rd world countries have switched from public utilities to private enterprise with generally disasterous results. Water that was once inexpensive, reliable, available to all, and of high quality becomes more and more costly, unreliable, available primarily to the affluent and frequently contaminated. The famed “magic of the marketplace” doesnt always work, especially when dealing with basic universal necessities like water. Providing water only on the basis of the maximum possible profit results in all sorts of imbalances and unintended consequences. Especially since laissez faire doesnt apply here. Nationwide water systems by their very nature require some sort of centralized control, in fact the need for this probably created the first civilizations. All you end up doing is trading a public utility for a private monoply and with today’s business climate I am sure you can imagine what ends up happening.

  8. EngineerCa says:

    My sense on this is it is the result of stupidity of all parties involved. If you look at the historical rainfall data, which the state of California publishes on a website by month going back to 1895, California runs on a 7 year water cycle. A couple years of drought, going up to a couple years of lots of rain and back again. Also, the bulk of the rain falls in Northern California, so it supplies the state with most of the water. On average this is slightly less than 18 inches per year. The state has not really expanded its storage capability significantly while allocating more and more to non farm uses, such as the increasing population, fish, etc. As the farmers have historically taken 80% or more of the water in the state, and as these other needs increase, something has to give. If you combine that with environmentalists fighting anything that increases water storage capability while pushing many of the alternative needs, this was a train wreck waiting to happen.
    What i find interesting is the politicians are using the drought “crisis” to push a large number of pet programs in response. Unfortunately, none of those programs will do a thing for any future droughts.

  9. Chris says:

    Can’t we pay for new water systems at the federal level by a very minimum tax, say 1%, on all money created by the fed?

  10. Genevieve Hawkins says:

    I lived with my husband in a rural farmhouse in Thailand we used well water for our sinks and bathtub but then after use the drainage hose would irrigate the garden. It was dug in a very clever way like a river bed near the base of the house. I think of how inefficient houses in the Southwest are at using resources every time I see my bath water circle down the drain here in Las Vegas…I just want to scoop it out and find out what native plants do well with gray water…

  11. SeppoP says:

    Thank you for post :)

  12. Julian the Apostate says:

    The nature of the system in Califorrnia precludes any kind of sweeping infrastructure upgrade because the current looters in Sacremento are feeding off the dying corpse of past accomplishments, siphoning off the monies that could reenergize and renew, just like the looters on New Orleans siphoned off the money that was earmarked to maintain the levy system. When the inevitable disaster raises it’s ugly head, they’ll look for a scapegoat to blame it on ( the Corps of Engineers after Katrina). Parasites do not build or plan. They consume their seed corn then wail that the deck is stacked against them when no crop is harvested the following year.

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