Recent Water Restrictions: A Band-Aid Cure

By Isobel Whitcomb ‘17
Environmental Columnist

Image courtesy of thesteepletimes.com

Image courtesy of thesteepletimes.com

This morning on my way to class, I passed by a steady stream of water trickling down the sidewalk — a common sight at Scripps. Sprinklers ticked away for the second time that morning. Surrounded by lush greenery and broken sprinklers, it is easy to push the disturbing facts of the California drought to the backs of our minds. However, most of us Southern Californians are aware that our state is in the midst of the worst drought it has ever faced. This drought has been underway for four consecutive years, but in the past several weeks, California has finally been propelled into panic. Our snowpack for this year officially tallies at six percent of average. Three weeks ago, NASA announced that California officially has only one year of water left. Just last week, the annual measuring of the Sierra Nevada Snowpack in Phillips, California, which normally records five to six feet of snow, took place in a completely parched and snowless field, prompting Governor Jerry Brown to announce plans to impose the first water restrictions in state history. How will these restrictions impact the rate at which the state is running out of water? Unfortunately, not much.

The problem with Jerry Brown’s restrictions on water consumption is that they work entirely within the existing system. Like a bandage plastered on a festering wound, they provide the illusion that we are dealing with the crisis, when in reality, little is being done to confront the underlying causes of our water shortage.

The biggest elephant in the room is global warming. While much of California maintains that the current drought could be due to cyclical changes in weather patterns, the majority of scientists agree that it is caused by greenhouse gas emissions. According to NASA, if these emissions continue at the rate at which they are now, the current California drought will extend into a series of decades-long megadroughts. That means that in the next century, we could face up to 40 consecutive years identical to or worse than the last four. Preventing the current crisis from worsening will require huge cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. If California wishes to address the real cause of the drought, it must begin to take a stronger stance on confronting climate change.

Image courtesy of inhabit.com

Image courtesy of inhabit.com


Even if we ignore the deepest underlying causes of the drought, Governor Jerry Brown’s action is inadequate in addressing the vast majority of California’s water-usage. Brown’s restrictions mandate a 25 percent decrease in water usage by the state’s 400 water agencies. While these restrictions will impact most businesses and households, they will have no effect whatsoever on the guzzler of 80 percent of the state’s water: our agriculture industry.

The massive monoculture farms that dominate California’s economy are exempt from water restrictions. To address water over-consumption, agribusiness needs to be held accountable for its unsustainable practices, which rapidly deplete water supplies. While it would be unfeasible and devastating to completely slash California’s number one industry, the system needs to be restructured. For example, the majority of the crops cultivated by these farms are not fit to grow in California’s naturally arid climate, even in non-drought years. These crops include almonds (California is the world’s number-one almond producer), grapes and rice (in the U.S., California produces the second-to-largest quantity of rice). All of these crops consume notoriously large amounts of water. [A rice paddy must be periodically flooded. A single grape will consume 0.3 gallons of water by the time it is harvested, and 800 grapes go into one bottle of wine.] The vast majority of these crops are then exported to far reaches of the world, releasing more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and worsening the problem at hand. For example, California exports huge quantities of alfalfa (another water guzzler) to feed-lots as far away as China. Before civilians and small businesses are required to make huge sacrifices, California needs to switch to a locally based system of agriculture that can provide food to citizens without using such vast quantities of our dwindling water supply.

It often takes something catastrophic to force people to consider change. I would venture to say that because of the drought, Californians have reached this point (emphasize “consider”). Now, we have two options. We can settle for the changes that Gov. Brown has imposed and pretend that we have done our best as a state. Our other option is to treat the drought as a lesson. As terrible as this natural disaster is, it is our wake-up call to fight for a system change that can address the root causes of overconsumption. Of the two options, I hope that Jerry Brown, and the rest of California, picks the latter.