Despite prodigious reporting on California’s historic drought, many details remain hidden from view or shrouded in secrecy. So we decided to put a call out to our readers: What stones remain unturned?
You responded with dozens of inquiries. We combed through them, then put our top three to an audience vote. In the process of narrowing the field, we realized that many answers weren’t far away: Some lay in other news outlets’ reporting; others were tucked away in recent scientific reports.
We’ve collected some of those answers here – and provided links to additional resources.
Are almonds a big part of the problem? Should I stop eating them?
There’s little question that almonds are a factor in California’s water crisis, as Mother Jones’ Tom Philpott laid out in an investigation earlier this year. Each nut requires a full gallon of water to grow, and the industry is booming: California farmers bought more than 8 million almond trees in 2014 – a 25 percent increase over the year before.
Without rain, farmers have turned increasingly to groundwater. Since the current drought began, they’re pumping enough water annually to supply every single home in the state of Texas. Some of it is 20,000 years old. It’s unsustainable and causing the state to sink at historic rates. And the California counties growing the most almonds are also the driest.
The boom is born of demand. Philpott reports that in 2012, the value of California’s almond market was roughly $4.8 billion – three times the level of a decade earlier. Across the U.S., almond consumption has increased by 225 percent since 2005. This appetite has prompted investment firms to buy land in the Central Valley, specifically with the intention of raising water-intensive crops.
In short, almonds are part of the drought problem. But are you? Almost 70 percent of California’s crop is exported, and as Gizmodo’s Alissa Walker points out, the nuts earned the state $11 billion last year.
“Almonds might take 10 percent of the state’s (agricultural) water,” she writes, “but as the same report notes, they’re generating about 15 percent of the state’s total farming value and almost 25 percent of the agricultural exports from the state.” There are also plenty of other crops that are water intensive, like alfalfa.
Should you stop eating them? We’ll refrain from giving diet advice.
When hunting down California’s biggest water guzzlers, why didn’t you pay the $557 to get data from Sacramento, where some of the state’s decision-makers live?
Many other counties in California gave us records on residential water usage for free. Because we were seeking information that would provide details about California’s drought – one of the most daunting issues facing the state today – we felt that it was in the public interest for Sacramento to release data without added financial obstacles. Our line of thinking was simple: California taxpayers have already coughed up money for the recording, maintenance and delivery of this information. There shouldn’t be added fees for access.
But we’re still interested in seeing the Sacramento records. Are you? If you’d like to contact water officials in the area, you can find their information here.
Are California officials actually conserving water, or are they ignoring laws they create for the public?
Ordinarily, information about residential water usage in California is secret. But thanks to a provision in the state’s open records law, that’s not the case for officials who set water rates and policy. In October 2014, we obtained more than two years’ worth of data concerning 150 officials that oversee the state’s 22 largest water agencies. We found that those using the most water were concentrated in hotter, drier areas of the state – sometimes in regions that had themselves imposed the toughest regulations.
In one dramatic example, Mike Soubirous, a member of the Riverside City Council, used more than a million gallons in a year – enough for eight typical California households. He did this despite the fact that he’d voted earlier that year to impose strict regulations on his city.
Ultimately, the records showed that nearly half of the California officials who supervise the state’s biggest water agencies were themselves using more water than the average California household.
How is the drought affecting workers in the agricultural areas of California, such as the Central Valley?
A recent study by the University of California, Davis puts losses across all sectors as a result of California’s drought at roughly $2.74 billion and 21,000 jobs in 2015. The agricultural sector shoulders a significant percentage of this burden: $1.84 billion in losses, coupled with approximately 10,100 seasonal jobs. That’s compared with an estimated 6,000 lost jobs and $350 million in crop damage during California’s milder 2009 drought.
Seasonal workers in California have been hit hard by this shift. Reduced rainfall has led to smaller yields of crops such as strawberries, as NPR explained. This, in turn, has led to shorter hours and less income for farmworkers in several areas.
I have heard that one possible plan to alleviate the drought is to place desalination plants on the coastline. Is that true?
It’s true. But desalination presents its own host of challenges. For one thing, it’s expensive. Desalinated water can cost twice as much as recycled water, the Los Angeles Times’ Michael Hiltzik said in a recent column. In San Diego, the local water authority has committed to buying a desalination plant’s complete output for 30 years, to the tune of $110 million annually. Residents could see their water bills go up as a result – regardless of whether the city ends up actually using the plant’s water or not.
The return of rain can seriously complicate desalination efforts, too. In some cases, droughts end before a full-scale desalination effort can get off the ground. Santa Barbara, for example, coughed up $34 million for a plant in the late ’80s, only to see it collect dust once the rain returned. With the current drought entering its fourth year, the city is once again weighing whether to jump-start the plant, but it’s a tough sell: $40 million more to get it running, plus $5 million per year to keep it maintained.
There are also questions surrounding the environmental impacts of desalination. Desalination plants’ effects on marine wildlife are not well understood, according to a report by the Pacific Institute. While it is true that the seawater intakes that draw water into the plant kill some organisms, the scale and variance of the damage is largely a mystery. The same is true of “brine discharge,” the highly concentrated salt water that gets pumped back into the ocean.
Will the predicted El Niño in the 2015-16 winter season be enough to end the drought? Will it replace the Sierra Nevada’s depleted snowpack?
The “Godzilla” El Niño, which will likely hit California this winter, may in fact do a great deal of harm. Because the state has suffered four years of crippling drought, its terrain is now in many places ill-equipped to absorb rainfall. And though there’s little doubt that California is in dire need of rain, it’s also true that sudden surges can cause mudslides, sewage overflow and stronger fire seasons later on.
The issue of snowpack is even more dire. According to a paper published recently in the journal Nature Climate Change, snowpack levels in California’s Sierra Nevada, which fill reservoirs that provide drinking water for a third of the state, are at a 500-year low.
Meanwhile, there’s no guarantee that more moisture equals more snowpack. In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Prediction Center’s seasonal outlook does not anticipate that El Niño will make much of a difference in snowfall at all.
In the coming weeks, our reporters will answer the winning question from our audience-powered vote: How much does water cost and what is its actual value? What are the economic and political factors that go into how water is priced?
Stay tuned as we investigate.