‘Drought is the norm:’ California’s water crisis becomes perpetual

A boat sits on an area that is thought to have been some body of water, but has dried up since.
California is experiencing droughts which may affect 5C students, if they haven’t already. (Courtesy: Shutter Theory)

California residents are used to drought conditions, with shorter showers encouraged by teachers and conservationists, ads paid for by the state supporting abstaining from watering lawns and rainy days few and far between.

But 5C students returning to the Golden State this year are finding the situation has only worsened. Droughts are long periods of time without significant rainfall, often accompanied by drying up rivers, toughening soil and early snowmelts.

The U.S. Drought Monitor now finds nearly half of California meets the highest level of severity, “exceptional drought,” with more than 85 percent of the state in “extreme” conditions. At this level a state can expect low agricultural yields, costly fires, poor air quality and higher water prices.

Fifty of California’s 58 counties are under a state of emergency due to these conditions. The federal government recently declared the first-ever water shortage on the Colorado River, a vital water source which serves nearly 75 percent of nearby Ventura County.

For Char Miller, a Pomona College professor of environmental analysis and history, this is nothing new. 

“California is a state of drought; it is not in a drought. Drought is the norm,” Miller said via email. “Our water policies across California do not reflect this reality, but they must — and should already.”

The entire southwestern region, from El Paso to Los Angeles and northward, has been drying out since the 1980s. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report contains some of the “most blunt statements about our perilous future” and notes that droughts will deepen for the rest of the 21st century, he said.

All across California, rainfall has been decreasing each year, with Los Angeles County seeing its ninth-driest year to date in 127 years, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Globally, 2020 was the hottest year on record. 

In Claremont, dry conditions have manifested through threats to the city’s iconic trees. A large pine unexpectedly toppled at the Pitzer College Mounds over the summer, although the cause wasn’t clear at the time. And wildfire conditions exacerbated by the drought hit home last month when the Antonio Fire quickly spread west of Mt. Baldy Village.

California generally has the infrastructure needed to transport and import water, according to Miller. However, climate change has brought the precursors of drought to nearby states. 

At a local level, most water in Claremont is sourced from Mt. Baldy, the San Antonio Canyon and the State Water Project, which supplies water from the snowmelt of the Sierra Nevada. However, each source depends on precipitation, which has been diminishing for the past 40 years and is expected to continue to decrease over the next 80 or more, Miller explained. 

Claremont itself received 2.68 fewer inches of rain in 2020 than average.

“To say that this region is in trouble is an understatement,” he said.

“To say that this region is in trouble is an understatement.” — Professor Char Miller

Miller believes urban areas have demonstrated that they are able to decrease their water use when mandated. In 2015, when then-Gov. Jerry Brown mandated that people cut their water consumption by 30 percent, “it happened seemingly overnight.”

“What the governor did not mandate was that agriculture, which accounts for upwards of 75-80 percent of all water consumed in CA (and the southwest) cut its water-guzzling systems,” Miller said. “That Brown, like his predecessors and successor, have always deferred to Big Ag, is a mark of the industry’s senior water rights and political clout. That inequity will continue until such time as the state is able to rein in agriculture’s privilege.”

At an international level, drought is hitting underdeveloped nations harder and they deserve our attention, Pomona politics professor Heather Williams said via email.

Williams believes that a major concern is the building of hydroelectric dams, which displace rural communities, often indigenous ones, who cannot effectively resist the state or the military. These dams exacerbate the tension between rival countries and some have shown signs of possible collapse.

“If [collapses] were to occur, the result would be a humanitarian disaster of unspeakable proportions, including immediate loss of life in downstream population centers and the displacement of hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. That, rather than an absolute scarcity of water, is what would create violence,” she said.

However, in California, she believes the drought will be settled — but not solved — by markets. 

“Right now, the main question for water use during the drought is how much conservation will be achieved by the state’s new groundwater law, called the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act,” she said. 

Williams is doubtful that the law will stop over-pumping, mainly because it never challenges the idea of water-as-property. The conservation plans by district also don’t have to be fully implemented until 2040, she said. 

On the other hand, Williams believes Southern California will likely do alright with planning for extended drought and reducing pumping due to long-standing limitations. Most of California’s water use will come down to who has the money to pay for water and how much federal and state judges mandate water limits for species conservation, she predicted.

In her opinion, the real concern will likely be water quality rather than water access. There are municipalities in California facing the same risks as Flint, Michigan, because of the exit of major industries, de-population and/or falling property values, she said.

“Many aging [water] distribution systems are in lower-income towns and cities that don’t have good financing or are maxed out on what they can borrow,” she said, which poses the danger of excessive levels of impurities that could lead to bacterial disease outbreaks. 

“If we are lucky, and people fight very hard for it, California’s commitment under the law to the Human Right to Water will enable rural communities facing water emergencies to effectively pressure the California legislature,” she said. “If California can manage to defend the [law] amid this drought, and show that common-sense protections can provide a reasonable access of the whole population to basic water provision (and I think that’s eminently possible), we can allay the sense that climate change means a fight of all against all.”

Miller said Pomona has worked hard over the past decade to successfully deal with the consequences of drought. Deeper-rooted grasses have been planted on Marston Quad and some former grassy areas have been replaced with mulch. Pomona has planted native drought-resistant greenery and built bioswales — depressions in land that capture precipitation to be used later.

“Invisible is my favorite recapturing system: all precipitation that falls on or around Sontag and Dialynas is channeled under Sixth Street to the Greek Theater — itself a historic low spot, or ‘sink’ — and then allowed to percolate into the alluvial soils,” Miller said. 

In response to the 2015 drought, Pitzer removed turf in numerous spots on campus, reduced their watering schedule, installed waterless urinals and replaced the McConnell Dining Hall dishwasher to reduce water consumption.

Similarly, Pomona has added aerators to sink faucets around campus, low-flow showerheads, dual-flush toilets, and water efficient washing machines. Pomona’s EcoReps also host an annual WaterWise week with events and awareness campaigns about water conservation.

Scripps has removed over 15,000 square feet of turf, planted low-water grasses and ground cover, built a green roof and installed low-flow plumbing in new buildings in response to “chronic drought-like conditions in Southern California,” according to its website.

Miller makes it clear that the drought in California is not getting better and some factors are out of individual control — but others aren’t. 

“There is only so much that [students] can do living in the dorms. Of course you should hydrate and wash your hands — but ten minute showers? Not a chance,” he said. “Be water smart.”

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