Yes, it really is that bad. California is shriveling up before our eyes. Staggering under the worst drought in history, the state is confronting the possibility that it might just plain run out of water. Cities and counties around the state are imposing draconian penalties on water wasters – don’t water that brown lawn, don’t wash that filthy car – and the state is scrambling desperately to divert precious water from where there is some to be found to where there is none. Governor Brown just signed legislation putting a $7.545 billion water bond before the voters. There’s an impressively long and (mirabile dictu) bipartisan list of supporters of the bill ranging from environmental groups through agricultural and construction organizations to the state chamber of commerce. But all that broad support still leaves unanswered the central question of how to divide a disastrously diminishing water supply around a state as populous and diverse as California. Who is more deserving? Almond farmers or vintners? The Los Angeles megacity or the small towns in the Sierra foothills where the ground is literally sinking because wells have run dry?
In the shadow of those snow-bereft mountains, California farmers are emptying their wells of ground water – the aquatic equivalent to eating your seed corn. When that water is gone it’s as good as gone forever: replenishing aquifers is a job of decades and centuries. Jeffrey Sutton of a Sacramento area canal authority is struggling with the fact that this year for the first time, some of its customers will receive no water. Nothing. Zip. Nada. “This was the first year it ever went to zero,” he says. “You can’t allocate water that’s not there.”
If you crane your neck, you can look back 500 years or more to find the Anasazi people who disappeared from the southwestern US. Decades of relentless drought did them in. That was a disaster for them. What to do with the tens of millions of present day Californians? What happens when a whole state finally runs dry? No one sees any easing of the current drought coming anytime soon. And there’s really no question that global warming will only make things worse.
California has always had a parlous relationship with water. There’s a road much loved by sports car drivers called Mulholland Drive that hugs the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s named after William Mulholland, the man who so famously brought water to a sleepy little desert town called Los Angeles. If you want a terrific history of the politics behind that feat, watch Roman Polanski’s brilliant 1974 film Chinatown which is based on Mulholland’s audacious accomplishment. It’s a compelling illustration of just how ugly the politics around water has always been in the Golden State. It doesn’t promise to get any prettier.
Update: In an editorial in today’s Los Angeles Times Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, warns bluntly that the state has “only enough water in storage to get through the next 12 to 18 months, and that’s it.”