By Matt M. Joye
Staff Writer

A quick litmus test for where you are in the world depends on how you answer the question, “How much do I think about water?” If you live in the developed world, chances are the answer is, “Not too much.” In fact, this answer has been a cornerstone of the very concept of a “developed” society, in that citizens of such places could rank their worries and water probably wouldn’t even be mentioned. For over 100 years in the United States, with few exceptions, access to water has been a right so unquestioned and ubiquitous that we simply don’t even think about it. [1] It’s the exceptions, however, that remind us just how dependent and vulnerable we are without even knowing it.

On Jan. 9, a chemical agent used to prepare coal was found in the Elk River in West Virginia, leaving over 300,000 people without clean tap water and businesses rushing to keep bottled water on the shelves. The owner of the storage tank on the river’s banks, Freedom Industries, filed for bankruptcy protection a week later while some residents still lacked safe drinking water from their taps.

This past summer, in the midst of severe drought, the New Mexico town of Magdalena’s only well ran dry, leaving 1,000 residents without water. Trucks carried tens of thousands of gallons to supply people and businesses. [2] The state has identified 300 additional sources of drinking water that are considered vulnerable; New Mexico is suffering the worst drought conditions in the United States. [3]

Such conditions now pervade much of the Western United States and include California, where 2013 was the driest year since the state’s founding over 160 years ago. [4] Some estimates say 2013-14 could be the driest year since 1580, based on tree ring analysis. [5] Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency Jan. 17 and urged state residents to voluntarily cut their water usage by 20 percent [6] The average Californian uses over 100 gallons a day, meaning that every person from Humboldt to San Diego would have to save 38 two-liter bottles of water—every day. [7]

For some areas the reductions in use aren’t likely to remain voluntary. Marin County is asking its residents to abide by a 25 percent abstention, which will become mandatory April 1 if dry conditions persist. [8] The Northern California city of Willits has imposed a 150-gallon per household limit; the city has a three-month reserve of water. [9] Watsonville, known for its agricultural production, has seen demand for treated wastewater for crops rise 2,220 percent because there has been no rainfall in the fields. [10] No precipitation has also meant more use of well water for the Pajaro Valley Water Agency—just east of Santa Cruz—which is already overtaxing its underground supply, in turn increasing seawater intrusion into the aquifer bordering the coast. [11]

Along Interstate-5 traveling south through the San Joaquin Valley, the effects of the drought are clearly visible. Almond and fruit trees have been pulled out of the ground in some places, roots fully exposed above the soil. Signs line the highway with bold lettering that reads “Congress Created Dustbowl,” as drought conditions have necessitated deep cuts in agricultural water allocations in part to protect the habitat of salmon and the endangered delta smelt. On Jan. 22, Speaker of the House John Boehner flew to Bakersfield to stand with three valley House Republicans pushing for legislation to increase amount of water diverted from the delta, in a fight that pits environmental protections for endangered species against farm irrigation. 27 counties—the vast majority in Northern California—have been declared federal natural disaster areas as of Jan. 17.

What is particularly troubling is that Northern California is traditionally the wettest part of the state. There is an axiom of California water: 75 percent of the rain falls in the North, while 75 percent of the demand occurs in the South. [12] And Southern California is facing a “perfect storm” of its own. That’s because the Northern California drought is actually just one of three droughts that figure to impact the region in distinct, yet interrelated ways. [13]

Southern California is in the midst of its own drought conditions, part of the wider state malady and adding to uncertainties about water. There will be no fire season this year, because it has become a year-round risk. [14] Expanding the area of consideration further, the whole of the Western United States is firmly in the grasp of an extended drought. This is especially true of the Colorado River; one of the most contested water resources in North America is in serious trouble. [15]

The Colorado River is so overused that it no longer completes the journey to the Gulf of Mexico; it is a river that does not flow to the sea. [16] It is also the source of water for the largest irrigation district—and the eleventh most productive agricultural area—in the United States. [17] The Imperial Valley is entirely dependent on the water from the Colorado River, which also provides a substantial amount of the water that residents of Southern California use every day. [18] Included in this vast aqua-system are the huge reservoirs of Lake Powell, and the colossal Lake Mead—the largest reservoir in the United States and the source of the water that drives the turbines of the Hoover Dam. [19] Lake Mead, through a combination of relentless demand and lack of replenishment, had already dropped to 41 percent of capacity by 2010. In the 10 years from 2000-2010 a lake 110 miles long lost 125 feet of its depth at capacity. [20]

The situation has grown worse since then. In the wake of the worst 14-year drought in a century, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has announced—under 2007 guidelines meant to forestall the water crisis—that it will restrict the flows out of Lake Powell, which feeds into Lake Mead, by almost 10 percent. [21] The Southern Nevada Water Authority has called for federal disaster relief, likening the economic damage to “Superstorm Sandy.” [22] It seems almost hyperbolic until the reality of what this means sets in.

Some 30 million people depend in some form on the Colorado River for water. [23] The city of Las Vegas is scrambling to finish a third intake at the bottom of Lake Mead because the drop in water levels could leave its first two sucking air. [24] Agriculture in states from Utah to California depends on the Colorado River’s water to survive. [25] Lower flows could stop all power generation—and cut power supplies to six states—from Glen Canyon Dam by winter 2015, and even lead to a major reduction in power from the Hoover Dam. [26] California is one of three states that get both water and power from the Colorado River and the Hoover Dam. [27]

The water crisis that looms is unprecedented, and therefore depends upon a confluence of factors that will ultimately determine its severity. It is tempting to think of it as being in the hands of natural forces; there is no denying the need for more rain. However, this is exactly the hands-off approach that feeds crises such as these. [28] Nor is it a simple matter of turning off the spigot, which pits farmer against urban dweller, industry versus nature, in a free-for-all of competing interests. There is no simple solution or single measure to rally around: if there was, chances are it wouldn’t have reached this calamitous level.

The implications reach far beyond the state boundaries. A paper in British Columbia warned its citizens that food prices in the province may well rise significantly because of the drought: California is the source for more than half of British Columbia’s food. [29] Agriculture consumes roughly 80 percent of the water Californians use. [30] Though it represents only about 3 percent of the overall state economy, any major cuts in water supply would disproportionately affect the state’s rural economy, causing spikes in food prices internationally and chaos in already depressed communities dependent on farm revenue. [31] For a state just emerging from recession, and with the largest economy in the United States, the effects could surely multiply.

A fundamental truth about water scarcity is that it is almost always a local, or at best regional issue. A rancher in the San Joaquin Valley simply can’t buy water on the open market in the same way she might buy feed from Nebraska. [32] California already has a massive water project underway in the form of twin 30-mile tunnels that will divert more water from the delta to Southern California, but this is hardly a solution. [33] Instead the crisis must generate many local solutions that, when taken together, add up to the additional water resources California desperately needs. And more fundamentally, California must find a way to coordinate these steps as part of a comprehensive, system wide plan to address water insecurity in the state and beyond. [34]

The answer won’t likely come from more supply. Even if the rains return, resources from the Colorado River to Mt. Shasta already face the prospect of demand that far outstrips supply. Additional dams come with up front costs, and create environmental concerns. For farmers and ranchers, the payoff for improvements in efficiency are likely to bear more fruit than haggling over existing sources, and the costly litigation that brings. In urban areas, advocates envision more water collection capabilities that trap rain before it washes out to sea. [35] Use of grey water technology, (i.e. using naturally treated water from dishwashing to water plants) is relatively cheap and largely legal due to state law changes in 2010. [36] “Purple pipe,” the lavender-colored taps that indicate recycled water, has become more of a staple as communities have incorporated mandates into new building projects and renovations. [37] These, and a host of other smart uses, or reuses of water, may help to decrease our collective water “footprint.”

Yet this crisis-turned-opportunity only happens if two conditions are met. Everyone, from politicians in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. to the neighbor watering his lawn for 40 minutes at two in the afternoon in the summer, must grasp the seriousness of the current drought and water crisis. Additionally, to afford new water infrastructure, and provide financial incentives to conserve, we have to begin to pay the true cost of the water we use.

Historically, the cost of water, if any, has reflected solely the utility costs: employees, pipe and pump-stations, treatment, etc. The actual water has almost always been free. But even existing water systems need repair, not to mention expansion. The city of New York loses a full day’s worth of water for its inhabitants every week due to leaks in its infrastructure: that equates to over a billion gallons of clean drinking water lost every week. [38] Yet when the El Dorado County water district proposed raising rates—the first in a decade—to $32.07 a month from $23.75 (35 percent) to pay for needed improvements more than 10 percent of its customers wrote letters in protest. [39] The fact that $32.07 bought 10,000 gallons of water seems not to have mattered. [40]

There is some logic to this: water is a basic necessity. Any plan to more accurately charge for water must take into account the basic needs of each individual, and ensure those needs are met. But between unlimited water, which we can no longer reasonably expect, and the denial of it to those who are most vulnerable, which we rightfully should not tolerate, is a place for the true cost of water to be reflected in our daily lives, our decisions, and our practices. It’s time for us to really start thinking about water, our relationship to it, and realize that water ignorance, even in the developed world, comes at our own peril.

1. Fishman, Charles. The Big Thirst. New York: Free Press, 2011. Print.
2. Bryan, Susan Montoya. “Officials: Rural NM facing water crisis.” Las Cruces Sun-News. 7 Aug. 2013. Web. Lexis-Nexis. 26 Jan. 2014.
3. Ibid.
4. Rogers, Paul. “California drought: Past dry periods have lasted more than 200 years, scientists say.” Contra Costa Times. 25 Jan. 2014. Web. Lexis-Nexis. 26 Jan. 2014.
5. Ibid.
6. Chin, Tonya. “Moody’s: California Drought is Negative for Local Water Agencies.” The Bond Buyer 123.16 (24 Jan 2014): n. pag. Web. Lexis-Nexis. 26 Jan. 2014.
7. Locke-Pintar, Stephanie. “We All Can Take Steps to Conserve Water.” Monterey County Herald 25 Jan. 2014, opinion. Web. Lexis-Nexis. 26 Jan. 2014.
8. Johnson, Nels. “Marin County Plans Drought Summit.” Marin Independent Journal 25 Jan. 2014, news. Web. Lexis-Nexis. 26 Jan. 2014.
9. Moore, Derek. “Drought Declaration Underscores State’s Water Woes.” The Press Democrat 18 Jan. 2014, state and regional news. Lexis-Nexis. 26 Jan. 2014.
10. Jones, Donna. “Lack of Rain Putting Pressure on Stressed Pajaro Valley Groundwater Supplies.” Santa Cruz Sentinel 15 Jan. 2014, state and regional news. Web. Lexis-Nexis. 26 Jan. 2014.
11. Ibid.
12. Hiltzik, Michael. “Water plan is too piecemeal.” Los Angeles Times 25 Sept. 2013, home ed.: B1. Web. Lexis-Nexis. 26 Jan. 2014.
13. “The Drought, Times Three: California is Facing Three Distinct Water Crises, Each Requiring its own Emergency and Long-Term Fixes.” Editorial. Los Angeles Times 26 Jan. 2014: 23. Web. Lexis-Nexis. 26 Jan. 2014.
14. Ibid.
15. O’Donoghue, Amy Joi. “Worst Colorado River Drought in a Century Prompts Feds to Cut Releases from Lake Powell.” Deseret Morning News 16 Aug. 2013. Web. Lexis-Nexis. 26 Jan. 2014.
16. Fishman, Charles. The Big Thirst. New York: Free Press, 2011. Print.
17. Ibid.
18. Ibid.
19. O’Donoghue, Amy Joi. “Worst Colorado River Drought in a Century Prompts Feds to Cut Releases from Lake Powell.” Deseret Morning News 16 Aug. 2013. Web. Lexis-Nexis. 26 Jan. 2014.
20. Fishman, Charles. The Big Thirst. New York: Free Press, 2011. Print.
21. O’Donoghue, Amy Joi. “Worst Colorado River Drought in a Century Prompts Feds to Cut Releases from Lake Powell.” Deseret Morning News 16 Aug. 2013. Web. Lexis-Nexis. 26 Jan. 2014.
22. Ibid.
23. Ibid.
24. Ibid.
25. Ibid.
26. Ibid.
27. Ibid.
28. Fishman, Charles. The Big Thirst. New York: Free Press, 2011. Print.
29. Shore, Randy. “Extreme Weather Threatens Economy: Province Must Prepare for Disasters Instead of Reacting After the Fact.” Vancouver Sun 4 July 2013, A8. Web. Lexis-Nexis. 26 Jan. 2014.
30. Rogers, Paul. “California drought: Past dry periods have lasted more than 200 years, scientists say.” Contra Costa Times. 25 Jan. 2014. Web. Lexis-Nexis. 26 Jan. 2014.
31. Ibid.
32. Ibid.
33. Rogers, Paul. “California drought: Past dry periods have lasted more than 200 years, scientists say.” Contra Costa Times. 25 Jan. 2014. Web. Lexis-Nexis. 26 Jan. 2014.
34. Ibid.
35. Lipkis, Daniel. “Not Enough Water? Look Up.” Los Angeles Times 4 Nov. 2013, ed.: A13. Web. Lexis-Nexis. 26 Jan. 2014.
36. Hull, Dana. “Low-Tech Measures can Ease California’s Water Woes.” Contra Costa Times 10 Jan. 2014, business. Web. Lexis-Nexis. 26 Jan. 2014.
37. Fishman, Charles. The Big Thirst. New York: Free Press, 2011. Print.
38. Ibid.
39. Ibid.
40. Ibid.

Photo by Stuart Rankin