On California’s Water-Free Future

California’s Mono Lake, pictured in August 2014.

Professor of postcolonial studies in English and adjunct professor in geography at the University of Missouri

The solution to California’s drought is simple: stop shipping water to China. Farmers, who use 80% of the state’s water, ship crops containing “virtual water” (the water used to grow these crops) to places like China, Afghanistan, and Turkey. Stopping these exports would save six trillion gallons of water per day—enough to solve the problem in the short run. In fact, California could shut down farming altogether and still be fine, since agribusiness only supplies 2% of the state’s GDP. But in the long run, as I told my mother, it is time to think about moving out of California. Luckily, my mom followed my advice, packed up her house in California, and moved to Seattle, where water is cheap and plentiful . . . at least until Californians come for it, which is everyone’s fear north of the border.

California is the world’s guinea pig, since it was the first in the world to construct massive concrete water transfer systems, beginning with the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913. These systems have a natural lifespan, yet California was built on the fallacy that indefinite, inexhaustible growth was possible by moving water around like so many chess pieces. Back then, the idea was that you could drain swamps, irrigate, and otherwise spread water evenly across California to create the Jeffersonian dream of small farmers. Today, California’s water politics are like a giant chess game in which everyone is losing—yet no one will stop playing because they’ve been playing so long.

I always tell people to watch California to see the consequences of modern water conveyance systems.  California destroyed 90% of its wetlands. Its dams silted up and are some are being taken down. The west side of Central Valley is becoming a salt-covered desert. (Just drive down “Alkali Street” at the Tachi-Yokut reservation, and you will see what I mean.) Two regions have become toxic dust bowls, and the state is frantically trying to figure out how to fix these problems. Today, I use California as an example of what not to do.

Throw climate change in the mix, and you have a major disaster. Currently, the Sierra Nevada mountains have only received 6% of their average snowpack, which has never happened before in recorded history. Governor Jerry Brown has mandated that urban users receive only 75% of their normal water supplies. The extra 69% will come from reservoir storage, groundwater pumping, and the Colorado River. Yet NASA scientists are saying California only has one year worth of stored water left. What will happen the following year? While people complain about being in a four-year drought, the truth is that they should be planning for a 20- or 30-year drought. As the planet heats up, weather patterns change, rocks warm, and snow melts.

Today, urban Californians complain (rightly so) that Brown did not cut water for farmers—most likely because they fund his campaigns. So farmers will keep getting their water, based on a complicated and arcane allotment system; many will use that water on wasteful flood irrigation. Others will pump groundwater, which is cracking housing foundations and causing wells to go dry. Californians should not have to suffer health consequences from a lack of running water so a neighboring farmer can sell pistachios to Afghanistan. This is an equity and human rights issue, and residents could actually sue the state thanks to a legally enforceable U.N. resolution stating that everyone has the right to an adequate supply of clean water. Some farmers are choosing to sell their water at astronomical prices ($700 to $1,800 an acre-foot) to urban areas, making larger profits than they would from farming. Water markets, which everyone promised would solve the problem, are instead allowing agribusiness to gouge urban consumers and dry up neighbors’ wells.

At the same time, the last thing California needs is a third toxic dust bowl in the Central Valley, so I am not actually advocating stopping farming. Instead, what California needs are simple regulations about how farmers can farm, such as:

1) Do not allow farming for export, which essentially exports California’s water.

2) Enforce laws stating that farms should be no more than 960 acres. Farmers have been finding loopholes around these laws since they were enacted. The initial proposal was that a family farm would be 160 acres, which later changed to 960 acres. How we got to 10,000-plus-acre farms is another story.

3) Provide incentives for growing drought-resistant crops and switching to organic, which uses less water and rebuilds soils to allow them to retain more moisture.

4) Provide incentives for permaculture, agroforestry, and agroecology techniques. The World Bank is already doing this in marginal lands around the world, knowing that these methods are less water intensive and rebuild the soil. Permaculture is being deployed in Australia to deal with its drought, and there are plenty of permaculture experts in California who could be enlisted to help.

5) Fertilize with biochar. Biochar is a charcoal-based soil additive used both to fertilize and combat climate change because it captures carbon in the soil.

Finally: plan for the worst. Even if we were to stop all carbon emissions today, the planet would still warm another 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (.8 C) as the ocean releases stored carbon. More importantly, climate change is happening now and no one really knows what “now” will look like anymore.


Karen Piper is author of The Price of Thirst: Global Water Inequality and the Coming ChaosCartographic Fictions, and Left in the Dust, which the Los Angeles Times has called an “eco-thriller” that every “tap-turning American” should read. A regular contributor to Places magazine, Piper is also a winner of Sierra’s Nature Writing Award and has published in numerous academic journals. She is professor of postcolonial studies in English and adjunct professor in geography at the University of Missouri.

“Tack-sharp reportage. Piper’s report makes for anxious yet informative reading.” —Kirkus Reviews

“A deeply moving exposé of how ordinary people’s lives can be altered irrevocably by corporate greed.” —New York Journal of Books

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