Facts And Falsehoods Of California’s Historic Drought

Add a sizzling drought to the list of things that plague California, along with anti-vaxxers, surfer bros, and Tom Cruise.

The tears of the unshowered have not been enough to make up for a lack of rain and dwindling groundwater in the sunny state, which has just unwillingly entered the fourth year of a historic drought.

On April, California’s governor Jerry Brown ordered mandatory water restrictions, in a move that may make many lawns resemble his surname. Brown is calling for 25 percent reduction to the state’s water supplying agencies over the coming year.

There’s been a lot of fuss about the cause and implications of the drought and water restrictions, for thirsty California and the rest of us. So let’s check the facts to see what’s worth fussing about, and what’s just a bunch of hot, dry, moistureless air.

1. 80 percent of California’s water goes to agriculture

Verdict: Partially true

Brown is cutting CA residents’ water supply, sure. But that’s only a fraction of the state’s water usage: 80 percent of California’s developed water supply is used to prop up its robust agricultural industry.

It’s worth noting that this figure reflects the percentage of water used by humans. Of total water, it’s closer to 40 percent, as 50 percent of California water is used for environmental purposes.

Some water scientists say even this breakdown inaccurate, and calculate agriculture at 62 percent, environmental at 22, and urban at 16. Whatever the case, agriculture is a guzzler.

California produces half of the United States’ fruits and vegetables, and 90 percent of the country’s grapes, almonds, broccoli, and walnuts. But most extremely, California uses over 1,600 billion gallons of water on alfalfa, used mostly to feed cows.

This gives a whole new meaning to “Dear Alfalfa, I hate your stinking guts.”

2. Rich people are doing nothing.

Verdict: Mostly false

As the Hollywood Reporter points out, some celebrities are cutting down on shower time and changing their lawn-watering schedules, among other small sacrifices. Rich neighborhoods in California, which use the most water, are being commanded to bear the brunt of the cut, with communities like Beverly Hills facing a 36 percent reduction compared with 8 percent in the poorer areas.

Even so, as the New York Times reports, the drought highlights economic inequality in a stark way. While those in mansions simply have to settle for replenishing their swimming pool water less, those in poor neighborhoods — out of necessity — scrape by using paper plates and letting their gardens die.

Assuming those that go over water limits will be fined, wealthy people may also be able to simply buy their way out of the drought.

3. There’s only a year’s worth of water left in CA.

Verdict: True(ish)

[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”4ZL5Mqz1zU9HJyEbiyerxWzXSObV04F5″]Despite what you learned about the Water Cycle as kids, the water lost from California is only falling elsewhere. This means that the state is relying heavily on groundwater: underground reserves that accumulate for centuries and accessed through wells.

Groundwater typically makes up 40 percent of CA’s usage, but that number has leapt to 65 percent and could reach 75 in 2015.

NASA says that, aside from groundwater, California reservoirs hold only a year’s worth of water, and that groundwater as a backup is dwindling. Some misinterpret this to mean the state will be toast in a year’s time (not the case), while others think this estimate could be a slight exaggeration.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is confident, though, saying that though conservation efforts need to become a new normal, “do we have enough water to sustain life here? Absolutely. Do we have enough water to grow economically? Absolutely.”

4. California is not the only state suffering from the drought.

Verdict: True

As per usual, the Golden State gets most of the limelight, despite the scope being much larger. While it’s true that the drought is most severe and widespread in the coastal state, California is far from alone, as the drought is also affecting regions in Texas, Oklahoma, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico.

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 2.34.56 PM

5. The drought could have been prevented.

Verdict: Mostly false

The California region goes in and out of periods of drought over time. The most recent is significant and particularly bad in part because the population has risen to nearly 40 million, due largely to immigration.

Conservatives in particular have pointed out that since 1980, policy has been directed on water usage for environmental purposes rather than building infrastructure that would store more water for a growing population. This wouldn’t have stopped the drought, but it could have better prepared California for it.

Because scientists say man-made contributions to climate change also likely heightened the drought’s severity, in theory, were emissions not so bad, population better controlled, and infrastructure built more wisely, this would be much less of an issue. But man can only control nature so much.

6. People are leaving California because of drought.

Verdict: False

To date, there has been no mass or minor exodus from California; in fact, population is still growing and could reach 44 million by 2030.

Though it’s possible that, void of solutions, poor and middle-class folks could be driven out in coming decades, there may at that point be limited options for them: within the next decade or so, 40 of 50 states will likely also experience water shortages.

Then, we could all become California dreamers, minus the swimming pools: showering once a week and leaving the toilet unflushed.

With luck, however, the adoption of more efficient water policies — like agricultural watering tweaks, drought-resistant landscaping, and treating and reusing water (AKA drinking former pee) — could help keep the thirst at a minimum.

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?
Jennifer Markert