Dangerously low river levels might be a gold prospector’s dream, but California’s drought—gearing up to be the worst in the United States on record this century—is quickly becoming a widespread nightmare.
At the end of January, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that water levels in all but a few reservoirs in the state were at less than 50 per cent of capacity. By February, drought had affected every square inch of the state in some capacity, and the U.S. federal government announced that nearly 15 per cent of the state, and much of the farmland, is experiencing extreme conditions. On February 19, the Chicago Tribune reported that 10 communities were at acute risk of running out of drinking water in 60 days.
This extreme drought is leading to extreme measures. California’s farmers, who receive nearly 80 per cent of the state’s water allocations, are facing significant cutbacks—and, in some cases, they’re losing water delivery completely. In February, Central Valley farmers learned the state’s largest delivery system would provide no water to the area, which produces half of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables in the United States. The California Farm Water Coalition says this means farmers will leave 500,000 acres of land unplanted in the 2014 season.
You can guess what that might mean for the country. “California is our biggest agricultural producer, so what happens here matters to every working American, right down to the cost of food that you put on your table,” said U.S. President Obama in an address in the same month.
Canadians will feel the impact, too. University of Guelph economics professor Sylvain Charlebois told CTV News the price of food products imported from California could soon increase by as much as 20 per cent.
Beyond just feeling the impact, Canadians also have an active role to play in mitigating the effects of this disaster— especially when it comes to energy.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, almost 14 per cent of the nation’s hydroelectric generating capacity is concentrated in California. Lower river levels hinder the state’s ability to produce energy.
While natural gas can make up much of the difference, the drought increases demand for this resource in a time when much of the United States and Canada is (or, by the time you read this note, was) in a deep freeze.
The unprecedented demand for natural gas has impacted fuel supplies, driving the price of the resource skyward. During this time of crisis, Californians are being asked to conserve both water and energy.
That’s just the beginning for California. The effects of the drought will be lasting, especially in the farming sector where many people have lost their livelihoods. Both state and federal governments are directing emergency drought relief funds—$687 million and $200 million, respectively—to help California residents, farm workers, and communities deal with water shortages.
When we talk about water and its influence, the links between it and food, energy, and the economy—call it any kind of nexus, if you prefer—become dangerously apparent. Californians, and now the rest of North America, are learning that lesson the hard way.
The urgent challenge is to move those lessons to policy and action. After significant weather events, drought and flood alike, a country’s economy takes a major hit. Follow the money and, on top of the millions of dollars for aid, these events result in higher prices for things like food, energy, and insurance, not to mention the increased threat to environmental and human health and safety.
Will this finally be the crisis that spurs us to action? Perhaps now is the time to look at—and actually begin implementing—alternative sources of power, including sewage heat recovery (see “Wasted Potential” by Lynn Mueller in the Mar/Apr issue of WaterCanada). We must apply what we’ve learned to ensure this crisis doesn’t worsen or persist. We must be open to learning from this and other disasters— and ensure our systems are resilient enough to handle what Mother Nature throws our way.
Editor-at-large for WaterCanada