Confronting California’s Water Crisis

State officials should protect water as a public resource and rein in corporate water abusers to deal with its increasingly uncertain water future, a new report says.

Residents work to push back wet mud that trapped cars and invaded some houses on Jan. 11, 2023 in Piru, east of Fillmore, California. A series of powerful storms pounded California in striking contrast to the past three years of severe to extreme drought experienced by most of the state. Credit: David McNew/Getty Images
Residents work to push back wet mud that trapped cars and invaded some houses on Jan. 11, 2023 in Piru, east of Fillmore, California. A series of powerful storms pounded California in striking contrast to the past three years of severe to extreme drought experienced by most of the state. Credit: David McNew/Getty Images

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Californians are still grappling with the aftermath of powerful storms that triggered dangerous flooding and mudslides across the state, even as the West’s unprecedented megadrought persists.

These rapid shifts between extreme drought and flood offer a preview of the “climate whiplash” researchers predict will only get worse. These head-spinning shifts will severely strain California’s antiquated water and flood control infrastructure, experts say, and expose the inadequacy of outdated laws governing access to the state’s water supplies.

California could go a long way toward easing its perennial water crisis by hastening the transition to renewable energy, stopping “the most egregious water abuses” and managing the state’s water supply as a public resource, the advocacy group Food and Water Watch argued in a report released Wednesday. The report builds on a white paper released last year.

Moving away from burning fossil fuels offers major water-saving benefits, said Chirag Bhakta, Food and Water Watch’s California director. The transition will not only help combat climate change, which is fueling the drought and extreme weather patterns, he said, but make a significant dent in the water crisis.

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Bhakta and his colleagues called on Gov. Gavin Newsom and state water regulators to exercise their constitutional authority to prevent “waste or unreasonable use” by the agricultural and fossil fuel industries, which consume freshwater needed by ecosystems and communities while emitting the greenhouse gases that fuel extreme droughts and floods. And they questioned the fairness of allowing exports of water-intensive alfalfa and almond crops, even as many communities lack safe drinking water.

Regulating water supplies as a public resource would allow state officials to uphold their duty to enforce the state’s “human right to water” law, the report argued. More than a decade after the law passed nearly 1 million people in mostly low-income communities and communities of color still lack access to safe, affordable drinking water—in the world’s fifth largest economy.

Targeting “water abuses,” Bhakta said, would help drive a fundamental shift in California’s water stability.

The report raises questions that officials and water experts are going to need to grapple with, said Felicia Marcus, a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Water in the West Program and former chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. 

But there’s no framework for picking winners and losers in the water rights world based on, for example, where crops are sold or grown, she said. And invoking the state’s provision against waste or unreasonable use is a complicated, time-intensive process to implement. 

“You don’t get to just wave a magic wand to invoke the public trust or waste and unreasonable use provision,” she said. “The whole thing can take years.”

Targeting ‘Major Misallocations’

The report points to four examples of what it calls “major misallocations” of water: fossil fuel extraction, mega dairies and growing tree nuts and alfalfa in the water-scarce western San Joaquin Valley.

The oil industry used more than 3 billion gallons of water marked suitable for domestic use between January 2018 and March 2021, Food and Water Watch reported in 2021. Inside Climate News also reviewed the water use records submitted to regulators by oil companies last year, and found that oil companies annually use hundreds of millions of gallons of high-quality water that could otherwise go to cities and farms. But the state’s data is so riddled with errors and omissions, the analysis found, it is impossible to accurately estimate the oil industry’s water use, despite a 2014 law mandating better accounting.

Though transportation accounts for the largest share of total greenhouse gas emissions in California, croplands emit the most nitrous oxide, while dairies produce methane, both powerful climate pollutants.

In 2021, Newsom declared a statewide drought emergency, citing near record-low levels in California’s largest reservoirs. Allocations from state and federal projects that shuttle water throughout the state dropped to zero for many growers, forcing farmers to fallow close to 400,000 acres, a study published last year by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found.

When water supplies dry up, growers can skip a year of planting annual row crops like lettuce and berries. But many farmers in California’s $50 billion agricultural industry have shifted to more profitable permanent crops like fruit and nut trees that would die without year-round irrigation.

Even so, almond plantings steadily increased over the past decade, the Food and Water Watch report found, even through the worst years of the drought, 2012 to 2016. By 2021, expanded plantings of nuts required about 500 billion more gallons of water than they did in 2017, the group calculated based on figures included in a 2015 report.

The days of expansion may be coming to an end. New plantings have dropped for the first time in years, according to a November Almond Board of California analysis. Extreme drought and financial stress caused by pandemic-related supply chain issues contributed to a drop in total acreage as growers ripped out trees they couldn’t sustain.

“Any blanket statement about a crop that is so valuable to the economics and well being of California and the Central Valley doesn’t seem fair,” said an Almond Board spokesperson, referring to the report’s characterization of almonds as a misuse of California’s water.

Food and Water Watch also singled out alfalfa and industrial-scale dairies. Over the past two years, growers harvested about 450,000 acres of alfalfa, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures. It takes roughly five acre-feet of water, or about 1.6 million gallons, to grow an acre of alfalfa, which adds up to more than 733 billion gallons of water. Milking dairy cows need up to 50 gallons of water a day. California has about 1.7 million dairy cows, but just a portion of cows provide milk at any given time,  and data for water use by herd is unavailable.

For Stanford’s Marcus, the problem isn’t about any particular crop but where and how  it’s planted.

She pointed to the Mojave water district in the arid southeast part of the state, where growers switched from alfalfa to pistachios. “But they didn’t cover the same acreage with pistachios, so they were able to maintain their economic viability and use a lot less water,” she said.

On the other hand, she said, there’s a case to be made that blanketing one of California’s critically overdrafted groundwater basins with permanent crops is an unreasonable use. Marcus thinks the issue will get more attention as implementation of California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act ramps up. 

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Groundwater managers have to start now to ensure that any water taken out is replenished by 2040, she said. Groundwater depletion has accelerated since the law was passed, scientists reported in a peer-reviewed study in December.

Agriculture has expanded to the point where it’s too big for what nature can sustain, said Marcus. Farmers can’t keep drawing on dwindling groundwater reserves. Roughly half a million to a million acres are going to need to go out of production.

On a positive note, she said, Newsom has pushed to fund a land repurposing measure to help farmers make the transition, whether it’s to cover the land with solar panels or sell it for groundwater recharge.  

As for ensuring that California’s water benefits the public, the big question is whether water is being wasted or overused in the same communities that lack access to good quality drinking water, said Greg Pierce, director of the Human Right to Water Solutions Lab at the University of California, Los Angeles. “I think the answer in many cases is yes.”

But there are a lot of places where you have to think about a pipeline or trading program to make it happen, Pierce said. “It’s not that simple.”

California’s January storms did not rescue the state from its record dry years, and officials predict the state could lose 10 percent of its water supply over the next two decades. 

California is long overdue for a realistic reckoning with how to manage its water resources statewide rather than hoping a wet year will erase the pain of the last drought, Marcus said. 

“As tough as it’s been,” she said, “it’s going to get a lot worse.”