The 25 percent cut in water consumption ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown raises fundamental questions about what life in California will be like in the years ahead, and even whether this state faces the prospect of people leaving for wetter climates — assuming, as Mr. Brown and other state leaders do, that this marks a permanent change in the climate, rather than a particularly severe cyclical drought.The problem is that we ordinary citizens don't use most of the water. Granted, here in Southern California we have to import 90 percent of our water from other places (think snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains of central and northern California and snow in the Rockies, coming to us via the Colorado River). But almost all of this water is surface water and it is at least relatively easy to monitor and price. Very few residents of California are dependent upon wells dug to tap into groundwater. But that is not true for farmers, whose use of surface and ground water is critical to the state's problems. Agriculture uses 75-80 percent of the state's water and the politics of water in California's agricultural sector are legion and are not going to be dealt with easily, as a follow-up story in today's NYTimes makes clear. Agriculture accounts for only about 2 percent of the state's economy, but the global impact is enormous. Ninety percent of the wine produced in the U.S. comes from California's grapes, and the rice, nut, fruit and vegetable production is greater than countries such as Canada, Mexico, Germany and Spain, according to a report from the University of California, Davis--the state's land grant university.
The economic stakes are high, but the critical issue is whether the model of overusing water to grow food for a growing population is a sustainable model.
California’s greatest resource in dry times is not its surface reservoirs, though, but its groundwater, and scientists say the drought has made the need for better controls obvious. While courts have taken charge in a few areas and imposed pumping limits, groundwater in most of the state has been a resource anyone could grab.
Yet putting strict limits in place is expected to take years. The new law, which took effect Jan. 1, does not call for reaching sustainability until the 2040s. Sustainability is vaguely defined in the statute, but in most basins will presumably mean a long-term balance between water going into the ground and water coming out. Scientists have no real idea if the groundwater supplies can last until the 2040s.If the drought is genuinely a product of global climate change and not just part of a cycle, the answer is more likely "no" rather than "yes." And that means that we need to rethink what we grow--and thus what we eat--not just in California but everywhere. And, on top of that, how much we are going to have to pay for it. In particular, a diet that includes a lot less meat would mean not wasting water on growing food for animals that are then sent off to be killed for human consumption...