As California experiences its third year of drought, heatwaves and wildfire seasons are expected to worsen, straining existing water sources even further and putting greater pressure on state authorities to address the situation. Here, we discuss the drivers of why California is still in a drought and the water shortage issues that have arise.

Climate change and water shortages are in large part responsible for causing the drought within California in the US, as well as other western states. This has been an ongoing trend for three years now, and in 2022 alone, California has experienced 1,402 wildfires that have consumed at least 6,507 acres of land. However, there is also a weather phenomenon known as La Niña, trade winds that blow across the Pacific Ocean that bring warmer and drier winters to the western United States. This produces little precipitation, thereby leading to less snowmelt and runoff during the spring thaw, which then leads into optimal drought conditions. Naturally, La Niña and exacerbating climate factors would strain already dwindling water sources. 

California has been called the most hydrologically altered landmass on the planet, since most of its deserts and grasslands have been converted to reservoirs or farmland for agricultural development. Current water sources support roughly 35 million people and irrigate 5.68 million acres of farmland, yet 75% of California’s available water is found in the northern region of the state, whereas 80% of urban and agricultural demands are required in the southern regions. 

Water is drawn from two sources, either as surface water from lakes, rivers and reservoirs, or as groundwater from aquifers. These sources are primarily replenished by winter precipitation and snowmelt, refilling 10 major drainage basins found in the North Coast, San Francisco Bay, San Joaquin River, Central Coast, Tulare Lake, South Lahontan, South Coast, and the Colorado River.

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However, demand continues to outpace supply, and California has an unquenchable thirst since it has the largest agricultural economy in the entire United States, generating over 50 billion dollars in annual revenue. Intensified production coupled with the continual drought has reduced surface water deliveries, increased groundwater pumping costs, inflicted a loss of agricultural revenue by as much as USD$1.7 billion, and contributed to the loss of 14,600 jobs. As such, stopgap measures are being implemented, and government authorities are faced with an ongoing crisis. The Public Policy Institute of California has suggested implementing pumping restrictions to mitigate impacts in high-risk areas, managing demand with groundwater allocation caps to encourage water trading and land repurposing, and improving water storage to increase saturation within aquifers and reservoirs.

Across the counties of Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Ventura, water shortage emergencies have been declared, affecting six million citizens. Authorities are calling upon citizens to reduce their water usage by at least 30%, which can be achieved through the recycling of water in home usage or the installation of more efficient hydro utilities. Yet despite these efforts, California’s household water use continues to soar; water use in March 2021 was the highest for the month since 2015 to keep up lawns and gardens. 

The state government has failed to address the unsustainable drain on California’s water sources without any means to replenish them. For that, the most popular and most ambitious solution is quite simple. 

As per the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act passed in 2014, state authorities must control overdraft of groundwater usage by 2040. Recharging aquifers and reservoirs would top up existing sources, thereby strengthening state capacities to mitigate the harmful impacts of extreme drought conditions. In practice, recharging water sources involves redirecting winter precipitation and snowmelt into runoff channels that lead toward basins, wells, and high-risk flood zones. Important to consider is the fact that much of California’s ageing irrigation infrastructure would need to be expanded and improved upon in order to accommodate larger swells of water. 

Even so, it remains unclear if California’s water debt can ever be resolved. The San Joaquin valley alone overdraws water by two million acre-feet per year, but with climate change affecting weather patterns, it may also intensify boom and bust cycles between the seasons, exacerbating water shortage in California. Summers could become hotter and drier, while spring thaws could yield larger floods with greater precipitation, so there is a possible silver lining on the horizon. 

Regardless, California is still in a drought and the entire state is being challenged to provide a substance essential for human survival. Short of a miracle flood appearing from thin air, it would appear that the only solutions are to tightly curtail water usage and closely monitor the levels of existing reservoirs and aquifers. Until La Niña departs from the west and climate conditions improve, the pressure is on state authorities to mitigate this crisis. 

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