RECAP – The Future of Water in California

I’m a native Californian – one of the rare dudes actually from Los Angeles AND living in Los Angeles — and I wonder whether I will be able to live here 10 years from now. The last three years of drought conditions here in California are seriously threatening the viability of staying here, and it scares and saddens me. How could anyone sanely plan on continuing to live in Los Angeles (commonly thought of as a desert but technically a coastal plain) if they weren’t totally confident that they would continue receiving an uninterrupted supply of life-giving water? I’ve lived here almost three decades and I don’t know the future of water in California.

So, I basically went into panic mode. In the last month, I’ve significantly cut my own consumption of water-intense produce like almonds (and most heart-breakingly almond milk) in an effort to vote with my dollar. I stuck a full water bottle in my toilet tank to reduce the amount of water I use per-flush. I reuse my pet’s unfinished water bowls to water my house plants. I take super short “army showers” lathering up without the water running.

But I’m only one person of 38 million thirsty folks in this state, and I don’t know that they care as much as I do.

Before the drought

During the drought (right now)

 The big cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco (the #2 and #14 most populous cities in the US) obviously must have water to exist. Beyond humans who live here, California is the largest producer of food in the US, the #1 producer of dairy in the US, and the 4th largest producer of wine in the world — all of which require abundant water that we don’t have any more. In fact, Big Agriculture is responsible for 80% of all the water used in the state — meaning that if all the big cities magically disappeared tomorrow, we’d still be in exceptional drought conditions.

Out of geeky curiosity and sheer anxiety, last week I attended a panel event at the Milken Institute (a non-partisan think tank) in partnership with my favorite NPR station 89.3 KPCC. It was a panel discussion with leaders in the California water space hosted by the pooh-bear-voiced AirTalk host Larry Mantle (I should have grabbed a picture, it’s so rare to see a radio guy’s face…)  The panel was enlightening — instead of diving into one specific issue (like conservation, efficiency, agriculture, waste, etc), they had all of the major interest areas discussing all of the items at the same time. The end result was a very satisfying and comprehensive understanding of the various challenges faced by our state in actually solving the drought on a macro level to ensure there is a future of water in California. I was able to get answers from:

  • Kate Poole, a litigator for Natural Resources Defense Council
  • Patrick Cavanaugh, California Ag Today Radio Network
  • Jeffrey Kightlinger, The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California
  • Jim McDaniel, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power
  • Sanjay Gaur, Raftelis Financial Consultants

I live-tweeted the event on hashtag #CAwater so feel free to join this discussion. Here is a recap of what I learned:

You’ve got to love a KPCC event. You’ll generally find intelligent people, but that’s the only thing they have in common.

As I was sitting in the back of the room listening before the event started, I overheard some funny if well-intentioned comments from the crowd:

Eventually the panel started and, shall we say, shit got real very quickly. The introductory statistics blew my mind. I knew the drought was bad, but even I had no idea the extent of the problem:

Once everyone was sufficiently engaged (read: terrified), the panel began discussing potential solutions. When the simple question was asked, “What can we do to stop the drought?” these were the major answers:

To expand on those points:

  1. “Landscaping price incentives”: When landowners have financial incentives to plant drought-resistant lawns, they’ll plant drought resistant lawns. A combination of rebates and matching up to $4-$5 per square foot could eventually bring the cost of planting a water-free lawn down to zero dollars, which should move the market and save a LOT of water.
  2. “H20 Education”: Not everyone even realizes we’re in a drought, let alone knows what to do about it. Without a keenly informed public, change will happen much slower (if at all).
  3. “Agriculture efficiency (no more flood irrigation rights)”: Many farms waste a LOT of water, all the time. Some use drip irrigation, but others still spray sprinklers into the air and lose a lot of water to evaporation. Some crops still use flood irrigation, which means they just dump water over their entire crop lands. It’s very inefficient, and there are incumbent rights holders who need to fall in line with the emergency situation in California.

Simply put:

The conversation then moved on to how other countries have handled their droughts. I don’t know if these options are feasible in California necessarily (I hope so though), but the main differences between California and countries like Egypt and Australia (DRY places) are a combination of governmental involvement and technology.

Australia moved very fast to solve their crisis, especially compared to California:

Egypt kind of blew my mind:

I don’t think California will go with the desalinization option, because we’re exceptionally environmentally friendly here. Desalinization is pretty gnarly for the ecosystem, it basically sucks in everything from the ocean (including animals and plants) while it removes salt from ocean water. That said, it IS a potential option, and San Diego is already moving in this direction:

California water technologies are behind in other ways too. The state doesn’t have a way of knowing how much water is even being used by the public. Some buildings don’t even have water meters, and those that do don’t have them on individual building units. So basically, one person could be using 90% of a building’s water supply, and no one will know — the average use of the building is all that’s reported.

This is especially problematic when you realize that the easiest thing to do is try to simply use less water than your neighbors:

The bottom line is that we need change. California is famously one of the most innovative places in the world, from the Tech industry to the Entertainment industry. We need to innovate now more than ever. We need technology, and government, and the general population, to come together, all at once, right now, and solve this drought. The future of water in California can be a wet one.

The other option is leaving. And I don’t wanna.


– Max



*Thanks to Redditor Crayz9000 for pointing out that Los Angeles is technically speaking not a desert.

*Learn about California water pirates.


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