US & Canada

Californian drought: Challenges for farmers and city dwellers

Plants grow among the cracked mud at the bottom of Camanche Reservoir in California Image copyright EPA

California is now well into a fourth year of severe drought.

This year's record low mountain snowpack, which the state relies on to get through its dry summers, means that already reduced reservoir levels will not see many gains from the melting of late spring and early summer.

The state is in a process of learning to live with drought.

How are Californians responding to the drought?

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Image caption A campaign in parts of California highlights why grass is not being watered

Our historic drought conditions have many looking for silver-bullet solutions such as increasing supply through more storage, desalination or water reuse.

Others might propose controlling demand by conserving or restricting water use by people in urban and agricultural areas.

Many of these steps are already being taken where they make sense - for example, recently imposed mandatory water restrictions are now making an impact on all urban residents.

At the same time, many cities in California have been striving for water independence for years.

By conserving more water and increasing supplies through desalination (removing salt from seawater) and water reuse, the urban sector is continuing to become more efficient and less dependent on state and federal water supplies.

This means that future droughts will be likely to affect cities less, but they will also have fewer options to reduce their water use.

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Media captionFarmers in California are facing difficult decisions

Agricultural users are also continuing to look at conservation and supply augmentation to increase resilience and even expand production.

But because there is a nearly endless supply of land to be brought into production, agriculture will always face years of plenty and years of scarcity.

For many farmers, this is already a way of life. For others, the lesson is just now being learned.

Meanwhile, environmental flows - that is, water that stays in rivers and streams for fisheries and ecosystems - will also continue to vary, as they always have.

But environmental protections must remain. Ecosystem restoration and other environmental enhancement projects may increase the effectiveness of these environmental flows, but eliminating variation in flows is neither desirable nor possible.

What are some of the biggest challenges in responding to California's drought?

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Image caption Pedalos sit on dry ground after the water receded in the High Sierra, California

To understand California's water situation we have to recognise a fundamental paradox: enough will never be enough.

We are a land-rich, but water-limited state and increased supply leads to more demand, which makes answers to California's water challenges complex and context-dependent, involving a combination of policy, technology and conservation.

California is blessed with an abundance of productive agricultural land in a climate that allows us to grow crops that thrive in only a few places in the world.

The state's agricultural sector is also its largest consumer of water.

Our abundant water supplies have helped create an incredible agricultural industry that leads the world in production.

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Media captionThe BBC's Alastair Leithead looks at the impact of California's worst drought in more than a century.

At the same time, given the size of the state, we will always have more land available to bring into production than we will have water to put on it.

This paradox - that enough water will never be enough - means that efforts to increase supply of water or reduce demand for water will ultimately lead to more agricultural lands being brought into production, more water available for cities to grow and more water to remain in streams to ensure a healthy environment.

But eventually we will face more drought and water supplies will again be inadequate to meet the new higher levels of demand.

There are other arenas where this kind of phenomenon is well understood.

For example, when it comes to motorways, congestion leads to demand for more lanes to be built.

More lanes temporarily reduce congestion and lead to increased housing construction and, over time, that increased housing construction leads to more congestion. That, in turn, leads to demand for more lanes.

How do Californians learn to live with drought?

Image copyright AP
Image caption Some farmers are suggesting voluntarily cutting water use by 25% to avoid harsher restrictions later on

Accepting the fundamental paradox of enough water not being enough doesn't mean that we should throw our hands in the air and do nothing - and in fact, we aren't.

We need to pursue all options in order to have healthy communities, healthy agriculture and a healthy environment.

We also need to recognise, however, that these options will never fully eliminate future scarcity.

Californians have always accepted, and at times even embraced, the uncertain nature of life in this beautiful, diverse state.

From the boom and bust of the Gold Rush to a new population living on the fault lines, California's uncertainty is built into our lives.

Drought is no different.

We will always face times when water is scarce, so we must optimise water use while accepting uncertainty as an integral part of the California lifestyle.

There is no solution to drought, only a change in our way of thinking about water and drought.

Doug Parker is director of the California Institute for Water Resources at the University of California, where Faith Kearns is a water analyst. They also write for The Conversation.

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