I moved to San Francisco six months ago and my umbrella hasn’t left its dusty sleeve yet. Scientists and politicians, everyone agrees. California is in deep trouble. We enter the fourth year of drought and the soil has never been drier. Some look at the sky with hope that El Niño will bring much needed rain. But most are starting to wonder if this is just the beginning. Are we entering a mega-drought that could last for more than a decade?
Agriculture, one of California’s strongest pillars has taken the biggest hit. The Drought will cost at least $2.2 billion in agricultural losses this year. Fields of dead almond trees and dried-out crops are a common sight in central California these days. Central Valley towns are also growing desperate. Many have been forced to install porta-potties in their backyards or even steal water from fire hydrants.
But even if everyone knows about how dangerous a drought can be, and despite the tremendous efforts for saving water, most Californians are still not aware of the magnitude of the problem.
Many believe that the drought can’t be that bad if water still comes out of everyone’s tap, right?
San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park enjoys a vast sprinkler system necessary to keep it alive. But the park’s green grass is nothing more than a mirage.
We are borrowing most of this water; either from neighboring states or depleting ground water reservoirs. This will come back to get us. Mark Cowin, director of the California Department of Water Resources, told the Time that our current ground water withdrawal levels are so dangerous that “We are essentially borrowing on tomorrow’s future. We’ll pay that price over time”.
A recent study headed by climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh of Stanford University linked the drought with human-made global warming and climate change. The paper concludes that “extreme atmospheric high pressure in this region-which is strongly linked to unusually low precipitation in California-is much more likely to occur today than prior to the emission of greenhouse gases that began during the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s”.
Diffenbaugh and his colleagues used computer simulations and statistical analysis to show that “a persistent region of high atmospheric pressure over the Pacific Ocean–one that diverted storms away from California–was much more likely to form in the presence of modern greenhouse gas concentrations”.
Mega-droughts are what Cornell University scientist Toby Ault calls the “great white sharks of climate: powerful, dangerous and hard to detect before it’s too late. Ault call mega-droughts “a threat to civilization”.
University of Arizona climate scientist Gregg Garfin said that “If California suffered something like a multi-decade drought, the best-case scenario would be some combination of conservation, technological improvements (such as desalinization plants), multi-state cooperation on the drought, economic-based water transfers from agriculture to urban areas and other things like that to get humans through the drought”.
Ault said that “For the Southwestern U.S., I’m not optimistic about avoiding real mega-droughts. As we add greenhouse gases into the atmosphere -and we haven’t put the brakes on stopping this – we are weighting the dice for mega-drought conditions”.
Ault said that mega-droughts could possibly be the worst threat to a civilization, even worse than anything experienced by any humans who have lived in that part of the world for the last few thousand years.
If we continue on this path, California might be headed for a drought-induced collapse.
What can the state of California do to prepare?
First, we must reduce our carbon emissions and try to reverse climate change. And while water conservation is important, it won’t be enough. We must invest in new technologies like water desalinization plants. It’s the only way to prepare for what’s likely to come.
The county’s largest water desalination plant is being built in San Diego. It’s expected to provide clean water to its residents by 2016. Some argue that the plant’s $1 billion price tag is to high, and that its technology is not advanced enough to be cost efficient.
But there are many companies out there perfecting water desalination technologies, and one that stands out is WaterFX.
WaterFX states in their website that “Unlike conventional desalination, which uses a high-pressure reverse osmosis that forces salt and other solids through a membrane, WaterFX cleans water with a special Concentrated Solar Still. Solar thermal energy is used to evaporate and distill water at 30 times the efficiency of natural evaporation”.
WaterFX’s test facility is successfully producing up to 14,000 gallons of fresh water a day. Plans are now under way to expand the demonstration project, which will push up its capacity to 65,000 gallons a day over the same 6,500 sq ft area.
Mandell insists that the technology promises to become more price-competitive as production increases. “If 70% of your cost is fuel production for traditional desalination and you want to scale up, the cost goes up significantly, unlike solar desalination,” he says.
With no rain, depleted reservoirs and dried up ground water wells, the only place left for California to look for water is the ocean.