This is how we avoid climate catastrophe: The simple -- yet radical -- steps needed to solve California's water crisis

Tackling California's drought requires rethinking "ancient ideas," an expert tells Salon

Published April 10, 2015 9:58AM (EDT)

The dried shore at San Pablo Reservoir Recreation Area in El Sobrante, Calif., Thursday, April 2, 2015.       (AP/Eric Risberg)
The dried shore at San Pablo Reservoir Recreation Area in El Sobrante, Calif., Thursday, April 2, 2015. (AP/Eric Risberg)

California's worsening drought is an environmental disaster, the result of multiple years of below-average rainfall and above-average heat and very likely amplified, experts say, by man-made climate change.

But not everyone is suffering the unprecedented deficit equally. Some, you might even go so far as to say, are winning.

Karen Piper, a professor at the University of Missouri and the author of “The Price of Thirst: Global Water Inequality and the Coming Chaos,” an examination of how the privatization of water is co-opting a fundamental human right, has studied water scarcity across six continents. But when Salon asked her last fall about some of the more egregious places where she saw private control of water going wrong, she immediately answered: California. Specifically, she pointed to the state's Central Valley, where farmers pump the state's scant remaining groundwater with impunity, and where the rich few, through a system known as water banking, control the supplies of the many.

Some of this is beginning, slowly, to change: Last fall, Gov. Jerry Brown signed "historic" legislation that would allow statewide groundwater management. But in practice, the law doesn't do much, especially not in the short-term. As the L.A. Times reported, agricultural interests fought hard against the regulations, and it will be more than two decades before local groundwater agencies will have to fully comply with them.

By that point, of course, there might not be any water left -- at least not any that the average resident can afford.

As California begins, haltingly, to come to terms with its new normal, and the debate over how to ration its most precious resource heats up, Salon called up Piper again to discuss the emerging inequalities in the state's current system for managing its water, and the solutions -- at once simple and, for a state built on agriculture, prohibitively radical -- it needs to start considering. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

There’s so much blame being thrown around for what’s causing the water shortage -- you see headlines about agriculture, the bottled water industry, fracking, even people on the right saying environmentalists caused it. What’s the first thing you would point to as the root of California's problems?

There’s the historical component to it of bad water management, which has been occurring over decades. And then there’s the current problem of not enough water. When I heard that the snowpack was 6 percent of normal, I thought, oh dear, it’s not going to be a pretty summer. Once you have a drought like this, it highlights all of the things you already knew were wrong. Water shortages lead to water wars, so you’re seeing the micro version of that now, where everybody gets angry with everybody else and blames everybody else. At some point it’s really the responsibility of the state to solve the problem, but I don’t see them doing it.

We talked last time about agribusiness controlling water in the Central Valley; a lot of people are pointing out now that the state's new water restrictions don't apply to them.

That’s what I see as one of the biggest problems, is that Ag still uses 80 percent of the state’s water. They do face cutbacks because they receive less water -- they’re getting 0 percent water from the Central Valley Project this year, so they get freaked out too. But when they don’t get enough water they just start pumping groundwater. Then you have this enormous problem of people’s wells going dry in California. People are having emergency tank water brought in, and it's just crazy that farmers could pump enough to make people’s wells go dry. There’s no oversight over that, there are no laws protecting the groundwater or how it’s divvied up, it’s just like history has decided that. So they’re starting to try to enact some legislation right now, but they haven’t even finished their plan; they’re just at the point of getting input from the communities involved.

So that’s a long ways off, and meanwhile not only are people’s wells going dry, but the ground is sinking. As the ground sinks -- and it's as much as half an inch a month now in places -- that means you have less storage space available for water underground when it does rain, because the space is compact. That’s a real problem, but also it’s causing foundations to crack, and it’s causing roads to buckle. It’s causing very expensive problems that aren’t figured into the whole calculations of environmental impacts and the way water is distributed, and it really should be.

So look at it as, California water politics are so complicated and in some ways, I have to say, so corrupt, that it’s hard to really get your head around them. But if you think about it outside that box, then you start to think, well, there are really simple things that should be done that are logical. Like right now, California is shipping an enormous amount of its water out of the country through something called virtual water: the water it takes to grow a certain crop that is then exported.

This is what we're hearing about almonds and other water-intensive crops?

Yeah, and a simple way to stop it is: stop exporting virtual water. Tell farmers they can’t do that. Then you’re saving a whole lot of water, but that’s profits to them, that’s money. So as long as money controls it rather than, like, reality, nothing will get done. People are going to start really suffering under water shortages and water losses. Right now they shouldn’t be growing rice in California, for one thing. It’s extremely water-intensive: they flood the fields, and then they ship that rice to Japan. That water could be used elsewhere in better ways.

What about the whole system of water banks? How are they playing into this?

Right now, you’re seeing the water banks gouging urban areas. During the drought years they start selling water and that’s what’s happening. I’ve been reading about how they are hiking up the prices because they can, because it’s a drought. Kern Water Bank is selling water to San Jose, for instance, and consumer prices went up 30 percent because of this [note: a proposed rate hike was reduced to 19 percent following public outcry]. So they’re making enormous profits off of this water, just like how rice farmers are selling their water, too. It’s coming out of regular citizens’ pockets.

And because there’s no accountability over groundwater, it’s even hard to get the information about how much are they profiting, how much groundwater do they have in storage. One thing that Jerry Brown did that was good is he made some requirements for reporting, at least, among users about how much water they’re using. But they need so much more than that.

So an argument is that California needs to rethink the system by which water is priced, because farmers aren't paying market price for water.

Yes. You’ve got an ancient system that was based on the idea that farmers should get water for basically free because we want to promote settlement and agriculture in California. So you have this system where all they had to pay was toward the building of the infrastructure to bring the water to them. They still have these water contracts that are based on these ancient ideas, so they get it for really cheap. Then urban consumers are paying, say, right now it’s $20 in Imperial Valley per acre-foot, but then they can sell it for like $1,800 per acre-foot -- I don’t know what that margin of profit is, but it’s big.

You've written a lot about how, globally, water insecurity leads to unrest. How do you think that sort of dynamic might play out in California?

That’s an excellent question. After I heard about people whose wells were going dry, I started thinking a lot about equity issues and how the U.N. has this new resolution that says that everybody is entitled to a certain amount of clean water, and how California is kind of failing on its equity issues now between big farmers and the regular citizen. So it depends if people get angry about that and demand some kind of change. If it stays the same then regular citizens will start paying more and more for water and it might price regular working-class people out of the ability to afford water. If that happens, then we’re like Bolivia, because that’s what happened there. It’s not like the Middle East where they’re going out and getting guns, but you’ll see the rise in more desperation among people because of economic inequity. And that does lead to more violence of a different sort.

We know that in the future, these environmental stressors very likely aren't going to go away any time soon.

Oh, yes. That’s the scariest thing of all, because basically, I’m sure you saw the news about the future megadroughts. They’ve been in a four-year drought so far and people are starting to get desperate. But what if it turns into a 20-year drought?

I think people’s way of thinking almost hasn’t caught up to the reality of climate change, because I think you habitually think it’s really awful now, but next year will be better. Now you can’t think that anymore.

When talking about solutions in the short-term and then these longer-term problems that are coming up, would you say that changing that mind-set is the first thing that needs to happen?

I think the state needs to take charge of this situation and start regulating its groundwater usage for one thing, and then create new laws that limit what Ag can do with its water. I don’t think gouging urban customers is the right thing to do. So that’s a big problem. And that can be done in the short term: They can start figuring out what’s happening with groundwater and start thinking about the consequences.

But then in the long term, the state has to rethink agriculture, basically. The problem is that that’s thinking so big. We’re a country that’s based on freedom and the ability to develop or to have any kind of business you want. So to tell farmers how they can do their business goes against everything that’s American, in a way. But they really are going to have to because it just wastes so much water. And I don’t think that they should stop farming in California -- I’m actually afraid that might happen, because as they run out of water people are going to start going for the farmers more -- but if the farmers stop farming there, then you have Central Valley turning into a dust bowl. That’s not good, we don’t need more of that.

So I think what they need to do is farm switch to drought-resistant crops, first of all, and over the long run, they need to switch to methods that conserve water. For instance, permaculture: They irrigate through rainfall using a swale system, which involves digging these trenches and having different stories of crops that they grow. So they’ll have fruit trees that are more drought tolerant and then grow things under the fruit trees to absorb more of that water. They’ve been doing this in the Middle East and it’s really working wonderfully and saving an enormous amount of water.

They also need to think of using biochar as a fertilizer, because that helps to stop or to absorb CO2 while also fertilizing. A lot of international organizations are recommending biochar now to try to slow down climate change. They could do simple things right now, like don’t allow flood irrigation, where you just flood the Central Valley to grow whatever trees or rice or whatever and then all that evaporates, leading to major water losses. So there are certain things they can do in the short-run and then other things they can do in the long-run.

And these aren’t things you think the industry will do on its own without government intervention?

No, but that’s the state’s responsibility, to manage its water resources. If they don’t do that, then I don’t know how it's going to happen.

By Lindsay Abrams

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California Drought Climate Change Gov. Jerry Brown Inequality Water Shortage