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Man versus nature in California

Individual communities in central California currently live without running water, and farmers and ski resorts are struggling to survive. Is the drought pushing California's growth model to its limits?

If you want to understand what it means to live in the fifth year of an extreme drought, you should take a look at Tulare County in central California. In the agricultural heart of the United States, thousands of people are literally left on dry land right now. In the city of East Porterville alone, half of the 7,000 residents have had no running water for months. The residents receive drinking water in plastic bottles, for showering they use mobile cabins in the community center, there they also draw water from tanks for washing clothes and for flushing toilets.

Like many other communities in California, East Porterville has no connection to a central water system, but depends on rainfall and groundwater that private operators pump out of the ground. However, in view of the persistent drought, not only do local residents pump more groundwater, but also farmers in particular. In many places the water table has fallen to a level that the pumps can no longer reach.

"How we can help these people in the rural areas is giving me the biggest headache in the current drought," says Felicia Marcus, Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, California's highest water authority. Marcus and other experts agree that the year-long drought is the worst in California's recent history. In addition to the unusually low rainfall, there are extremely warm temperatures, which allow the surface water to evaporate more quickly and which have rapidly melted the snow cover - the important water reservoir for the dry summer months - in the Sierra Nevada.

Ambitious growth plans

A complicating factor is that more and more people live in the most populous state. While 22 million people lived in California during the 1977 drought, it is 38 million today. By 2050 it should be 50 million. In Tulare County alone, with its 467,000 inhabitants, a quarter of a million is to be added by 2050.

The climatic conditions and the security of the water supply only play a subordinate role in the construction plans. A state law requires town planners to provide evidence of how they intend to supply new settlement areas with more than 500 residential units with drinking water. But the law is rarely applied and the evidence is quite easy to come by, says Max Gomberg, environmental scientist with the State Water Resources Control Board.

A central planning authority does not decide on the settlement plans, but rather the municipalities, often twenty or more years in advance. Some projects are the subject of legal disputes between environmentalists and concerned citizens on the one hand and the construction industry and town planners on the other. In a project in Newport Beach, Southern California, for example, which provides for 1,375 new houses, a hotel and a shopping center, a bitter argument has been raging for years over the question of whether the community can continue to grow in the face of the lack of water. "We can no longer go on as before," said California Governor Jerry Brown when he declared a state of emergency due to extreme drought in April and condemned communities to save between 8 and 35 percent of their water consumption compared to 2013.

The key question is: is the current drought temporary or the beginning of a new normal? The answer to that could be critical to growth in California, the eighth largest economy in the world by itself.

But opinions differ on this question. For Lynn Ingram, professor of geography at the University of California at Berkeley and author of The West without Water, the situation is quite clear. "We have reached the limit of population growth in California and the American Southwest." There are already several indicators of global warming in California, such as the severity of the current forest fires or the decrease in snow cover in the Sierra Nevada, which, according to a recently published study, has not been as thin as this spring for 500 years.

Everything indicates that the current drought is not a cyclical one, but the beginning of a new normal in California, says Ingram. There is simply not enough water in California to reliably meet all needs; the shortage has increased in the past century due to the growing population.

The Sierra Club, the oldest and largest environmental organization in the USA, is also critical of population growth. In Coachella Valley in Southern California, for example, the city government has approved a settlement with 7,800 new houses, although a study by NASA has shown that the water table is already falling and the Colorado River, which supplies the region with water, is also carrying less and less water. The Sierra Club fought in vain against the settlement project. At some point the region will run out of water, Jeff Morgan of the local Sierra Club recently told the New York Times; whether in five or fifty years he doesn't know - but at some point there will be no more water.

The environmental scientist Gomberg sees it similarly. He does not know whether the pain threshold of the Californian ecosystem is 60, 70 or 80 million inhabitants, but the current use of water is in no way sustainable. "Hopefully the current forest fires, the multi-year drought and unemployment in central California, as well as the damage to our ecosystem, will be enough to spark the desire for change," says Gomberg.

Some economic sectors are already feeling the effects of the persistent drought, such as ski tourism or landscaping. Most affected, however, is California's agriculture, which is of great national importance. Many farmers are trying to adapt to the new climatic conditions and have replaced products such as almonds and avocado with products that use less water to produce, such as pomegranates. Nevertheless, 218,000 hectares of cultivation area are currently fallow due to the lack of water.

A study by the University of California at Davis on the effects of the drought on local agriculture comes to the conclusion that the direct economic damage will amount to 1.8 billion dollars in 2015 alone and a good 10,000 seasonal jobs will be lost. If one takes into account the indirect consequences, for example for the transport industry or the food processing sector, the total damage will amount to 2.7 billion dollars and would possibly affect 21,000 jobs, the authors of the study write.

Potential to save water

The drought is dramatic for the agricultural sector and the losses there could also slow California's economic growth somewhat, says Jerry Nickelsburg, economics professor at the University of California in Los Angeles and member of the Anderson Forecast research group. However, due to the climate, he is not worried about the country's economic future. Agriculture contributes only a few percent to the entire economic output of the state, which amounts to more than 2 trillion dollars. With a rate of 3.2 percent, California's economy has recently grown faster than that of the USA.

Felicia Marcus of the State Water Resources Control Board shares this view. "At the moment we are pretending that water is not a scarce commodity in our climatic environment," she says. The potential for improvements and savings is enormous. Too much water is also used to irrigate green spaces, “that just doesn't suit our climate”. According to a recently passed law, new buildings in California are now only allowed to sow grass on 25 percent of their outdoor area. It is time for California to pull out all the stops and not only save water, says Marcus, but also recycle it, collect rainwater and manage the groundwater better.

Even with a view to new settlement plans, Marcus sees no contradictions to the climatic conditions, on the contrary: new buildings are often more efficient than older ones in terms of water consumption, and individual municipalities have issued requirements for retrofitting old buildings. “If California actually takes all of these steps, we can still go a long way before we run out of fuel,” says Marcus.

However, Marcus cannot deny the blatant water shortage in the rural regions of central California. Yes, the water shortage is actually severe for individual regions and individual economic sectors. But she doesn't worry about the future of California as a whole; the state is supporting the affected communities, for example with aid loans for new pumping systems that could pump groundwater from lower altitudes.

Australia as a role model

Proponents of population growth also point out that it has always been possible in California to fight against the adverse environmental conditions. A sophisticated system of canals, for example, made it possible in the 20th century to divert water from the Colorado River into arid regions of California and make them habitable. Desalination plants such as those built by Israel and Australia represent a potential additional solution. Although these are expensive, San Diego, which unlike neighboring Los Angeles has virtually no groundwater, already has a plant in use plans more.

The latest figures show that California can certainly save water: The average daily water consumption per inhabitant was 31 percent in July and 27 percent in June below the level of 2013. So the state currently has a good chance of that of Governor Brown by next February The declared goal of reducing consumption by an average of 25 percent compared to 2013. However, water consumption fluctuates extremely between the communities; for example, the city of Santa Cruz was consuming 43 gallons per person per day in July, while the Santa Fe community of southern California was consuming 312 gallons.

However, droughts like the current one are not the only climatic challenge for California's future; forest fires, floods and earthquakes are also among them. The battle between humans and nature over California's future will be decided on several fronts.