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Evan Horowitz

How bad is the drought in California?

An empty water reservoir above Los Angeles.
An empty water reservoir above Los Angeles.MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

With too little water in the reservoirs and too little snow melting down from the mountains, California is caught in a terrible drought.

Nearly half the state is now characterized as being in “exceptional drought,” which brings a heightened risk of fires, widespread crop losses, and low water levels in rivers and wells.

And while the state did benefit from some much-needed winter thunderstorms, the future does not look wet. About a third of California’s water comes from melting snow, high up in the Sierra Nevada mountains. And right now there’s practically no snow, just 6 percent of normal amounts, the lowest on record.

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California Governor Jerry Brown has taken a dramatic step by imposing mandatory cuts for the first time in the state’s history, requiring a 25 percent reduction in the quantity of water used by cities and towns.

Yet, Brown’s approach only addresses a small part of a bigger problem. Conditions may be particularly severe in California, but for the last 15 years, much of the Southwest has been plagued by drought. And if excessive water use is part the problem, cities and towns aren’t the major culprits. California’s farms use 80 percent of the state’s water.

Source: US Drought Monitor

Author: Eric Luebehusen, U.S. Department of Agriculture

What’s in Governor Brown’s plan?

Not only has Brown ordered a 25 percent reduction in water use from cities and towns, he’s also called for more drought-tolerant landscaping, tighter restrictions on large-scale users (like campuses and golf courses), and incentives for consumers to purchase water-efficient appliances.

These approaches don’t apply to agriculture, which is the biggest user of water by far. Agriculture is a sizable industry in California, producing over half of all the fruits and vegetables in the United States. And California’s farms use four times as much water as all the cities and towns.

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Why not limit water for farming?

Farmers have been forced to cut back in other ways. Last year, the state’s reservoirs were so low that many farmers didn’t receive any water, and as a consequence roughly 400,000 acres of farmland were left fallow. In fact, farmers in Southern California and the Central Valley haven’t gotten their full allocation of water since 2006.

One way farmers have been compensating is by pumping water out of underground aquifers, which is a decidedly short-term solution since those aquifers are being emptied much faster than they can refill.

For now, the water shortage doesn’t seem to be pushing up food prices, possibly because available water is being used for crops consumers care about most. Harder hit are crops like alfalfa, that are in low demand, or others like rice that you can get from elsewhere.

Does the drought extend beyond California?

For the last 15 years, drought has been endemic across the Southwest, leading to severe declines in the water levels of some major reservoirs and waterways — including the Colorado River, the Rio Grande (now colloquially referred to as the “Rio Sand”), and Lake Meade (the enormous reservoir created by Hoover Dam).

At the same time, the region’s population has been growing rapidly. Since the 1950s, there has been a fourfold increase in the number of people living across the Southwest, from 14 million to 56 million.

Even absent a drought, this kind of population growth would put tremendous pressure on the region’s water system. Add a decade and a half of dry weather and the problem only worsens.

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Source: US Drought Monitor

Author: Eric Luebehusen, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Will the water come back?

Eventually, this drought in California will end. But it may not be anytime soon. In the past, some California droughts have gone on for decades.

What’s more, global warming is poised to make drought a more regular feature of life in the Southwest.

Put all this together — ongoing drought, population growth, and the likelihood that climate change will produce even more extreme weather — and you have the ingredients for a long-term water emergency.

Is there a long-term solution?

At present, California seems to be pursuing two kinds of solutions:

1) Better stewardship of water. Governor Brown’s new restrictions are partly designed to create a “new normal” around water conservation, and in particular a more responsible sense of how much water can be devoted to landscaping.

2) New sources of water. Within the next few years, a new desalination plant near San Diego is expected to start turning ocean water into drinking water. Many more desalination projects are currently being considered up and down the coastline. Desalinated water is expensive, and the amounts envisioned are fairly small compared to overall water usage, but desalination has the virtue of churning out fresh water even during intense droughts.

Are there any other approaches?

One thing California isn’t really considering is a market-based solution. Price can be an extremely powerful motivator, but the way the water system is set up, the price of water is almost completely unrelated to its real economic or environmental value.

For households, the cost of a gallon of water is under a penny, meaning even a wasteful family will spend just a few dollars a day — barely enough to register in many family budgets.

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In some places the price of water is effectively zero. A majority of homes in Sacramento don’t have meters. Instead families pay a fixed fee, which means there’s basically no cost for wasted water, no matter how large the waste. Not surprisingly, people in Sacramento use nearly twice as much water as those in Los Angeles, and almost three times as much as in San Francisco.

Water is even cheaper for farmers, a few pennies for every thousand gallons. As a result, California famers use some pretty inefficient irrigation methods, produce some very water-intensive crops, and devote a substantial amount of water to livestock. As George Mason economics professor Alex Tabarrok wryly joked, “We are spending thousands of dollars worth of water to grow hundreds of dollars worth of almonds and that is truly nuts.”

If it chose, California could follow the lead of other drought-prone places like Australia, which created a water market several decades ago. In Australia, farmers can buy and sell their water rights. When water is scarce, farmers who need the water most can buy it from those with less urgent needs. This creates a strong incentive for farmers to incorporate water-efficient methods, and it ensures that water is always being used for the most productive purposes (because waste is just too costly).

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For now, there doesn’t seem to be any political appetite for this kind of market-based approach to agricultural uses, and there’s a lot of legitimate skepticism about whether a market for household water use would turn economic inequality into water inequality (as happened to some degree in Detroit).

Ultimately, though, in the midst of a drought, water is extremely valuable — precious even. It’s no longer something that can be used idly or casually wasted. Making farmers and residents pay a fair price for the water they use is one way to adapt to this new reality.

Brown’s approach is another way to keep valuable water from being wasted. By capping the amount of water cities use, the new rules encourage families to count their gallons more deliberately. The months and years ahead will show if the governor’s action is enough, or if continued drought will ultimately require more far-reaching action.


Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz