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This Week in California's Drought

A round-up of news and research on the Golden State's thirst for water.
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Shasta Lake, located in Shasta County, California. (Photo: torroid/Flickr)

Shasta Lake, located in Shasta County, California. (Photo: torroid/Flickr)

As you likely know, California is in the midst of a historic drought, one that’s been plaguing the state for four years. With each passing rain-less day, it affects not only the well-being of its 38 million residents, but also a disproportionate amount of our country’s produce. (Among other fruits and vegetables, California is responsible for 88 percent of America's avocados, 92 percent of strawberries, 92 percent of lemons, 95 percent of broccoli, and 70 percent of spinach.) While this is an issue that is discussed widely and often, this past week saw an influx in drought-related news. Here’s what you might have missed:


According to University of California-Irvine professor and NASA scientist James Famiglietti, who wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times last week, the total amount of water available in the San Joaquin and Sacramento river basins—that is, almost all of California’s water—will last one more year. In 2014, the water levels in the two reservoirs, which include “all of the snow, river and reservoir water, water in soils and groundwater combined,” were 34 million acre-feet below normal.

California’s usual back-up plan, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing as well, as it has been since the 20th century. “California has no contingency plan for a persistent drought like this one (let alone a 20-plus-year mega-drought), except, apparently, staying in emergency mode and praying for rain,” Famiglietti wrote. This conclusion was reached by analyzing images and data from NASA satellites.


California Governor Jerry Brown introduced yesterday a $1 billion plan that will, ideally, provide relief to the withering state. The plan includes both long-term projects and short-term relief; the majority of it—$660 million—will be used to prevent floods, a risk posed by extreme weather events related to climate change. The rest will be used to help wildlife preservation and assist particularly hard-hit communities.

This comes on the heels of state officials announcing a stricter set of regulations concerning water usage, which are, according to Time, “some of the broadest and strictest statewide water limits in California history.” Landscape watering, the source of half of water consumption in urban areas, will be limited to two days a week. And, although this may seem obvious, they forbid irrigation while it’s raining and for two days afterwards.


Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times reported that Santa Barbara plans on spending up to $40 million to modernize and re-activate a desalination plant that was built more than 20 years ago during a severe drought. Santa Barbara joins the likes of Huntington Beach, Monterey, and other California costal cities in considering this alternative water source. However, as we noted last week, desalination, which is the act of stripping ocean water of its salt, is a very complicated issue: Not only does it require a significant amount of energy—which, provided the plant is being powered by fossil fuels, spells more greenhouse gases—but after extraction, the excess salt is usually dumped back into the ocean, potentially harming marine life and environments.

Currently, some nations successful employ the desalination techniques; Israel, for example, takes close to 20 percent of its water from the sea. But, as we noted, that’s because they naturally produce 100 times less renewable fresh water per capita than us.

This Week In explores ongoing revelations and research on trending news topics.