Everything You Need To Know About The California Drought

Photo: Warming Images/REX Shutterstock.
“Some of us who live in arid parts of the world think about water with a reverence others might find excessive,” Joan Didion writes in her 1979 essay about her relationship to water in California. Thirty-six years later, those of us who live on the best coast are finally catching up to her reverence. Our state is in the midst of a catastrophic drought, which some scientists predict could be the worst in 1,200 years. Our state is dry. Really dry. So, what do you need to know — and do — about it?

Let's start with the big questions...

What caused the drought?
This is going to sound obvious, but the explanation is simple: It hasn’t rained enough. Some people blame the abnormally dry weather on a “warm blob” of water off the coast in the Pacific. Others fault climate change more generally. It hasn’t rained enough for years, actually, which means that we’re dipping into our long-term water reserves — like underground aquifers — more and more often. California has never had a very rainy climate to begin with, and our economy is built on agriculture (which uses a lot of water), and now it’s raining even less. Hence, we're entering crisis mode.

It rained last week. Will that improve things, even a little bit?

Probably not. In a city like Los Angeles, which is 65% covered in pavement, that water will never reach the aquifers underground. The most beneficial rain, when it comes to fighting the drought, is the rain California gets over the mountains during winter. That rain creates the snowpack that melts and becomes the water we use in our homes, on our crops, and if we’re evil, on our lawns. (More about that in a minute.) Almost a third of the water California uses in an average year comes from snowmelt.

Is it true that we only have a year’s supply of water left?
Not exactly. California only has a year’s supply of water in its reservoirs. There are still other sources, like groundwater. That’s still not a great situation — groundwater is supposed to be our long-term water storage, and it replenishes much more slowly. You’ll still be able to turn on your taps a year from now, even if the drought continues. But, if the drought continues another three years, things start to look iffier.

Am I making the water crisis worse?
Depends on what you’re doing — and whom you ask. Directly speaking, we use significantly less water in urban areas (the stuff you drink and flush and shower in at home) than people do on farms. The thirstiest crops California grows are rice, pistachios, and almonds, along with alfalfa (which is used to feed dairy cows) and pasture land. Which essentially means that eating fancy nuts and meat — and some produce like broccoli and avocados — means consuming a lot of water. A gallon of water, in fact, for each almond you pop in your mouth to stave off pre-lunch hunger pangs.
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Photo: Warming Images/REX Shutterstock.
Does that mean I have to give up almond milk? Or, god forbid, avocados?
You’ll be both pleased and confused to learn that it’s not as simple as cutting water-greedy produce out of your diet. Some people argue that we shouldn’t just look at the amount of water a particular crop consumes, we also need to consider the nutritional value of the food — and the economic value that it provides to the state of California. By that measure, almonds are actually kind of awesome. Avocados aren’t bad, either, especially if they’re planted densely, so they suck up less water. And, consider this: Even if drought-sensitive activists managed to push through bans on growing certain crops, “it would be nearly impossible to change water use by telling farmers what they can and can’t plant,” according to Grist.

So, what can be done?
If you’re not a farmer or a water regulator, what can you do about the water crisis? There are actually a lot of tips and tricks that can make an impact!

1. Cut down on meat.
Alfalfa crops suck up almost as much water as those shame-inducing almonds, and alfalfa is used almost exclusively to feed livestock. If you’re super carnivorous, try scaling back to eating meat at just one meal per day. If you already eat a pretty vegetable-heavy diet, try cutting down to eating meat twice a week, or only when you’re in restaurants. Motivate yourself by watching cute baby-animal videos on YouTube and the movie Babe.

2. Get into xeriscaping
What? You still have a grass lawn? Make xeriscaping — landscaping with plants that use less water — your new hobby. Drought-resistant succulents and cacti look better, and grow better, too. Some cities, like Los Angeles, even offer a rebate for replacing your grass.

3. Turn off your decorative fountain
And, turn in your Troop Beverly Hills membership sash while you’re at it.

4. Take showers
The average bath uses 35 to 50 gallons of water, but a 10-minute shower with a low-flow showerhead only uses 25 gallons. If you, like me, are a huge baby and hate stepping into the shower before the water is warm, they even make showerheads that reduce the shower flow to a trickle while it heats up. Even better? Take shorter showers. Bonus points for shaving your legs at the sink. But! A loophole for tub addicts: For those of you who can’t give up your bath routine completely, we’ve found a way for you to have a guiltless soak. If you install a low-flow showerhead and take super-short (like, six-minute) showers for 12 days in a row, the water you save is enough to grant you one guilt-free bath. You better savor it.
Photo: Warming Images/REX Shutterstock.
5. Buy a rain stick.
Perhaps there’s a reason for the catchphrase, “Make it rain.” Maybe we all need to be taking some direct spiritual action by shaking a rain stick. Etsy has some affordable options.

6. Check your pool for leaks.
We already hate you because you have a pool. The least you can do is make sure it’s not wasting water.

7. Never wash your jeans.
Well, almost never. And, think about wearing other items of clothing multiple times, too.

8. Don’t buy water that is bottled in California.
It’s mind-boggling, but some big companies are bottling and selling California water — some of it even comes from national forests. If you have to drink bottled water, better options include Poland Spring, Deer Park, Ice Mountain, Ozarka — and, my personal favorite, Mountain Valley Spring.

9. Fix your flush.

Put a plastic bottle filled with water in your toilet tank, so that you use less water per flush. Also, “if it’s yellow, let it mellow.” Make it a habit. Yeah, it’s kind of gross, but just put the lid down.

10. Drink wine spritzers all summer!
If the water you drink is actually 50% wine, it’s a win-win for both your Sunday afternoon and the state of California, right? Keep telling yourself that…

And, now for the biggest question...

How long is this going to last?
The drought is four years old. NASA recently launched a satellite to monitor it from space, so clearly they don’t think it’s ending anytime soon. Some climatologists predict the state will get wetter, others that it will get even drier. But, everyone agrees it will be warmer in the future than it is today. Even if the drought continues, cities will probably have enough water. It’s farm communities that are going to be in trouble. Some farmers might move out of California, but many others will stay and adapt. The rest of us are probably going to have to adapt, too.
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