Rain at Last in California! The Bleaker Picture?

Finally, the rains have come to central and southern California! We have been in severe drought, now, for many months, and anxieties run high as reservoirs run low and even go dry.

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Although the three to four inches over the last few days is quite literally “just a drop in the bucket” in terms of alleviating our drought conditions, the coming of such significant rainfall raises hopes that more is to come this season: It must!

Linda Was Right About “Water”

I recall my wife voicing concern many years ago about California’s rapid growth outrunning its resources – particularly water. At the time, I hadn’t given it much thought; today, I think a lot about the possibility – fast becoming a likelihood!

There has been a huge influx of people in California and, specifically, in the San Francisco Bay Area over the last several years. The primary reason aside from the region’s wonderful climate is the booming economy and the tech job magnet which is Silicon Valley. Every vacant space (and there are not many!) is giving way to developers and the apartment/condominiums they love to build. The housing demand is fierce which begets sky-high home prices and rents. However, it seems our city fathers and the state politicians in Sacramento have given little thought to water and the skyrocketing population/resource imbalance. Now, California’s long-term drought has finally spotlighted the seriousness of the situation.

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Locally, here in the San Francisco Bay Area, residents have been asked to cut water usage by 10 to 20%. Lawns have been going brown and showers have gotten shorter among the citizenry. The central valley of California, long known as “the salad bowl” of the world for its bountiful produce, continues to farm although there are sections of the valley that lie fallow for lack of water. In other locations, even such water-intensive crops as almonds are still grown in abundance.

Where Do the Farmers Get Their Water?

More and more, California’s farmers are going far below ground for their water, drilling deeper and deeper wells. Some of these wells are so deep that they cost a farmer hundreds of thousands of dollars to drill. Most of the shallow, easy-to-reach aquifers have been depleted over decades of easy drilling. Small farmers who cannot afford the drilling costs of deep wells see the handwriting on the wall.

I was surprised to learn – and not that long ago – about land subsidence. Here is how it works: Over a period of continual pumping of well water from the aquifers, a significant lowering of land elevation occurs. The nearby large city of San Jose, California, experienced some thirteen feet of subsidence in its early days when water came exclusively from wells. That degree of land recession can cause all kinds of problems today: New flood-zones (not a problem at the moment!) and infrastructure damage, for example. Imagine the potential stresses and strains on underground utilities like water and gas pipes as the land settles in a slightly uneven fashion.

The “60 Minutes” Program on California’s Water Problems

Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes” recently devoted an entire program segment to California and its growing water problems. The program highlighted data which shows serious depletion of the state’s aquifers – mainly by big agriculture. The implications are clear: Any long-term climate change in California which results in less rainfall each year for an extended period will, in the not too-distant future, take a severe toll on the state’s agricultural output as aquifers are pumped dry faster than they can replenish – precisely the present situation. The resulting damage to California’s agriculture will have huge economic consequences on the state in years to come.

The de-salinization of salt water is seriously being considered right now in some regions of the state. Down south, Orange County and San Diego have already implemented sewage treatment plants which reclaim waste water (even sewage) back into drinkable water. At the end of the “60 Minutes” segment, Ms. Stahl finally gave in to urging from her host at one of these re-processing plants and drank a glass of water which had been reclaimed from sewage/waste: She apparently remains in good health and even admitted that it “tasted OK” – to paraphrase.

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Barely visible at the base of the Japanese Maple in the above picture is a little sign my wife has in our garden. It reads, “For all things, there is a season.” How true for the annual seasonal changes which we expect. I fear that little sign may portend a darker cycle – one with a period of hundreds of years – a cycle of severe drought in California. I hope not.

For more on the subject of unbridled growth here in Silicon Valley and cities and towns, in general, click on the following link for my post “Our Cities and Towns: About Growth and Quality of Life” (archives, May 31, 2014).

See “Our Cities and Towns…”

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