California Floods Hide Underground Droughts

Our water storage for the next generation faces challenges that are hidden.

Guest Editor: Klaus Reichardt

Californians have a lot to cheer about these days, especially as the “green economy” is concerned. As of February 6, 2017, the National Weather Service reports that California has recorded 15.44 inches of rain. The rain period in the state runs from October 1 to September 30 of the following year, suggesting that this figure may go even higher. But here’s the big news. After five years of drought conditions, the total so far this rain period is actually about 1 inch more water than the state normally receives during a one-year period. And what is really amazing is that rain and snowfall in the Sierra Nevadas, where most of the drinking water in California comes from, is a full 73 inches above normal.

While citizens of the state, businesses, and many organizations are breaking out the Champaign bottles, some water officials in California still have a grim face. Here’s why: over the past few years, California has pulled huge amounts of water out of its aquifers (underground water sources). This underground water is essentially the states savings account when it comes to water. In the California’s agricultural Central Valley, which produces about a quarter of all the food consumed in the United States, some aquifers have fallen by more than 40 million square feet. Essentially, the state has been sucking the underground water dry. Further, these officials have also been monitoring more than 1,500 wells located throughout the state. They found that a third of them fell by more than 10 square feet in the past four years, with some dropping as much as 100 square feet.

While it is not uncommon to pull water out of the aquifers, pulling out amounts this large is cause for concern. It can take years if not decades for this much water to be replenished, even if the state has several water-plentiful years during that time. And California historically has had some type of drought about once every 10 to 20 years. However, in recent decades the state appears to be having droughts more often and they are lasting longer. If another drought occurs in the state within the next 10 years, California could be in a very difficult position and, as we will discuss, so would the rest of the country. 

California is not the only state that has to worry about drought conditions and falling freshwater supplies. Much of the western half of the United States also faces drought conditions. However, the news tends to focus on California because it is the state that has been the most impacted. And there is cause for concern across the rest of the nation as well. According to a study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GOA), freshwater shortages are expected in at least some part of 40 of the 50 states in the next ten years. (Source: )

As to this latest drought’s impact on California specifically, a study by the University of California Davis Center for Watershed Sciences reports that, as of 2016, the drought has cost the state’s agriculture industry more than $550 million in direct costs and resulted in the loss of 1,815 jobs. And the researchers went further. The total impact of the five-year drought, as of 2016, was nearly $3 billion, with 21,000 jobs lost statewide.

Impact on the Rest of the Country

These are big numbers for one state to absorb. So what does this mean for the rest of the country, especially if there is another western drought in a few years? The following gives you some idea:

  • Overall, the drought in the western portion of the country has impacted more than 52 million people.
  • In the past three years, consumers across the country have had to grapple with as much as a 12 percent increase in the cost of beef products and veal, though in recent years costs have come down a bit.
  • The price of California’s fruits and vegetables have been going up steadily over the past five years; as California is the breadbasket of the nation, these price increases affect everyone in the country.
  • Many “bio-based” agricultural products such as corn and soy, which are often used as an alternative to petroleum by-products to make a variety of green and sustainable products have seen cost increases; further, due to water shortages, some western farmers have stopped growing bio-based products altogether.
  • Some other crops that use large amounts of water, such as almonds and some other nuts and vegetables, are also no longer being grown; with lower supplies of these foods, prices have jumped.

Finally, if California, the seventh-largest economy in the world, and other western state economies stumble, this could cause the gross national product (GNP) of the entire country to fall. When the GNP takes a dip, very often jobs and industries go down with it. As you can see, drought conditions can have wide-reaching effects across the nation. While things are looking a bit brighter and wetter in California and the other western states right now, inevitably this is unlikely to last. All states must continue (or begin!) to concentrate on water conservation, efficiency, and sustainability efforts,  This is the best way to ensure we have water for today…and tomorrow.

About Klaus Reichardt

A frequent speaker and author on water conservation issues, Klaus Reichardt is founder and CEO of Waterless Co. Inc, in Vista, California, makers of waterless urinals and other restroom products. He founded the company in 1991 with the goal to establish a new market segment in the plumbing fixture industry with water conservation in mind. Sources: Pacific Standard magazine, CNN reports, the National Weather Service, and The U.S. Drought Monitor