The first rule for staying alive in a desert is not to pour the contents of your water flask into the sand. Yet that, bizarrely, is what the government has encouraged farmers to do in the drought-afflicted south-west. Agriculture accounts for 80% of water consumption in California, for example, but only 2% of economic activity.
Farmers flood the land to grow rice, alfalfa and other thirsty crops. By one account, over the years they have paid just 15% of the capital costs of the federal system that delivers much of their irrigation water. If water were priced properly, it is a safe bet that they would waste far less of it, and the effects of California’s drought–its worst in recorded history–would not be so severe.
The “ridiculously resilient ridge,” an unusually persistent high-pressure zone, has installed itself off the Pacific coast, stopping precipitation systems from travelling toward the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where they typically deposit their moisture. Last month snowpack in the Sierras fell to 12% of average January levels. Rainfall has disappointed for three years. Lake Folsom, near Sacramento, has shrunk so far that an old gold-rush town has been exposed. The rainy season has six weeks or so to go, but there is little sign of respite. California is bracing itself for a brutal fire season.
State officials have cut off supplies to water districts; their federal counterparts will soon follow suit. Some farmers who made the risky decision in past years to plant lucrative pistachio and almond trees, which require year-round watering, have had to bulldoze them. Others are fallowing farmland, or digging deeper to tap brackish groundwater, further depleting aquifers.
On January 17th Governor Jerry Brown urged Californians to cut water use by 20% and issued a drought declaration, which loosens the rules restricting in-state water transfers. Last week Barack Obama visited Fresno, in California’s fecund Central Valley, to announce $183m of federal aid before spending three days golfing on well-watered courses in the desert. This week California’s leaders pledged a further $687m in drought relief.
Drought is also afflicting California’s neighbours to the east (see map). But they, along with California, are grappling with a longer-term problem: the Colorado river, which waters seven states (plus part of Mexico), is struggling to service its clients. Thanks to declining flows, last year the Federal Bureau of Reclamation (FBR), which oversees its use, cut the release of water from Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border to Lake Mead, America’s largest reservoir. It has never done this before.
The rules are showing their age. The law of the river, which allocates precise amounts of water to the seven Colorado-basin states, was signed in 1922. The region has grown quickly and unevenly since then but the law has proved resilient; states used to sue each other with wearying frequency but now work together well.
Read More: Here