Saturday, May 23, 2015

Water is the new Oil

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As we move into a fourth consecutive year of drought, and following the driest winter and warmest summer in recorded history, Californian's are bracing for change. And Water IS the new oil. 
Putting the drought into greater perspective, 2010 was labeled the 4th year of a drought starting with the July 2006 record breaking heatwave. 2011 saw record snows and June snowpack. And while it raised fears for snowmelt flooding, it did not replenish the deficit caused by the previous four years of drought. So in reality, 2015 is California’s ninth year of drought, interrupted by the storms of 2011.

California's Capitol
Gov. Jerry Brown recently announced mandatory 25% reductions in urban water use - most of which waters lawns and landscaping. His program includes lawn-removal rebate programs, rebates for replacing toilets to low-flow varieties, increasing fines from the current $500/day to $10,000/day for major water wasters, and a ban on restaurants serving water to customers w/o an explicit request for same.
I fully expected strict water regulations last year and discouraged my neighbors from new plantings that would wither when the spigot was shut. But restrictions did not materialize beyond voluntary cutbacks, landscape irrigation limitations, and the draining of public fountains and water features.

"There is no water shortage here," my niece said of Orange County. Ag uses the bulk of California’s water. Are Angeleans running a close second?
Thanks to William Mulholland (1855-1935), Los Angeles continues living la vida loca. Mulholland designed and supervised the construction of the Los Angeles aqueduct, a 233-mile system to move water from the Owens Valley of the eastern Sierra Nevada to the San Fernando Valley in the west. (See Jack Nicholson’s 1974 blockbuster, Chinatown.) At the time, Owens Lake covered 108 square miles with a depth of 25-30 feet. Surely no one envisioned LA’s long straw sucking Owens Lake dry. …Today, the desiccated lake is a salt-flat and the largest, single source of dust pollution in the US.
The All-American Canal is an 80-mile long aqueduct operated in conjunction with Hoover Dam. It conveys water from the Colorado River into LA's Imperial Valley and is its sole source of water. Not one drop of Colorado River water reaches its terminus in the Mexican Gulf of California.

Sacramento River Delta
The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is part of the largest estuary on the West Coast. It is a vitally important ecosystem and the hub of California's water supply system, providing water for more than 25 million Californians, and for millions of farmland acres in the San Joaquin Valley. The Delta is a transition zone where saltwater from the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay meets freshwater from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. Its network of waterways and numerous islands provide habitat for hundreds of aquatic and terrestrial species, including the threatened Delta smelt (thought in early 2015 to be extinct) and the winter–fall–spring Chinook salmon runs.(1) Locals fear that the Delta could end up wiped out like Owens Valley, which Los Angeles drained like a cold beer on a hot day.
The American Aqueduct follows I-5 south from NorCal (northern CA) to SoCal (southern CA). Since the 1950s, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta has served as the great hydraulic tie between northern and southern California: a network of rivers, tributaries, and canals deliver runoff from the Sierra Mountain Range's snowpack to massive pumps at the southern end of the Delta. From there, the water travels through aqueducts to the great farms of the San Joaquin (Central) Valley and to the massive coastal cities. Without this crucial nexus point, the current level of agricultural production in the southern San Joaquin Valley could not be sustained, and many cities, including the three largest on the West Coast—Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Jose—would have to come up with radical new water-supply solutions.(2)

Last year I was shocked to learn that California has no unified water plan, that each area has fended for itself, some better than others, and that water contracts promise far more than the snowpack can deliver even in good years. Further, NorCal, for whom water was always plentiful, planned poorly for dry times.
While NorCal’s waters flow south and Folsom Lake (the source of my tap water) reached its lowest level since originally filled and flooded in 1955, SoCal reservoirs remained full, fountains flowed, and landscapes lacked naught. Northerners learned we were ill prepared for water storage, something SoCal aggressively pursued for decades.
Sacramento County took advantage of low water levels to heighten the levies surrounding Folsom lake/dam and to build a new spillway. I took advantage of low water levels to hike out into the dry lakebed to view remnants of the old Mormon Island mining settlement emerging from the lake bottom. 
Folsom Lake
Last May, when my 40-foot sycamore began it's autumnal shed, I consulted an arborist and horticulturist. “Two days of watering is ample. If you are watering more frequently than twice a week, you are watering too much and are not growing a drought-resistant lawn," the horticulturist said. “Water your big trees weekly," they instructed, "Drip a hose for five hours and move it hourly around the base of the tree. Normally, you don't have to water trees, they come into the summer well hydrated by winter rains. But this year they did not get enough water and are stressed by multiple years of drought." 

In December 2013, Folsom City launched a program to provide easy access to water use data through a free app.  Dropcountr tracks my daily water use and compares my consumption to nearby users of similar family and lot size.
In spring 2014, I signed on to checked water usage online and found I had reduced water consumption by 75% versus the recommended 20%. I stopped watering my backyard, diverted water to trees - and the fall abated. 
That sycamore looms large in my southerly, front yard. It's shadow umbrellas my small home such that, even solar giant Solar City discouraged me from going solar. "You don't get enough direct sunlight," their salesman said, "Your utility bills will be higher." (for equipment lease)
By mid-summer, many trees in Folsom were a deadly brown and I was thankful I’d heeded my sycamore’s unmistakeable message. It recovered well and was the last sycamore to give up its leaves during our spare winter storms.

Landscaping accounts for 50 percent of the typical residential water bill. We have long known that thirsty grass is unsuitable for arid California. The landscaping fetish followed Europeans to the New World and trailed settlers as they pushed west. Fifteen years ago, when remodeling and re-contouring my Granite Bay home/yard, weather trends were emerging: wooden roofs were discouraged and drought tolerant landscapes encouraged. My ex and I tussled with turf wars. I fought for a fire resistant, dimensional, composite shingle roof and less grass. I won the roof battle (due to fire threat, wood roofs are no longer permitted) but not the turf war… we installed 5000 feet of fescue.
Last year, the City of Roseville began paying residents $1000 to replace lawns with drought tolerant landscaping. Some counties offered $100 rebates to exchange toilets for high-efficiency models using 20% less per flush. This year, Governor Brown announced a statewide drought emergency and ordered a complete review of all water contracts, set asides and usage. Enforceable restrictions are not expected until July - a day late and dollar short by most reckonings.

How are Californian’s doing with water usage? 
Residents in the state's three largest cities, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose, are using between 82-96 gallons/day. Meanwhile, those in East L.A. use just 48 gallons per day, the lowest in the Southland. (Methinks they do little outside irrigation.)
One area using a lot of water per-capita is Beverly Hills, where the average person uses 286 gallons/day. In Orange County, the wealthy suburb of Cowan Heights uses more than 569 gallons of water per person/day. 
The largest per-capita water user in the Bay Area is Hillsborough, a tiny Peninsula town where residents average 334 gallons a day. Only 14 miles away, working-class East Palo Alto residents use less than a quarter as much = 79 gallons a day.

One factor that has kept urban water use high around Sacramento and much of the Central Valley is that many homes did not (and do not) have water meters. They are gradually being installed after former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a 2004 law mandating meters statewide by 2025. Lets face it, without penalties, there is little incentive to conserve.
According to the 2010 database, Folsom residents averaged a whopping 429 gallons/person/day. A water flat-fee of $35/month was partially to blame. In 2011, however, meters were installed and tiered rates put in place. 
My online “drop counter” shows my current, monthly average is 117 gallons/day - well below the city's targeted goal for me of 551 gal/day. And while thats good, its more than double my water use in February. (I’ve begun to water trees again.) 
Statewide statistics show that hotter climates tend to use more water. Coastal cities, which enjoy cooler summers and fog, consume less. Cities like Beverly Hills - arid environs with opulent landscapes - are facing a 36% cut in water use.

Early settlers diverted rivers and great swaths of California's Central Valley was diked and flooded for water-hungry crops like rice and cotton. In 2015, California will harvest it's smallest cotton crop in decades. It is predictable that cotton crops will be relegated, once again, to wet states of the deep south.
Black Necked Stilt
California rice is a $5-billion dollar industry. Rice, a water plant grown in flooded fields, seems a strange bedfelow for California. As it turns out, rice is grown in poorly draining soils unsuitable for other crops. Flooding effectively enhances weed control and the California Rice Commission claims 40% increase in water use efficiency over the last 30 years by water reuse and recycle.(3) The rice hulls, previously subjected to open-field burning, are now burned in biomass facilities to produce electricity. The Rice Commission claims one biomass facility produces electricity equivalent to that required for all rice production operations in the state.
California rice fields provide essential habitat for nearly 230 wildlife species. Historically, the Central Valley housed 4,000,000 acres of wetland habitat for waterfowl and shorebirds. Today, only 205,000 wetland acres remain. Winter flooding for straw decomposition has created new habitat for wintering migratory birds and 60% of their food. The Central Valley is the final destination half of the 5,000,000 ducks using the Pacific Flyway.
As a thirsty crop, methinks rice might be a keeper. However, last year some farmers sold their water rights in lieu of planting because water rights alone do not provide ample water for rice crops. No rain; no rice. Conversely, some rice growers were paid to flood fields last fall for the Pacific Flyway migration.

What about almonds? Some estimate that each almond nut requires a gallon of water. Not so! The Almond Board of California vehemently disputes that claim.(4) They accuse a May 2014 article in Slate for propagation of the myth. In their defense, they cite the health benefits of almonds and the fact that the value of California agriculture has increased by 85% in the last four decades while decreasing water consumption by 5%. Further, almonds add more than 100,000 jobs and $11 billion to the states economy AND they have reduced the amount of water required to grow a pound of almonds by 33% (All of which skirt the issue of gallons of water/nut.) Interesting, eh?

What about gray water? Black water is that which drains from toilets and the kitchen sink - the rest is gray water. Residential use of gray water is currently illegal. Many modern golf courses recollect their irrigation runoff and reuse it. Rice farmers do the same.
According to UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, “The volume of residential graywater in Southern California appears sufficient to meet a significant portion of outdoor residential water demand.” (Positive this is  also true for NorCal.) They call for immediate, coordinated government efforts for the development of graywater recycling to alleviate the pressure on already dwindling potable water resources.

What about desalinization? In November, San Diego County is set to open the first desalinization plant in California. Its a strategy I believe all Californian costal cities should pursue in earnest and indeed a dozen new desalination projects are in various stages of planning statewide.

California's water problems reach far beyond state boundaries. As the world's 7th largest economic power and national cornucopia, what happens in California does not stay in California. Watch for rising prices as a reduction of Californian production puts price pressure on produce.

Can one even discuss California’s drought outside the context of climate change and global warming?
F Moore-LappĂ©’s Diet for a Small Planet was a 1971 bestseller and the first major book to decry meat production as wasteful and a contributor to global food scarcity. She argues the (water and) grain squandered in feeding livestock could provide two loaves of bread for every person on earth. World hunger solved. Food production has increased 40-fold since the book was first published and STILL, many in the world suffer daily hunger.

What about the US industrial meat complex? Beef and cattle make up the single largest segment of US agricultural production. Raising animals is very resource (water and grain) intensive.
Here are some statistics from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association website. (5)
Cattle inventory (as of Jan 1, 2015):  89.9 million, up 1% from Jan. 2014.
Economic impact:  $44 billion in farm gate receipts (USDA NASS)
Number of farms and ranches specializing in beef cattle: 619,172 (2012) 
Number of cattle & calf operations: 915,000 (2012) 
29.7 million beef cows 
9.3 million milk cows
5.8 million beef replacement heifers, up 4% from Jan. 2014
33.9 million head calf crop (2013)

Top 5 states for all cattle and calves (2015): 
  1. Texas - 11.8 million
  2. Nebraska - 6.30 million
  3. Kansas - 6 million
  4. California - 5.2 million
5. Oklahoma - 4.6 million
The total U.S. beef consumed was 25.5 billion pounds
U.S. commercial slaughter total was 31.9 million head  

A 2014 study found that grain-finished beef requires more land and water and produces more greenhouse gases (GHGs) and reactive nitrogen compared to poultry, pork, eggs or dairy. Livestock farming is responsible for about 10 percent of United States’ emissions of GHGs and 15 percent of the global carbon spew—a majority related to cows. 

The total U.S. beef consumed was 25.5 billion pounds 
US population: 318.9 million (2014) (6)
That’s 79.9# of beef per year per person or 6.6# per month or 0.2# per day. (Add to that our consumption of lamb, pork, chicken, turkey, farmed and wild fish, tuna, milk, eggs, cheese and yogurt.) Today it takes 441 gallons of water to produce one pound of boneless beef.(7) That’s 11,245,500,000,000,000 gallons of water per year to eat 1/4 pounds of beef/day. Really people?
Eating fewer animal products takes aim at a major factor in climate change. It also lowers dietary saturated fats as well as antibiotic and pesticide residues.

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s (DGAC) recommendations will be used later this year to draft the 2015 Dietary Guidelines endorsed both by the USDA and HHS (Human Health and Services). “A diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.” 
Needless to say, the recommendations are hotly contested by Big Food and poorly supported by the healthcare community - comprised of many who are not personally convinced of the health benefits conferred by a plant-based diet.

Dining lower on the food chain, eating foods that are closer to their natural form means less processing and less processing means less water use in food production. Plant-based diets can halve the climate footprint of the typical US or UK diet. (8)
Over one year:
Eating one less burger/week is equivalent to removing your car from the road for 320 miles or line-drying your clothes half the time.
A four-person family that skips meat and cheese one day/week is equivalent to taking a car off the road for five weeks – or reducing everyone’s daily showers by 3 minutes. 
A four-person family that skips beef once/week is equivalent to taking a car off the road for nearly three months.
If everyone in the U.S. ate no meat or cheese just one day a week, it would be like not driving 91 billion miles – or taking 7.6 million cars off the road. (9)

What can I do? Does it really make a difference to conserve when the unmetered areas of Sacramento can and do water indiscriminately? Am I willing to do something for the greater good even if I am not forced to? Even if I can't be caught or penalized?
To quote my favorite Vulcan, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Are people willing to sacrifice a bit of their own short-term self interests for the greater good. Are you?
I could resist the urge to have a cozy nighttime fire on no-burn days.
I could abide by local restrictions and not water on no-watering days instead of sneaking during the night.
I could change out my toilets to the low-flush variety. (And receive a rebate to boot!)
I could install a hot water recirculation pump to prevent running potable water down the drain while I wait for warm water. (And receive a rebate to boot!)
I could do all that AND do you see that a plant and planet centered diet has the most impact? 
Does reducing meat or dairy foods sounds daunting? Just take it in small steps: If you’re a meat-eater, start with Meatless Mondays. Consider buying grass-fed, free-range beef, which has a lighter carbon footprint than conventional beef. If you’re already eating vegetarian, start with one dairy-free day/week.

Keeping California from running out of water is going to take something - and a lot more than lawn watering restrictions. It will require fundamental reform of the water system to make it more sustainable and to share that responsibility across all sectors. We need bold action to realign our water needs with our water supply and create a new water system that can serve the state for the next 100 years or more.

We are the people we've been waiting for. (10) I saw this somewhere, this definition of democracy as a living culture. We could commit to individual acts that tie us to the whole; individual acts as a demonstration of our commitments. Finding power in concert with others versus domination of others. Living democracy, creating conditions for being in community with each other across the planet. Where everyone has an equal voice, where everyone is fed. Democracy as a living culture. 
I’m interested in a world that works for everyone with no one left behind. I’m interested in a sustained and sustainable California. That long and winding road leads to my door. Yours?


  1. You've been spending too much time travelling with an environmentalist, and you have learned very well, Cricket. Great piece!

  2. Doh jeh Sher Fu. (Thank you Master.)