California Dreaming…of H2O
California Dreaming…of H2O
By Nick Eyles  

Californians have it all. Don’t they? They can ski in the morning and surf in the afternoon, or at least they could until 2011 when the snow stopped falling in the Sierras, a story told in our film Running on Empty

"What is certain is that there is a natural disaster unfolding in California whose economic impact is far larger than any earthquake; there are no collapsed highways and fallen buildings only abandoned farms, distressed citizens and animals, dried up wells and rivers and brown fields. "

It hit more than the skiing industry as the once deep snow pack is the primary source of water for the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers that drain west to the Central Valley. These rivers used to flow unimpeded out to the Pacific at San Francisco but much of their water is now taken off by enormous pumps and taken by canals to the many farms of the Central Valley and thence piped at enormous cost up and over the mountains to Los Angeles in what is known as the ‘big lift.’ San Diego and the Imperial Valley in turn, get their water from the Colorado River which is also having major problems; water levels in Lake Mead behind the Hoover Dam near Las Vegas are at all-time lows because of a lack of snow in the Rockies.

California is running out of water

Snow melt not only feeds rivers and reservoirs but also trickles down through fractured rock to feed deep aquifers. Sadly, more water is being sucked out than is flowing in. Communities are literally running out of water, farmers are leaving fields fallow and tearing up orchards, and the incidence of deadly wildfires is up; the fires are hotter and move faster.

There is evidence too, that the giant Sequoia redwoods, the great survivors of past droughts are suffering. This drought is different; it’s every bit as dry as those of the past but temperatures are up too, and California is literally ‘running on empty’. 

SCENE FROM THE FILM: Nick Eyles climbs a giant sequoia tree to witness how drought is impacting them.

The drought pits city dwellers (where water magically comes out of a tap) against the needs of the massive agricultural sector which uses 80% of the water each year, with the needs of natural ecosystems such as wetland fish and birds coming a distant third. The natural environment is the big loser in this struggle for one of life’s most basic needs and exist on scraps.

Experts in tree-ring analysis such as Dan Griffin of the University of Minnesota peer backwards over the last 1000 years and see ‘mega droughts’ that lasted several hundred years; a few short years of rain and long spells of nothing when indigenous North Americans were uprooted and had to move on. The future for cities and farms is not bright; could California be headed for the next ‘mega drought’?

A 'Wild West' lack of regulations

Canadians living in a cool wet country (but where groundwater is carefully studied and managed) would be shocked at the lack of knowledge of California’s aquifers, and the seemingly Wild West attitude of many toward its use; ‘out of sight and out of mind’ is the best way to describe it, with no regard for the future according to Vance Kennedy a senior hydrologist formerly of the United States Geological Survey. 

"Necessity is the mother of invention and Americans are nothing if not resourceful, but the fact remains, there isn’t much water to go around and yet the demand just keeps on getting bigger. Californians are living on credit."

Legislation and regulations are complex and date from the mid-nineteenth century in some places and from a few wetter years when legislators had a false impression of rainfall and the desert bloomed. Some even said that ‘the rain follows the plough’ using it to attract farmers and immigrants from the east.

Droughts are a natural feature of California’s climate but some worry that we are headed into uncharted climate territory where the effects of anthropogenic global change interact with natural climate swings to produce droughts more intense than anything prior.

Experts say drought is Calfornia's next natural disaster

What is certain is that there is a natural disaster unfolding in California whose economic impact is far larger than any earthquake; there are no collapsed highways and fallen buildings only abandoned farms, distressed citizens and animals, dried up wells and rivers and brown fields. 

Some shrug it off and see better planning as a way out of the present crisis, or desalination or the increasing treatment of waste water for drinking water such as being pioneered by the city of Modesto, or expensive desalination plants along the coast. Necessity is the mother of invention and Americans are nothing if not resourceful, but the fact remains, there isn’t much water to go around and yet the demand just keeps on getting bigger.

SCENE FROM THE FILM: The state of California is finally getting wise to recycling waste water.

Californians are living on credit. Of course some folks have deeper pockets than others and there’s that old saying that ‘water flows uphill to money’; the rich folks of Hollywood, Bel-Air and Beverley Hills don’t seem to share the concern, green lawns and fountains tell their own story of waste. This despite a State-wide ordnance to cut water consumption by 25 per cent from 2013 levels. The actor Tom Selleck recently settled a law suit brought by the Calleguas Water District for buying water for his ranch.

"Go and buy produce from your local supermarket and it’s a safe bet it’s largely from California. They say they are exporting their precious water to feed not just North America but the world too, and are increasingly talking about getting water back in return; from their northern neighbour. Water for vegetables; it may come to that."
A role for Canadians?

Are Canadians complicit too? Go and buy produce from your local supermarket and it’s a safe bet it’s largely from California. They say they are exporting their precious water to feed not just North America but the world too, and are increasingly talking about getting water back in return; from their northern neighbour. Water is now a commodity and already Californians are getting it from Tahiti, Hawaii and there is a proposal to tanker it down from Alaska.  Canadians are happy to export oil and minerals and many other scarce natural resources to anyone who’ll buy it so why not water? Canadians have resisted such calls in the past but the situation across much of the western US now demands a fresh debate.  Water for vegetables; it may come to that.

Indeed, Canadians are the great water wasters of our planet using more water per capita than anyone; we don’t necessarily consume more but we misuse it, taking our lakes and rivers for granted and using them as dump sites for sewage plants and other urban run-off which includes road salt. We routinely write off huge reserves of groundwater by fracking, by oil extraction and by building cities on top of aquifers, without much regard for the future. As the drought deepens and tightens its grip in the west aren’t there lessons too for us? Can we continue to look to California and say it’s just their problem?

Nick Eyles

In 2015, Nick was awarded the E.R. Ward Neale Medal by the Geological Association of Canada for sustained efforts in sharing earth science with Canadians. Nick was awarded the 2012 Geosciences in the Media Award from the American Association of Petroleum Geologists and in 2013, he was the recipient of the McNeil Medal of the Royal Society of Canada for his ability to promote and communicate science to students and the public.