It’s year four of the California drought. A few remote communities have already run out of water. The governor just announced aggressive water restrictions. But what will happen to the state if the drought doesn’t end?
The possibility of a megadrought–lasting two decades or longer–is actually fairly likely in California. The last 150 years have been unusually wet, and at a few earlier points in history, the state had droughts lasting more than a century. NASA predicts that a decades-long drought will be even more likely to happen this century thanks to climate change.
Still, that doesn’t mean that Angelenos and San Franciscans will have to pack up and move. Surprisingly, when researchers at the University of California-Davis made a computer model of a 72-year drought, they found that the state would emerge battered but with an economy almost as strong as before.
“We realized that the consequences won’t be disastrous or catastrophic,” says Josué Medellín-Azuara, one of the study’s authors.
But to survive, the state will have to get a lot smarter about managing the little rain that falls–and go even further than some of the restrictions in Governor Jerry Brown’s new, first-ever mandatory water restrictions. Here are five things California can do differently.
The traditional bright green lawn, originally made in imitation of rainy English estates, doesn’t make much sense in a dry climate. In some communities, as much as 50-80% of water is used just to irrigate outdoor landscapes like lawns and golf courses. Cities like L.A. already offer rebates to people who tear up their front lawns and put in succulents and other drought-tolerant native plants, and in a megadrought, this will happen more. Now, the governor’s new executive order will require the state to replace 50 million square feet of lawns with new landscaping.
By some estimates, the state has about a million acres of lawns–so there’s room for California to convert about a thousand times more grass than the order requires.
“We’re relatively wasteful with water in California,” says Heather Cooley, the water program director for the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on water issues. “If you look at water use on a per-person basis, it’s much higher than in other parts of the world, including places like Australia–and that’s a region that did experience a decade-long drought. One of the places to start is our lawns.”
Even in a drought, there’s a little bit of rainfall. The problem is that much of that rain runs off rooftops, driveways, and roads, and drains into the ocean instead of going into the ground, where it could replenish groundwater supplies, or into storage containers.
“Urban areas were really designed to get that water out,” says Cooley. “That water was seen as a flood risk and a liability. Increasingly, it’s seen as an asset.”
Researchers at nonprofits like the Arid Lands Institute at Woodbury University are working with architects and urban planners to figure out how every building in a city can act as a sponge instead, soaking up and storing water for later use. In a city like L.A., as much as 82% of the water the city needs could be provided by a combination of conservation and capturing stormwater.
The vast majority of the water used in California goes to agriculture, growing food that is sold around the country. In the UC Davis study, the researchers found that agriculture would be hardest hit in a drought. It’s possible that as much as half of farmland could go fallow, as farmers run out of water or choose to sell their water rights to cities instead (L.A. is already offering farmers $700 per acre foot of water, more than most would make if they chose to grow crops).
Some water-intensive crops, like the almond, may be replaced by others that can thrive in drier weather. Others, like grapes grown for wine, will shift to more drought-tolerant varietals. Farmers may also choose to grow the crops that can earn the most money for the water used, rather than low-value crops like corn or wheat that can more easily be grown in other parts of the country.
Though many farms may go out of business, and people may abandon some small farming communities, the state’s economy could take the hit. While agriculture brings in around $45 billion a year, the overall economy is $2.2 trillion. “It’s an important part of the state’s identity, but if you put it side by side, it’s a small proportion of the whole picture,” says Medellín-Azuara.
It’s also the opposite situation of a place like São Paulo, Brazil, where the city is literally pumping the last drops of water out of reservoirs now. There, most water goes to cities, whereas in California, most water goes to farms. That means there’s more room to support the majority of the population.
When a pipe burst at UCLA last year, spilling 20 million gallons of drinking water in the middle of the drought, it pointed to a bigger problem: Across the state, leaky pipes lose about 228 million gallons of water every year, more than the city of L.A. uses annually. While some cities are starting to replace pipes completely, others are reducing water pressure so less water is lost, or using new technology to find specific leaks. Eventually, more cities may experiment with technology like new “smart” pipes that can both find leaks and generate energy as water rushes through.
A new billion-dollar desalination plant is nearing completion near San Diego, and another is under consideration near Monterey. Current desalination tech has challenges, from polluting seawater to using massive amounts of energy. Still, it’s continually improving. As new desalination plants are starting to be able to rely on renewable energy–like this ocean-powered desalination technology from Australia or this startup that uses solar power–the cost will come down, and it may become more common.
“Seawater desalination is definitely a possibility in communities along the coast,” says Cooley. “It’s technology that we know produces a reliable supply of high-quality water. The challenge is the cost, so you have to look at it in comparison to other technologies that may be available.”
Ultimately, it should be possible for California to weather a multidecade drought without the most extreme solutions, like building new pipelines to bring water from the Pacific Northwest or, as some have proposed, Alaska. Instead, the state just needs to get better at managing the water it already has.
“I do think it will change,” says Cooley. “Frankly, I don’t think we have many other options but for it to change. And we are already seeing some of that. There has already been an important shift in California, and not something that just happened in the last year or two. It’s been building over the last decade or so, but the drought is accelerating it. I think more and more people are realizing the pressure on our water systems, and the need to do things differently.”