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Robert Glennon

Posted March 4, 2009 | 01:52 PM (EST)

California's Drought: Water Demand, Population Growth, and Sensible Solutions


Drought has prompted California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a state emergency. Water agencies are preparing to impose mandatory water rationing. We're all hoping that melting snow in the Sierra will save the state's farmers and city dwellers from hardship.

But once rain starts to fall - and it eventually will - California's farmers expect to irrigate their fields and residents expect to water their lawns. Drought, in other words, does not require a fundamental change in behavior, only a temporary halt to customary water use. And that's very important.

We love to blame Mother Nature for every natural catastrophe, but a close look at recent droughts, in California this year and Georgia last year, shows that these droughts are not more severe than previous ones.

Why, then, is there such a crisis? Because Californians this year and Georgians last year have outgrown their states' water supplies. The margin for weathering a drought has shrunk. The rain and the drought are about the same. It's us who've changed.

The principal reason is pretty obvious: population growth. California's population grows by one person per minute. Metro Atlanta adds 100,000 new residents a year. Nationwide, the Census Bureau expects the population to surge from roughly 300 million today to 420 million by mid-century. Where is the water going to come from to serve these people?

In Georgia, Governor Sonny Purdue hoped it would come from the sky, so he held a prayer vigil on the steps of the Capitol. But not wanting to take any chances, the governor did not schedule the vigil until weather forecasters predicted the first rain in months.

The Georgia legislature hoped it could suck water from the Tennessee River. Unfortunately for Georgia, the Tennessee River does not run through Georgia. It runs through Tennessee. So the Georgia state legislature tried to move the border into Tennessee and over part of the river. Not surprisingly, Tennessee said no, deciding not to volunteer its water for Atlanta's sprawl.

In California, Governor Schwarzenegger hopes water will come from new dams. Environmentalists point out, however, that new dams don't add water to the system. Why, they ask, build or enlarge new dams when the existing ones don't fill up?

In America we traditionally solve water shortages though engineering fixes: dams, canals, diversions, and wells. Seldom do we turn inward and ask whether conservation, reuse, or reallocation would provide easier, cheaper, more environmentally friendly solutions to current shortages. But with most rivers already dammed, some repeatedly, with many rivers dried up or suffering from reduced flows, and with groundwater tables plummeting, business as usual is not a viable option.

The current crisis should encourage us to reexamine how, when, and why we use water. Perhaps growing lawns in Beverly Hills, which gets scarcely three inches of rain more than Tucson, is no longer a sensible use of water.

For readers interested in these questions, my new book, Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What To Do About It, will be published on April 8th. http://www.islandpress.org/unquenchable