Who’s to Blame for California’s Drought?

California’s drought is suddenly turning a lot of uninterested laypeople into the most serious of water experts, each certain that someone else is to blame. California’s drought is suddenly turning a lot of uninterested laypeople into the most serious of water experts, each certain that someone else is to blame. Credit Photograph by David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty

The view from where I’m sitting, in San Francisco, is of the small patio in front of the house whose bottom floor my husband and I rent. Beyond the patio stands a fence hugged by a plant sprouting delicate white-and-purple flowers, and beyond that, there’s a terraced garden where our former landlords planted shrubs and succulents. I’m aware that California is in the midst of its worst drought in decades—I’ve read and written about it, and I’ve seen the same bleak photographs that anyone with an Internet connection can see—but, from this vantage, its effects aren’t at all apparent. Nor have a series of recent home water-use restrictions affected us much, since our landlords pay our water bill and handle the gardening, such as it is; in any case, my husband and I consume little water. This puts us in line with much of San Francisco, one of the places that uses the least water, per resident, in the state. And yet, the city is subject to many of the new restrictions. When we went out to dinner with my husband’s visiting parents over the weekend, the waiter kept taking forever to refill our water glasses, because the state had approved regulations that restrict restaurants to offering water only if customers request it. I kvetched a little at this: Shouldn’t the state be imposing its rules on the real water abusers?

I haven’t been the only one to complain. California’s drought, which began in 2011, is suddenly turning a lot of uninterested laypeople into the most serious of water experts, each certain that someone else is to blame. The sinners tend to fall into at least one of three categories, depending on who is doing the categorizing: selfish Californians whose yards are over-landscaped, selfish farmers whose crops are over-produced, and selfish environmentalists whose pet causes are over-indulged. Studies exist to support the cases against each of these groups: there’s the one showing that richer, more sprawling parts of Los Angeles are using more water than poorer, denser parts; the one showing that agriculture is using up most of the state’s water; and the one showing that environmental demands are responsible for making much of our water unavailable for human use.

The reason that these perceptions and statistics are so mixed relates to the complexity of California’s water situation. The state has access to both surface water, from rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and other aboveground places, and to groundwater, which people—particularly farmers—pump from underground. Of all the water that is typically used, about half goes toward environmental purposes, according to the Public Policy Institute of California—for instance, because it is found in protected “wild and scenic” rivers, or because it is used to preserve wetlands and the habitat within streams, or because it’s circulated in order to maintain the quality of water sent to agricultural and urban users. Half of the state’s water sounds like a lot. But, according to P.P.I.C., more than half of the water designated as environmental is concentrated in rivers along the state’s north coast, which are cut off from major agricultural and urban areas and couldn’t be used for other purposes anyway. Elsewhere in California, more water is reserved for the environment than for cities and towns, but less than for agriculture.

Those inclined to blame farming for abusing the state’s water resources sometimes cite a statistic holding that agriculture takes up eighty per cent of the state’s water, but, to be clear, that’s eighty per cent of human use, which doesn’t count environmental use. (The other twenty per cent comes from municipal use.) Much has been made, too, of the fact that large farms were excluded from an executive order signed by Governor Jerry Brown last week requiring municipalities across the state to reduce their water use by a total of twenty-five per cent, compared to 2013 levels, by February next year. Some have suggested that the exemption may be politically motivated; the agriculture lobby is powerful in California, and one man in particular, a farming magnate named Stewart Resnick, is a major Democratic donor who has made campaign contributions to Brown and other influential politicians. When I ran that argument by a spokesman for Brown, he replied, in an e-mail, that “reducing this to politics . . . simplifies very complicated / multi-layered issues and ignores all of the action / impacts that preceded” last week’s executive order.

It’s not unusual, of course, for politics to influence policy decisions, and the farm lobby’s influence may well have played a role in shaping Brown’s executive order. But the spokesman was alluding to the fact—elided in some critics’ analysis of the situation—that farms, like cities, have already been hit by water restrictions. Farms and cities get their water differently. In cities, local water agencies generally send surface water and groundwater to residents and businesses through pipes; during the drought, that water has continued to flow, though some agencies have restricted how residents can use it. (For instance, lawn watering has been restricted, in many places, to twice a week.) Farms, on the other hand, are allotted rights to surface water based on a complex seniority system. During this drought, many junior rights holders—but not senior ones—have had their access to surface water diminished or shut off. Big swaths of farmland have gone fallow as a result—about five per cent of agricultural land statewide. It’s worth noting, however, that farmers have two additional options for acquiring water. They can buy water rights from one another, and they can pump as much groundwater as they like. As a result, the state’s groundwater has been depleted considerably. Governor Brown recently signed a law restricting groundwater use, but it doesn’t require that groundwater basins become sustainable until 2040, though certain planning milestones have to be met before then. The drought has compelled some experts to suggest that timeline be significantly accelerated.

That brings us to cities, which will bear the immediate brunt of the regulations in Brown’s executive order, even though they use far less water than the environment or agriculture. There’s a simple logistical reason for this, beyond the political explanations: when it comes to imposing short-term water restrictions, cities provide some of the lowest-cost opportunities. That’s because about half of the water used in urban areas goes toward watering lawns and other residential and commercial landscapes—things that have little social benefit, compared with environmental uses, which help the planet and its residents, and agricultural functions, which nourish people around the world and boost California’s economy and provide jobs. On Tuesday, the state sketched a preliminary plan for how cities will be told to meet the mandated statewide reduction of twenty-five per cent; it calls for big water guzzlers—including Beverly Hills, Newport Beach, and Palos Verdes, where a disproportionate number of houses sit on large, elaborately landscaped lawns—to decrease their water consumption by thirty-five per cent, while communities that already use water efficiently would be asked to make smaller reductions. San Francisco, for its part, whose residences tend to have small or nonexistent lawns, would face only a ten-per-cent decrease.

The state also revealed figures showing that water use in cities was only three per cent lower in February than in February of 2013—a figure that Felicia Marcus, the chairwoman of the state water-resources control board, called “totally disheartening” on a call with reporters. (Last year, cities were asked to reduce their water use voluntarily.) The state asked some communities in Southern California, which actually saw an increase in water use, to explain themselves. They responded, according to the board, that the hotter weather had inspired more landscape watering (“not a great reason,” Marcus said), and that economic growth and tourism had prompted more general water use.

As the drought continues, the state may well have to further adjust how it treats the use of water for environmental and agricultural purposes. In the meantime, reducing outdoor irrigation in municipalities is “the low-hanging fruit,” Marcus said. While it may appear to those of us in cities as though we’re being targeted, and it might feel good to complain about others, the situation is complex and the reality less satisfying: we all need to change.