Saturday, February 8, 2014

The West Goes Dry Part II

" The reason: Although many Californians think that population growth is the main driver of water demand statewide, it actually is agriculture. In an average year, farmers use 80 percent of the water consumed by people and businesses — 34 million of 43 million acre-feet diverted from rivers, lakes and groundwater, according to the state Department of Water Resources.

"Cities would be inconvenienced greatly and suffer some. Smaller cities would get it worse, but farmers would take the biggest hit," said Maurice Roos, the department's chief hydrologist. "Cities can always afford to spend a lot of money to buy what water is left."

Roos, who has worked at the department since 1957, said the prospect of mega droughts is another reason to build more storage — both underground and in reservoirs — to catch rain in wet years.
In a mega drought, there would be much less water in the Delta to pump. Farmers' allotments would shrink to nothing. Large reservoirs like Shasta, Oroville and San Luis would eventually go dry after five or more years of little or no rain.

Farmers would fallow millions of acres, letting row crops die first. They'd pump massive amounts of groundwater to keep orchards alive, but eventually those wells would go dry. And although deeper wells could be dug, the costs could exceed the value of their crops. Banks would refuse to loan the farmers money.

The federal government would almost certainly provide billions of dollars in emergency aid to farm communities.

"Some small towns in the Central Valley would really suffer. They would basically go away," said Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Davis.
"But agriculture is only 3 percent of California's economy today," Lund said. "In the main urban economy, most people would learn to live with less water. It would be expensive and inconvenient, but we'd do it."

Farmers with senior water rights would make a huge profit, he noted, selling water at sky-high prices to cities. Food costs would rise, but there wouldn't be shortages, Lund said, because Californians already buy lots of food from other states and countries and would buy even more from them.

In urban areas, most cities would eventually see water rationing at 50 percent of current levels. Golf courses would shut down. Cities would pass laws banning watering or installing lawns, which use half of most homes' water. Across the state, rivers and streams would dry up, wiping out salmon runs. Cities would race to build new water supply projects, similar to the $50 million wastewater recycling plant that the Santa Clara Valley Water District is now constructing in Alviso.

If a drought lasted decades, the state could always build dozens of desalination plants, which would cost billions of dollars, said law professor Barton "Buzz" Thompson, co-director of Stanford University's Woods Institute for the Environment.

Saudi Arabia, Israel and other Middle Eastern countries depend on desalination, but water from desal plants costs roughly five times more than urban Californians pay for water now. Thompson said that makes desal projects unfeasible for most of the state now, especially when other options like recycled wastewater and conservation can provide more water at a much lower cost.
But in an emergency, price becomes no object.

"In theory, cities cannot run out of water," Thompson said. "All we can do is run out of cheap water, or not have as much water as we need when we really want it."

"I don't think we'll ever get to a point here where you turn on the tap and air comes out," he said.
Some scientists believe we are already in a megadrought, although that view is not universally accepted.

Bill Patzert, a research scientist and oceanographer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, says that the West is in a 20-year drought that began in 2000. He cites the fact that a phenomenon known as a "negative Pacific decadal oscillation" is underway — and that historically has been linked to extreme high-pressure ridges that block storms.

That pretty much sums up what I've seen in the west, especially if this drought is long lasting.  Even if it isn't, their water problem is going to have to be addressed!

Ed Winkle


  1. The solution they use in the Middle East is a very high tech high cost one, using for instance very expensive reverse osmosis membranes that need frequent replacement. They really did not have any finance issue, so they went for it. But I am persuaded that there can be cheap solar desalination plants combining both solar heat and photovoltaics and other technologies. Give a real engineer some specs and cost requirements, and trust them to come up with a ingenious solution that will be even more efficient and cheaper than planned. Give it to politicians and trust boards, not so much anymore... ;)

  2. Do you think it will come to that?

  3. Just found this article today:
    I also remember from another article about the Middle East desalination plants used for irrigation that they said one salt or metal did go through the reverse osmosis membrane, so they had to remove it using a different process because it accumulated in the soil to dangerous levels.