The Many Solutions to California’s Drought

July 28, 2015

For those of us who live in California – the signs are obvious: serious drought, save water; limit watering outdoors; mandatory reductions in residential water use.

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Water levels in Lake Cachuma have dropped over 50 feet, prompting concerns for freshwater drinking sources in southern California.  
© Dr. Richard Murphy, Ocean Futures Society

Some people say stop watering lawns and take fewer showers, others point to agriculture and insist farmers need to tighten up water uses. Either way, everyone can agree that California’s drought calls for serious measures. Now, we have reached a critical period; our action now determines the course of California future water management and use, and sets a precedent for other states and nations facing similar freshwater shortages. As the world continues to face an unpredictable future in terms of freshwater supplies, the answer is simple: there is no single solution; there are many.

Now entering its fourth year of drought, California, a state with an arid Mediterranean climate, is familiar with the naturally occurring seasonal droughts and rainy seasons. But this time around, the situation has reached a new level. Record lows in mountain-snowpack, lake reservoirs, river runoff and soil moisture have all been seen as cause for rapid concern, and as the rainy seasons continues to pass by without pouring much rain each year, drought conditions across the state continue to worsen. In January 2014, Governor Brown declared a State of Emergency – all of California is in a drought, and 40 percent of the state is experiencing an “exceptional drought.” Already, it is state’s most historic drought since the government agency NOAA began keeping records in 1895.

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2015 has been the most dismal year in over a century for snowpack in the Sierra Nevada’s. Many lakes across the state are at their all time low.
© Dr. Richard Murphy, Ocean Futures Society

This has many people on edge, and for a very good reason, not only for the future of California’s booming economic and environmental landscape, but also for the rest of the world. California’s state economy is ranked number eighth in the world. This means that what happens to California ultimately affects the global economy. But even more importantly, California is the nation’s largest exporter of agriculture – and provides more than half of all fruits and vegetables consumed in the entire United States.

California’s Central Valley is the breadbasket of the U.S., growing over 200 crops and the vast majority of fruits, nuts, and vegetables the rest of the country puts on their plates. The figures speak for themselves: over 90 percent of all almonds, walnuts, pistachios, plums, broccoli, celery, garlic, strawberries, grapes, tomatoes, lettuce and more on are produced in California. And since these crops are being grown in the arid west, they require massive quantities of freshwater. Farmers in California use roughly 80 percent of water in the state to nourish thirsty crops and feed our nation.

In the midst of California’s ongoing severe drought, people want answers. They want security in a reliable freshwater source since the state can no longer rely on weather alone to bring in desperately needed rainfall to refill water reservoirs and recharge groundwater levels. Among the discussion for the future of California’s fresh water security are options ranging from billion-dollar desalination plants that convert seawater to freshwater at high costs to increasing the infrastructure and capacity for water conservation, recycling and reuse.

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California’s Central Valley is the breadbasket of the U.S., growing over 200 crops but an enormous amount of valuable freshwater is needlessly wasted by inefficient technology and careless water use practices. © Dr. Richard Murphy, Ocean Futures Society

Desalination, in particular, has generated a great deal of attention. Its appeal is obvious, the greatest body of water on our planet, the Pacific Ocean, lies next door to California and seems to be an unlimited source. While desalination technology has grown in the last few decades, there is still much to improve before we consider desalination in California as a sustainable solution to our ongoing drought. The desalination process requires massive amounts of energy. In California that energy is mostly generated by electricity from carbon based sources, contributing to carbon dioxide emissions and worsening the already devastating impacts of climate change.


California’s drought is forcing coyotes and other wildlife into urban areas in search of fresh water as rivers and lakes dry up.
© Carrie Vonderhaar

Along with that, desalination is enormously expensive. A billion dollar desalination plant, the largest in the Western Hemisphere, is currently being constructed in Carlsbad, California. Upon completion, the plant will provide San Diego county with only seven percent of its water needs, and at a much higher price much than other water sources. And although California’s coasts touches the large, salty, Pacific Ocean, much of the state’s coastline would not be suitable for desalination plants due to earthquake risks, environmental conditions and rising sea levels caused by climate change.

As for ocean life, current desalination technology is not environmentally sustainable. The process requires bringing in large quantities of seawater, sucking in and killing marine life like drifting plankton and larvae, along with bigger animals like fish and birds. It takes two gallons of seawater to make one gallon of freshwater. The process then discharges extremely dense salty water, called brine, back into the marine environment, which is denser than seawater and sinks to the ocean floor. Without knowing how this affects marine life in the long term – the question remains: is it worth it? What other options do we have?

There is no single answer alone that will solve California’s water crisis – or the freshwater crisis of nations worldwide. It will take a number of different approaches across the varying landscapes and uses of the world’s diverse environments and water uses. Fortunately, there are numerous options for saving water and using it more effectively before we need widespread desalination plants to supply our needs in California. An enormous amount of valuable freshwater is needlessly wasted by inefficient technology and careless water use practices. But all of that can change.

California currently recycles only 13 percent of its freshwater. Imagine the opportunities for jobs and industries if we were to invest in capturing wastewater, treating it, then recycling and reusing it to fulfill our needs. Not only would we serve our communities by supplying cheaper water than desalination, but we would also capture pollutants from water running into the streams, rivers, and ultimately into the ocean. We would also have a nutrient rich resource to irrigate such things as green belts, parks, and golf courses. By protecting the ocean, we consequently protect ourselves too.


There is an increase of wild animals being treated in care facilities for emaciation and dehydration.
This is the most obvious and direct threat to wildlife in a drought.
© Carrie Vonderhaar

Water reuse technology is not a distant dream; it is already supplying 2.4 million of people in southern California with freshwater and supporting 60 percent of their water needs. The Orange Country Water District has been recognized and awarded for its success in wastewater purification, treatment, and reuse. Not only do these facilities use advanced purification techniques to supply drinking water to residents, but they also refill groundwater levels that have been depleted by years of unregulated use, contributing to future security in freshwater supplies.

Depending on where you are in the world, the options and solutions may be different. In California where agriculture is the major user of water, a focus on water efficiency and conservation technology can save enormous quantities. Solutions here include more efficient irrigation techniques like drip irrigation that waste less water than conventional methods, and improved irrigation scheduling that incorporates local weather conditions to determine how much water crops actually require. In more urban regions of California, a focus on water recapture, recycling and reuse would be most useful. Capturing freshwater before its runs through streets and dumps into the ocean protects humans and marine life from pollutants, and also saves money. Recycled water is much less expensive than the costly alternative of desalinated water.

Securing the future of California’s freshwater as well as other places in the world that face freshwater scarcity will require collaborative action and most importantly – a global understanding about the value of freshwater and the critical need for proper management. In some regions, desalination may in fact be the best answer, such as small tropical islands where the benefits of desalination outweigh other choices. In California, I personally believe that solutions for increasing our water conservation and recycling capacity make the most sense, both economically and environmentally.

Regardless of what solutions each region employs, the same basic principle follows: there is no waste in nature and so we must mimic nature’s recycling processes. Around the world, societies need freshwater to function. Every day we require clean, fresh water to quench our body’s thirst, build our growing civilizations, manufacture our industrial products, fuel our energy needs, and sustain the plants and animals that then feed us. Fresh water is critical to humanity, and as one of the most important resources we must make the choice for sustainable solutions that keep our environment healthy and water security plentiful. The solutions are here, but we must all voice our concerns to industries, governments and leaders that we want long-term alternative solutions. The choice is ours: let us learn to live in better balance with nature and recycle our most precious resource: freshwater.

Warm regards,


Jean-Michel Cousteau
President, Ocean Futures Society
with Jaclyn Mandoske