2014 saw the extension of a historic drought across the US West. Croplands withered or were fully abandoned. Water rationing was enforced. Well tables dropped. The price of many vegetables and meats have skyrocketed.
But the past month has seen a welcome set of rain systems arrive along the Pacific coast. As a result, some regions like northern California are currently at 140% of rainfall vs the typical year. To drive home why this is such an important topic for everyone to follow, the table below shows how critical California's agricultural output is to feeding the rest of America:
So is an end to the drought in sight?
The short answer is 'no'. And were not close to it (yet). Much will depend on the rainfall levels over the next three months, and how much of that accumulates as snow pack.
To explore this important issue in depth, we welcome Doug Parker, the Director of the California Institute for Water Resources, as well as the Strategic Initiative Leader for the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Water Quality Quantity and Securities Strategic Initiative.
Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Doug Parker (27m:58s)
Chris Martenson: Welcome to this Peak Prosperity podcast. I am your host, Chris Martenson. Water is essential to life. It is really essential to our modern way of life. Food is often grown very far away, trucked and shipped across the world in many cases from places with water to those without. Food imports are really water imports in a lot of cases. Aquifers, that ground water—those aquifers are being drained across the globe at a far faster rate than they can replenish in many cases. This is a topic that we spend some time examining at Peak Prosperity because it is so vital. Yet, it often gets relatively little press and even less concrete policy responses.
Closer to home for several years running, huge swaths of the American west and especially the southwest have been under drought conditions ranging from moderate to exceptional. And California has had the worst experience of any state so far. To talk with us about the drought, its impacts, our possible responses is Doug Parker, the Director of the California Institute for Water Resources and Strategic Initiative Leader for the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Water Quality Quantity and Securities Strategic Initiative.
He coordinates water related research, extension, and education efforts across the ten University of California campuses, the UC system, and other academic institutions within California. Prior to joining the University of California, Doug worked on water quality issues related to the Chesapeake Bay while at the University of Maryland. Welcome Doug.
Doug Parker: Howdy, welcome, thank you.
Chris Martenson: Well, let us start with the fact that California has been getting a lot of needed rain lately. Is the drought over?
Doug Parker: No, not by any stretch of the imagination. It is raining. I really appreciate the rain. I have been one of those people out walking around in it, and getting all wet. I took my umbrella under my arm. But we need about 150 percent of normal rainfall in order to get out of this drought. I think we will be happy if we get a 100 percent. I think the way I sort of look at it is at the beginning of a ball game here, our wet and rainy season goes from November through March. We have had a very successful beginning of the season. If it keeps up, it will be a wonderful year. But we have had seasons where things just drop off all of a sudden. Then we go back into having drought problems.
Chris Martenson: Right. The drought has been fairly exceptional. How long has it been running?
Doug Parker: We are now entering the fourth year of drought. Water years run from October through September. This is just sort of – just the beginning part of the fourth year. The long-term average, we've actually been below average for about eight years now.
Chris Martenson: Eight years; and so one of the responses that we have seen is a lot of newspapers have printed the pictures—because they make good pictures—is all of the wells being drilled. Some of them a thousand feet deep, three hundred thousand dollar wells just to get at a little bit of ground water. Has the recent rain—do you think is it enough to get people to turn back to surface water at this point?
Doug Parker: No, I do not think so. I think many people who rely on our large surface water delivery systems are still going to be facing reduced deliveries this year unless it really does keep raining solidly through March. I think that there is going to be a need for ground water to be pumped. Some people just pump ground water all of the time anyway because they do not have surface water. It is really a matter of how much ground water and when. How do we spread that ground water pumping out properly over the long haul of a ten year kind of average?
Chris Martenson: The long haul—so let us talk about ground water quickly. When we mention ground water that is the same as saying an aquifer. There is water. It is underground. We are going to pump it out, as compared to something that might come from a stream, a lake, an impoundment, something on the surface. That ground water, in California, how is that ground water managed?
Doug Parker: Well, California was the last state in the West to actually pass any kind of ground water legislation to manage it. Up until recently, there really was no management. It was anybody who owned land could drill a well and use the water. In some areas when that started to become problematic, mostly near the Coast, the courts could come and sometimes step in and adjudicate the basin, allocate that ground water reserve. But, we did just this year pass a ground water legislation that was signed by our governor in September that requires for sustainable ground water management agencies to be created that will then create sustainable ground water management plans. Then they will implement those plans. We are still talking long haul, full implementation of those plans. It is not until something close to 2040.
Chris Martenson: I assumed that to develop a plan at a minimum, a couple of things you might need would be to understand the nature of the ground water resource and match that against the pumping. First, how many ground water basins are there in California? Second, have they all been mapped. Do we understand them?
Doug Parker: Yeah. Well, there are maps of most of the basins. They are not all well understood. There are over 200 basins and sub-basins for ground water in California. It is quite complex. Some of those basins are very well understood. They have been being looked at by scientists, or consultants, or local agencies. In some basins, we have a very good idea of what the ground water recharge rates are and who is using ground water. But in other basins, we have very little information other than just sort of a boundary on them.
Chris Martenson: Those basins I presume when we say mapped, they would have to be analyzed, understood, and then the plan would have to be matched against what we know about the recharge rates, I guess would be the most important thing.
Doug Parker: Yeah. Essentially what we really need to be able to do is we need to know what the recharge rates are and where that recharge is coming from. Because it is different in different parts of the basin depending on soil types. A sandier soil will recharge quicker than a heaver clay soil. You have to know the soils. You have to know where the water is and where that recharge is coming from.
When we talk about ground water management planning and doing sustainable plans, it is not just looking at natural recharge. It is also asking the question of can we increase that recharge in some way? It is both a supply and a demand management aspect when you are trying to get ground water use into a sustainable situation.
Chris Martenson: Well, Doug how would you increase the recharge rate? How would you do that?
Doug Parker: Yeah. There are a few things that you can do. One is you can actually build ground water recharge ponds. You can scoop out an area and then if you have got excess surface water, say from one of these storm events coming through right now, you can try to capture that and hold it in the pond and let it recharge down into the ground water. You can recharge at rates of six or so inches a day of water into ground water basins if you have the right soils and stuff.
Another way we are looking at it—we actually just started doing some studies on this at the University—is to look at using fallowed or other farm land that in the winter time may not be growing crops. Can we kind of flood those lands for some period of time to put more ground water down into the basin?
Chris Martenson: Well, that is fascinating. In one of the things that I read about with the ground water pumping, particularly in certain parts of the Central Valley that had been overpumped so much that land subsidence occurred. So the land sank. Presumably when it is sinking, it is one of the things that I was reading about is that it can in some cases depending on the type of underground terrain we have got, once it sinks, it collapses interstitial spaces or whatever crevices exist and then water cannot get back in there. Is that what you are seeing in some cases?
Doug Parker: Yeah. We are seeing that in some areas. It is interesting. You think about the soil, think of a sandy soil. If it is full of water, there is water in the pore spaces sort of between the grains of sand. Right, if you take all of that water out, then the air will leave and it, the sand will compress down. Then it is very difficult or impossible in some cases to get water back into the system.
Subsidence is pretty – it has a lot of different impacts. It impacts our infrastructure too. It leads to cracks in roadways. It leads to having to work out a lot of different infrastructure canals and stuff. These things are built at certain angles to get that water to flow downhill. If you have got some side of the canal collapsing down versus another, you have got to redo a lot of that work. There is that plus the fact just the loss of that available space for storage is important to consider.
Chris Martenson: I assume that is all part of the plan. You would want to make sure that you are not getting the subsidence as part of whatever you are up to. Is that correct?
Doug Parker: Yeah. I think any sustainable ground water management plan is going to be looking at how do I balance supply and demand in the long run in some kind of a ten year time frame? How do I manage this system so that I can get the most out of it? That is valuable storage down there, underground. We do need to manage for it.
One thing to keep in mind though is that ground water is a really good resource during droughts. It is not a situation where you would want to pump a sustainable recharge rate every year. What you want is a long-term average so that when you have a drought you can draw on that ground water and let it draw down a little bit. But the point being is that, of course, when the drought is over and you have got plenty of excess surface water, you need to be putting it back. It is like refilling the bank account.
Chris Martenson: Well, that sounds a lot like pension management. Although, I see those get managed poorly as well. When there are good years in the stock market returns, the people running the pension funds will often say "we do not have to put as much money into these. Look how the great returns?" Then, of course, we have the lean years, which are your droughts. Then they go "yeah, we really ought to be… We should have been putting more in." It sounds like the same thing. When you've got plenty of surface water, you still to need to be thinking about your long-term situation.
Doug Parker: Yeah. You really do. You really need to manage the two together. You do not want to just manage surface water or just manage ground water. You want to manage them together so that you create a nice sustainable outcome in the long run. Because really what is most painful about things like drought is the swings that happen. You have got a lot of water one year and a little water another year. Farmers have to cut back on irrigation and land planting, things like that. If you can smooth that out to the best possible, you obviously are going to be better off.
Chris Martenson: Absolutely. But let us talk about the long-term, maybe the really long-term. I just hinted at it in the opening, which is around this idea of a mega drought. I have been reading plenty of accounts by some people who went back through the very long-term archeologic – whatever we are going to call that, ArcheoRecord. Looking back through whatever rainfall records we can piece back together from tree rings and what not. Looking back, seeing that California has – and other parts of the southwest have gone through typically very long periodic episodes of what we would call a megadrought lasting 100, 200, 3, 4, or 500 years depending on which one we are talking about. Is that part of the thinking now that this is—are there patterns that you are seeing that suggest that a megadrought is potentially brewing here?
Doug Parker: I think that what we are seeing is we are seeing a drought that we have not seen in sort of recorded history. We are looking at other models and looking at how that impacts them. Looking back at those tree ring data and stuff, we do see that, right, we have had periods in the state where we have had ten year droughts, 20 year droughts, even 100 year droughts. Even those 100 year droughts may be mixed in with a little bit of rainfall now and again, of course. I mean, it is not just completely dry for a hundred years. We still do get some winter. But we are starting to look at that kind of stuff and asking questions of what can we be thinking in the long run if we do face those types of situations. We learned a lot from the Millennium drought in Australia. We are trying to kind of look at those lessons here to see how we can best manage our water resources.
Chris Martenson: Well, what were some of the best lessons that came from the Australia experience?
Doug Parker: Well, the Australia – I mean, I think one of the biggest lessons that we have learned is that you need a good portfolio of water supply in order to get through these situations. It is not just being dependent on one river or one ground water source, but having communities that have access to two or three different water sources. So, for instance, Southern California gets water from Northern California. They also get water from Eastern California. They get water from the Colorado River Basin as well as their local water supplies. So they have actually felt the drought a little less than other parts of the state because the Colorado River Basin isn't in such a drought situation. So having multiple sources of water—adding desalination or recycling water, sewage effluent and stuff, treating that and recycling it in ways are all important to have this whole portfolio of things that allow us to get through the harder times when there is drought in specific areas.
Chris Martenson: In terms of the kinds of things that we probably should do just to have a comprehensive approach to sustainable water regardless of whether there is a drought or not—where are we in that process? Is there a lot of portfolio diversification that needs to happen still? A lot of infrastructure to build out? Or, is this a matter of lining up what we already have and just using it better?
Doug Parker: I think it is definitely a bit of both. We have an infrastructure system that was designed in the '50s and the '60s for a certain population and a certain land base out there in California. Things have obviously changed a lot. One of the other things that has changed a lot is our weather patterns. We do need to look at our infrastructure and say how do we increase the flexibility of our infrastructure? How do we move water, not just north and south, but also east, west, or maybe even from south to north? Do we have the infrastructure available to do that? How do we, as I mentioned, recycle more?
There is definitely a need for more infrastructure. But we are also seeing a need for more use of management technologies. When we manage our reservoirs for flood events, we have these curves that are based on historical rainfall that tell us that we need to have the reservoir down to a certain level by March in case there is a big rainstorm in late March. So sometimes we are dumping water in anticipation of potential rainstorms that then do not materialize. To the extent that we can use more satellite—better weather forecasting, better tools to predict runoff coming from storms. Then we can manage those reservoirs and the whole system in a better way in order to sort of maximize water output.
Chris Martenson: When you say "we," is there a central agency that is overseeing this at this point? Or, are there multiple agencies that have to be coordinated?
Doug Parker: Multiple multiple agencies. We have got two big players in California. One is the federal government which runs the Central Valley project. The other is the state government, which runs the state water project. Those two probably account for the majority of water in California. Probably 60 percent maybe through all of them, I am not really quite sure of that number. But that would be a reasonable guess. Then we have got a lot of local agencies that have their own water supplies. San Francisco has its own water supply. The East Bay/Oakland area, that has its own water supply. Los Angeles has its own water. Then in the agricultural communities, they also have some. It is a mix of local, federal, and state that all have to be coordinated.
Chris Martenson: If it turns out that there is – that there is this idea of a megadrought, I presume their use patterns might have to change as well. I am sure this is a sensitive topic. Do with it what you can. But clearly, farming uses a lot of water. When I see beautiful pictures of, I do not know, celery being grown in the Central Valley. It is just this beautiful green against this very desert sort of a hilly background. We are growing stuff in many cases in places where there is not a whole lot of water. Is there any—where are we in the discussion cycle of saying that possibly there are some activities that do not make sense in some areas and we might have to find other ways of using water?
Doug Parker: Yeah. I think that we really need to look at our water rights system. We have a system based on mostly historical land use and historical water use. Creating more flexibility in that system to allow trading of water and movement of water between uses would be very beneficial for that. I do not see that we are really going to be in the position where we tell people what they do or do not grow. We do not tell companies what to do and not to do with the inputs they use and their production processes. We may limit their environmental or externalities, things like that. That is certainly reasonable to do. But the more top down approach probably would not work too well. But being able to have more of a water market would make sense because if somebody is using water for a low valued use, they could sell it to somebody else for a higher value use. Markets generally tend to help us find the best and optimal paths for those types of things.
Chris Martenson: Well, let us talk about those water rights for a minute. If everybody used all of their water rights fully, does that match 100 percent of available water? Or, are the claims larger than the available supply at this point?
Doug Parker: The most recent study that I have seen has shown that the claims are quite a bit larger than the available long-term supply in the state. There may be a reckoning at some point. But we do need to look at the full water rights system. I am not saying reallocate, but there may have to be some scaling or something that brings it into balance. There are some water rights that just have not been used in a long time, so those would also need to be looked at.
But the water rights situation is obviously very touchy. Because the water right is a value and often it is tied to the land. A lot of people who own land—that land has a water right. When they sell the land, the water right goes with the land. If you were to just take it away, what you are really doing is devaluing the land. That leads to a lot of disruption. So it needs to be done in a sensitive manner that sort of accounts for the potential economic impacts.
Chris Martenson: Well, sure, yeah. The drought just starts to expose the cracks in the system, I guess. Then we have to confront it. As you look around in terms of best practices of water management, like if you went across the globe, who is doing the best, do you think?
Doug Parker: Well, certainly the leaders in water management – well, there is sort of an urban and ag side to that. On the agricultural side, I would say the leaders in water management are Israel, Australia, and California, if you look across the globe. That makes sense; those are all Mediterranean climates and places where there are water shortages. On the urban side of it, the leaders in water management: Singapore is a really big innovator in water management across the globe. California, again; Orange County is one of the leading areas in California on that. Not everywhere in California I would say is a leader in urban water management, but Orange County is certainly one of the better ones here.
Chris Martenson: What are the things that makes an urban water manager float to the top of that list?
Doug Parker: Well, I think again it goes back to diversifying supply and building resilience into the system. Desalination costs have come way down in the last 15 years through new technologies. Hopefully they will continue to come down. The biggest cost for desal is the energy use so there are some issues there. Then also recycling of urban waste water is a big deal. In Singapore, they treat their urban waste water to a completely pure level where they are able to just put it back into the water system. Orange County also treats it to that level as well. Although, they do not put it right back into the system; they use it to recharge ground water and then pull it out later on.
Chris Martenson: Alright. Let us talk about desal for a minute because people do pin a lot of hopes on that. You say that the energy costs principally have gone down a lot in the last 15 years. Hopefully those will continue to go down. How much energy does it take to desalinate water at this point and time with a new plant?
Doug Parker: I am not really sure I could comment on the exact amount of energy. I just know that the amount of energy used has probably come down by half in the last 15 years through new membrane technology and some stuff. But it is still fairly energy intensive. I mean, if you look at the cost of producing desal water, it is quite a bit more expensive than being able to access ground water or fresh surface waters. Most of that cost is just driven by the energy.
Chris Martenson: Yeah. This is—I assume it is still mostly electrical energy we are talking about because it is probably just for pressure pumps creating pressure, right?
Doug Parker: Yes. It is mostly—you have to push the water through the membrane. You have this pump energy that you need in order to be able to do that.
Chris Martenson: Yeah. Going from a higher concentration to a lower is always – nature does not like that. But I have been reading some great things potentially. There are very exciting developments in graphene as a membrane technology potentially, and so it is…. We are reading more, and more, and more about that. But still it does take energy to create that. So we would much rather use nature's bounty, if we can, I guess.
Doug Parker: Yeah.
Chris Martenson: How long before we will know if California has got that 100, 150 percent? Do you we are probably going to be waiting through spring through the rainy season to figure this out?
Doug Parker: Yeah. I do not see how we can possibly get there without waiting at least through the end of February. I think by mid to late February, we will have an idea of where we have been and we will have some forecasts that tell us where we are going.
The other question that comes about with California is how the rain falls. We do need 150 percent, but we need a lot of that as snow pack so that we can store it in the Sierras and let it melt down. If you look at the current numbers, we have had a bunch of storms in the last few weeks and Northern California is actually at about 140 percent of rainfall for normal this time of year. But as I mentioned, you have got to carry that through the whole year. But we are still far below on snow packs. A lot of it is falling as rain and not snow pack. I am hoping that we are going to get a bit more snow pack this year as well, which will be important for balancing the reservoirs and how that water comes down out of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Chris Martenson: Is that because the snow pack just melts at a more even pace so it is easier to use and if it just falls as rain, some of it ends up out in the ocean? Or is there something else magical about snow?
Doug Parker: No, it is basically that snow pack is free storage. Yeah, as it sits up there, then it melts off, it will melt and replenish our streams and reservoirs into April, May, and June where the rain will have shut off by then. In our state, we have got about 43 million acre feet of storage in this state, of surface water storage. An acre foot of water is an acre of land one foot deep, or about 327,000 gallons. We have about 43 million acre feet of surface water storage in the state. In normal years, we like to have about 15 million acre feet of snow pack. It is really just adding to that storage. It is like a free reservoir up there.
Chris Martenson: Let us say private individuals who live in an area with drought—what should they be doing in response to this? I have heard things like the people in Las Vegas ripping up their lawns and putting xeriscaping in there with cactuses and what not, and low-flow shower heads, all of that stuff. These are all I presume necessary steps. But are they sufficient?
Doug Parker: I think well, they are not necessarily going to be sufficient to relieve the drought. They are necessary to get us through the drought. There will still be, of course, some economic pain and suffering. But it is really—50 percent or so of residential water use is outside of the home, and most of that is basically landscaping. To the extent that people will take out lawns and put in more drought tolerant or native landscapes, that is very useful.
Just managing your systems is very useful. You can still probably drive around on a rainy day in California and find somebody whose sprinklers are on. They do not mean to be wasting water. But sometimes it is just complicated to figure out how to turn off your automatic sprinklers, things like that. But people need to take the time to learn that and manage their water more carefully.
Chris Martenson: Excellent. Looking across the rest of the southwest, there was a lot of drought a year and a half ago, two years ago. It seems to have alleviated some. Looking at the, sort of the Arizona, New Mexico area of things; how do things look there right now?
Doug Parker: Well, Arizona and New Mexico I think are still experiencing a fair amount of drought, especially New Mexico. They have been in a fairly long-term pattern, longer than California's. Colorado was in more of a drought a few years ago. They seem to have gotten out of it. They have gotten good snow pack and good rainfall. They are better off.
Again, it comes back to water sources. Arizona, while still being in a drought, it taps the Colorado River. New Mexico tends to be more on the Rio Grande River, which has been much lower in recent. I would say New Mexico is not actually…. It is worse off than Arizona in terms of drought right now.
Chris Martenson: I noticed that there were farmers in Kansas, also Oklahoma, sitting on top of the Ogallala that had come to their own sort of—I would call it voluntary or forced water plan where they realized that they were in danger of really running down that part of the aquifer in their part. Are you familiar at all with what has been going on there?
Doug Parker: Not specifically to the Kansas; I mean, the Ogallala Aquifer in general is a large aquifer that has been overdrawn for many years now. We have been looking at sort of what that overdraft is doing to the aquifer. There is definitely a need to be managing that and other aquifers across the U.S. and across the world.
Chris Martenson: If somebody really wants to follow up on water issues or is listening and happens to be in California and really wants to get involved, what would they do?
Doug Parker: Well, the first thing I would recommend is they go and take a look at our water institute's website. It is at ucanr.edu/drought, the California Institute for Water Resources. We have got a host of resources on the website advertising workshops and classes that the University is giving for everybody from residential homeowners in their gardens, to almond growers, to dairy people. There are a lot of different resources there. There is also a video series up there of talks that we have recorded on water management issues. Our Twitter feed, which is @ucanrwater, keeps up to date on what is going on in the state and informing people about what is going on at the University and across the state.
Chris Martenson: Well, fantastic, Doug. Thank you so much for your time today. We will have a link to those particular resources at the bottom of this podcast. If you look down at the bottom of this page if you are at the Peak Prosperity site, there they are. You can follow up more there. Doug again, thank you so much for your time today.
Doug Parker: Thank you very much for having me on.