California: A state that is drying up?

California is experiencing what many call the worst drought they have ever seen. California is located in the arid west where 75% of its residents live miles away from the source of 75% of its water. While California has the Sierra Nevadas, the Cascade Range, the Klamath Mountains and many more mountain ranges where the snow usually falls, it is a challenge to serve 40 million people even with an average snowpack. Seventy-five percent of the state’s water comes from these mountains and is transported to the populous areas near the sea.

In Tulare County, some people no longer have running water in their homes. As wells dry up, many houses can be seen with boxes of bottled water sitting on the porch or tanks along the side of the house. The county has set up public showers where there is running water. Extensive reductions and restrictions are in place throughout the state in attempts to ration the water until this drought subsides.

Yet some scientists predict there is only one year of water left in California’s reservoirs. Many reservoirs are sitting at about 40-50% capacity for this time of year. With the snow already gone, these reservoirs will likely not be filling up for this summer season.

California has never had 40 million residents during previous droughts. The state’s population has doubled – from 20 million to 40 million – since a similar severe drought in the seventies. Whether the current drought is natural or man-made, the imminent goal is to find a solution.

It is important to make sure the available water is being rationed and distributed appropriately. On April 1, California’s governor initiated statewide water restrictions that will cut water use by 25%. It is also essential to prevent water from going straight to the ocean before going through someone’s tap.

Another option is for wastewater treatment plants to consider recycling water for human consumption rather than for irrigation or simply sending it back out to the waterways. Although long stigmatized, storm water, black water, and graywater can be treated like any other water and be safe to consume.

Desalination is also an option, though it does have downsides. The water supply is unlimited but the costs and possible environmental impacts make it much less viable. Desalination involves pumping sea water into a tank that places the water under intense pressure to remove the salt, a process called reverse osmosis. The process has a high energy demand and consequently high operating costs. A new plant in Carlsbad is planned to open this year and provide 10% of California’s water needs by the end of the year. The water provided from this plant will cost $2100-$2300 per acre-foot and consumers will see a $5-7 increase in their water bills. Pumping sea water can affect marine life and the resultant heavy brine from desalination can disturb the ecological balance when dumped back into the sea.

In a state dealing with such major water shortages, sacrifices must be made now as NASA is predicting megadroughts for California and beyond in the next couple decades.

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