The Drought Definitely Affects You. Here Are At Least 3 Ways

April 24th 2015

Earlier this week, the actor William Shatner outlined a bold plan to rescue California from the midst of a devastating four-year drought. 

In an interview with Yahoo, Shatner explained his plan to crowd-fund a multi-billion dollar pipeline to bring water from Seattle to California, in order to alleviate thirsty crops and defer reliance on quickly-depleting groundwater in the area.

"I want $30 billion ... to build a pipeline like the Alaska pipeline. Say, from Seattle –– a place where there's a lot of water. There's too much water. How bad would it be to get a large, 4-foot pipeline, keep it aboveground –– because if it leaks, you're irrigating," he explained. 

Shatner's quick-fix is a nice idea, but despite the fact that Washington is currently in the midst of its own droughtit fails to account for numerous practical hurdles anything of such scale would inevitably face in the proposals phase, let alone in implementing it. If anything, though, the former Star Trek actor is bringing attention to what has already caused significant structural decay in one of the nation's agricultural hubs––and is only slated to get worse

How the drought affects you

Anyone following this story will know that the drought is not just about uglier lawns, shorter showers, and dirtier cars. Rather, it's a story that details the effects of the exorbitant and careless use of limited natural resources across everything it touches. It could also foretell the impacts of a changing climate on the economy, agriculture, and the way we think about everyday life, as dry spells are predicted to become more common in the coming years. 

Mandatory Water restrictions

On April 1, shortly after water officials measured the lowest Sierra Nevada snowpack in more than 60 years of record-keeping, California Gov. Jerry Brown announced the state's first ever mandatory drought restrictions, ordering towns and cities across the state to cut their water use by 25 percent. Under an April 18 plan, communities that use more water per capita (hot, dry, wealthy) will be subject to higher restrictions reaching 36 percent. The austerity of Brown's directives would seemingly correct for the failures of the 20 percent voluntary water cuts proposed over a year earlier. The minimal Sierra snowpack, which, according to the LA Times accounts for 30 percent of the state's water, was the last straw. "We're standing on dry grass," Brown said in a field usually still blanketed with winter snow. "We should be standing on five feet of snow." 

Golf Courses, Cemeteries, and Agriculture 

Brown's order was aimed at urban life, specifically targeting municipalities even though California's agriculture industry accounts for around 80 percent of the state's overall water usage. Cemeteries, golf courses, and other large swaths of greenery took hefty pay cuts––the restrictions will save an estimated 500 billion gallons of water in a little less than a year from now. To the ire of some observers, farmers, who use about four times the amount of water as that of urbanites, were largely exempt from the cuts. The argument goes that even a small change in the way farmers use water could save the state just as much as the urban cuts, but paring down the state's agriculture sector is a touchy subject as is. 

Rising Food Prices 

Although it only makes up for a small portion of California's $2 trillion economy, agriculture is indisputably important in both the state and nationwide. California produces almost half of all U.S.-grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables, and any significant restrictions in the country's largest agriculture state would necessarily mean a squeeze in major crop exports like milk, almonds, and grapes (wine), which together bring in nearly $20 billion. It's worth noting that the agriculture industry lobby is immense, and would likely put up a fierce fight in the face of cut-back measures, but the drought has already led to lost revenue and jobs. According to some estimates, 2014 saw about $2.2 billion lost to failed crops and higher water prices, and 17,100 agriculture jobs lost as a direct result. And if it keeps pace, grocery shoppers across the country could see steadily rising prices for the many food staples California exports. 

Almonds, 80 percent (globally) of which come from California, aren't the only thing that will likely be affected by price hikes, either. According to California Department of Water Resources data, crops that use the most amount of water include grains like wheat, barley, oats, and hay, rice, corn, cotton, citrus, and various other fruits and vegetables. Higher prices for things like citrus and avocados would be direct and up-front, but the crop that requires the most water, alfalfa, illustrates just how a drought could cause ripple effects on a global scale.

The alfalfa crop, which is grown largely to feed livestock, required an average of almost 2 trillion gallons of water over a ten-year period from 2001 to 2010, according to the CDWR. The state produced 6 million tons of alfalfa hay last year, and exports to foreign countries have been growing; according to U.S. Department of Agriculture numbers, exports to China, which is the world's largest buyer of U.S. alfalfa after the United Arab Emirates, have increased eightfold since 2009, reaching a record 575,000 tons. But growing global demand drives up prices for both places like China and for the ranchers in alfalfa's backyard, meaning higher overall beef prices––which has one of the larger water footprints of any meat at 1,857 gallons per pound––more or less across the board. 

It can be overwhelming to calculate all the things that stand to be affected if California's worst drought on record continues on its arid path. Indeed, comparing "footprints" can quickly become a follow-the-water rabbit hole: is beer (2 gallons per fluid ounce) or wine (3.5/oz) more environmentally sound? Grapefruit (2.8/oz) or pineapple (6.4/oz)? Lentils (71.3 gallons per dry ounce) or chickpeas (76.1/oz)? Interactive Web pages tracking water's role in everyday items have popped up everywhere from the LA Times, to Mother Jones, to Huffington Post, to the Water Footprint Network, which provides much of the data for such resources. 

How many gallons of water does it take to produce a single ounce...

At the risk of seeming over the top, resources tracking the "hidden" costs of water in everything from clothing to food––and by extension, illuminating how sustainable everyday items are in a drought––are increasingly necessary tools for a population for which water has been, in some cases, an accessory. Just yesterday, it took a state Assembly bill to call into question the fines residents of some cities can incur for not watering their lawns. But they also serve as a good indicator for the potential impacts non-residents could soon face as the summer months approach, when consumers both in- and out-of-state will have to strike a balance between conservation and a carefree lifestyle. "We want to conserve," L.A. councilman Felipe Fuentes, head of the city's Energy and Environment Committee, said in response to new watering restrictions introduced Thursday, "but we don't want to sacrifice quality of life." 

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