What Happens When California Runs Out of Water?


by senior futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

California is exceptional. We all know that. Unfortunately, California has become exceptional in a particularly unpleasant way: it’s running out of water. According to NASA, California’s current four-year drought is the worst in 1,200 years, and the state’s reservoirs have only about a one year supply of water left – which raises the question: What do they do if they run out of water?

Pray for rain, that’s what. There just doesn’t seem to be another simple answer. But what is of broader concern is what California’s drought means to everyone else. There are important lessons we need to draw from California’s situation, but let’s start by considering how bad things really are in California.

How Bad Is It in California?

On March 12th, 2015, NASA Earth scientist and hydrologist James Famiglietti wrote an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times stating that “Groundwater and snowpack levels are at all-time lows. We’re not just up a creek without a paddle in California, we’re losing the creek too.” But that’s surface reservoirs. What about underground basins, from which California farmers have been drawing most of the water they’ve needed over the past few years? “Farmers have little choice but to pump more groundwater [i.e. from basins] during droughts, especially when their surface water allocations have been slashed 80% to 100%,” said Farmiglietti. “But these pumping rates are excessive and unsustainable. Wells are running dry. In some areas of the Central Valley, the land is sinking by one foot or more per year.”[1]

Another NASA scientist, Ben Cook, a professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, which is part of Columbia University, says that this is the worst drought that the western United States has experienced in 1,000 years – or since more than 400 years before Columbus.[2] Clearly neither governments nor residents are prepared for this. They’ve never experienced anything like it, and so do not know how to respond, so their responses will largely be based on their own experiences.

So, if their prayers for rain are not answered, and the drought persists (and California is already through the rainy season for 2015), then California will run through the water in their surface reservoirs within the year. This will be offset by pumping water from underground basins – but those basins are not bottomless, and are, in many places, running dry. Which means that from 2016 and beyond, California will literally live and die based on how much water is stored in their underground basins.

Some commentators insist this isn’t a problem. “The water tables are dropping so the supply is not infinite but there’s enough to get us through a few more years of drought.,” said Hearst Publication website SFGate, “Right now, some 70 to 80 percent of lost surface water in agriculture is being made up by pumping ground water.”[3] [The emphasis is mine.]

But if there’s only enough water below ground to get through a few more years of drought, what happens after that?

The key question here is: Will this drought persist beyond a “a few more years”? The prolonged outlook appears to be that yes, it will, and potentially for many years. There’s a 12 percent chance, says NASA’s Ben Cook, that this is a mega-drought, which means it could persist for 20-40 years or more. And the longer that we keep emitting carbon at our present rate, the greater the odds of a mega-drought hitting the American West. If California is already in a mega-drought, then it is in deep trouble – and the consequences will affect us all.

What California Means to the Rest of Us

California’s economy is the largest of all American states, and would place it 8th among national economies, roughly around the size of Brazil, and larger than Italy, India, or Canada, based on purchasing power parity. A failing California would be an economic disaster for America, with significant repercussions for the global economy.

Getting into the nitty-gritty makes this more concrete.

California is America’s biggest producer of food, and has been for over 50 years, producing more than half of the nation’s fruit, nuts, and vegetables. It is the nation’s number 1 dairy producer, and its leading commodity is milk and cream. It produces 99% or more of the nation’s almonds, artichokes, dates, figs, kiwifruit, olives, persimmons, pistachios, prunes, raisins, clovers, and walnuts. It produces 83% of the country’s fresh and frozen strawberries, 43% of its green onions, and 25% of onions. And this is just a selection of what’s grown in California.[4]

The problem is that much of this is grown unsustainably, using fossil water faster than it is being renewed. That didn’t seem to matter when the state received rain and snow reliably, but that’s no longer the case. And that means that eventually California will no longer be able to grow these things – or, at any rate, not as much of them.

California’s problems will tear a huge hole in America’s food basket – and that will affect food prices and supplies globally at a time when many farming areas around the world are also running low on water.

But it’s not just fruits, nuts, and vegetables that are at stake, because industries and cities use water as well. I’ve already had reports from people I know in Washington state of Silicon Valley companies moving there from California because of their concerns over water. That’s not a statistically valid measure, but neither is it a surprise.

And this focuses on a simple question that even people concerned about the problem are avoiding: What do people drink, and how do they live, if there’s no water? We’re not there yet, but we appear to be heading in that direction.

Disaster Is Discontinuous

One of the biggest mistakes people make when thinking about the future is that they expect change to be gradual and continuous. But sometimes, especially with disasters, change is abrupt. One day New Orleans was going about its business. Then Hurricane Katrina hit, and the city was changed forever. One morning, New York City awoke to a beautiful, seemingly ordinary autumn day – then the planes hit the World Trade Towers and the city – and the world ­– changed forever.

People expect solutions to appear as if by magic to long-standing problems, like the over-use of water. But when long-term changes are not instituted, eventually time runs out, and the future jumps from one state to a very different one. It becomes discontinuous. And of all the challenges we face, water is one of those that we have worked hardest to ignore.

That may be about to change in California, and California may be our very big canary in the coal mine. No one is currently saying that the population of California will have to be evacuated to places that have more water. And there are many things that can still be done to avert such an unthinkable result. But the time that would be required for such changes is largely being wasted because we keep thinking that things will return to “normal”.

And there may be a temporary stay of execution. About the only thing on the horizon that might change California’s situation, in the short run, is if the state’s prayers for rain come true, notably through the kind of drenching that the emerging El Ñino might deliver – or not. This could go some ways to replenishing California’s reservoirs and restoring some of its underground basins. But this would be a reprieve, not a rescue.

Drought As the New Normal

If the climate scientists are right, drought is the new normal, not only for California, but for large parts of western North America. NASA’s Ben Cook says there’s a 12 percent chance California is at the beginning of a mega-drought, as I mentioned earlier. But he went on to say that if we continue to spew carbon into the atmosphere, then the chances of a mega-drought, lasting 20-40 years or more, for the American West would rise to 60% by 2050, and 80% by 2100. So what California is experiencing now holds important lessons for all of us to consider: What will our future be if we don’t have enough water?

Many will undoubtedly read this and think that I’m being foolishly alarmist, or far-fetched. I can’t seriously be suggesting that California will actually and truly run out of water, can I?

That is precisely what I’m saying. If present trends continue, and if the state’s prayers are not answered, we will see a mass migration of water refugees out of California. It doesn’t have to happen that way, but avoiding this abrupt disaster will be difficult, wildly expensive, and catch the vast majority of people by surprise, even though the problem has been coming for decades.

But without such actions, difficult and distasteful as they may be, when the last quart of water has been pumped – and fought over – from the last underground basin, and there’s no water left, it will be too late. A disaster that has taken more than a century to develop will have arrived – and its landing will be abrupt and catch many people by surprise.

Some will call this “bad luck”.

I’ll have more to say about our abuse of, and attitudes towards, water in my next blog.


© Copyright, IF Research, June 2015.

[1] Farmieglietti, James, “California has about one year of water stored.” Los Angeles Times, 12 March 2015, http://touch.latimes.com/#section/-1/article/p2p-83043355/

[2] Cook, Ben et al, as quoted in “NASA Study Finds Carbon Emissions Could Dramatically Increase Risk of U.S. Megafroughts”, 12 February 2015, http://www.nasa.gov/press/2015/february/nasa-study-finds-carbon-emissions-could-dramatically-increase-risk-of-us

[3] Graff, Amy, “10 California drought myths debunked”, SFGate blog, http://blog.sfgate.com/stew/2015/05/29/10-california-drought-myths-debunked/?google_editors_picks=true#photo-644295

[4] http://www.beachcalifornia.com/california-food-facts.html

4 comments… add one
  • Perry Schnarr Jun 25, 2015 Link Reply

    A very enlightening article that raises the alarm bells for me even though I live in Canada and will probably never experience a drought here. The financial repercussions are enormous.
    You mentioned not enough about what there doing about this problem. What about desalination plants or buying water from Canada?

    • Richard Worzel Jun 30, 2015 Link Reply

      Desalinization is often one of the first things people think of, but has two significant problems.

      First, it’s expensive, costing ’way more than people are used to paying for water, which may not be a bad thing IF the whole costs are passed through to the consumers.

      But second, it creates a problem about what to do with all the toxic materials that have been taken out of the sea water. If you just dump it back in the ocean, the concentration of such toxins will kill off all the life in the region.

      As for buying water from Canada, there are, again, two problems. First, you’d have to pipe it down, which is doable, but would cost money. The other, bigger problem is that Canada doesn’t want to sell water to the US because it’s afraid (appropriately, in my view) that America’s insatiable thirst will never be quenched. Moreover, under the NAFTA agreement, once Canada started selling water, it couldn’t stop.

  • Sandy Browne Aug 11, 2015 Link Reply

    Just catching up on reading your articles. I was interested in the difference between your sources and “Science News” published by the U.S. Society for science. I think it is how long a history is being tapped on CA. Conclusion in both sources is the same: we’re running out of groundwater.


  • Alan DiCara Oct 5, 2015 Link Reply

    Desalination can be cost-effective and affordable. See:
    “Megascale Desalination: The world’s largest and cheapest reverse-osmosis desalination plant is up and running in Israel. Availability: now.”, at: http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/534996/megascale-desalination/

    -Also, someone long ago asked what could be done with “brine” much of what is left over from sea water after it evaporates. He happens to have been Herbert Dow,*-the man who started the now multibillion dollar corporation, Dow Chemical.
    *Herbert Henry Dow – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, read more at:
    Wikipedia -Herbert Dow, founder of Dow Chemical … He discovered that brine samples from Canton, Ohio and Midland, Michigan were very rich in bromine, which at the …

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