A Letter from the Drought Emergency in California
What to do whether you live in California or not
On Monday, the drought emergency in California expanded to include 41 of 58 counties, with further expansion likely. This spring—one of the warmest and driest on record—portends another disastrous fire season. If you live here and don’t already have an air purifier and masks—no, not those masks, these masks—buy them now. But you might still need those masks too.
The current state of affairs in California
Agriculture consumes 80 percent of our water supply. We grow nearly half the country’s fruit, vegetables and nuts. Our top agricultural exports in 2019 included almonds, pistachios, dairy and dairy products, wine and walnuts—all water hogs. Unlike fields of broccoli, corn or potatoes that can later go fallow, almond trees and grape vines require watering even during drought years. The alfalfa we grow to feed cows in our state by far consumes the most water of any crop.
Some towns in the Central Valley are sinking. About a quarter of the US food supply grows in the Central Valley, a large swath of land in, well, the center of California, the dry southerly parts of which are desert. Farmers continue to drill groundwater wells in order to water their thirsty crops that feed both us and people living in far-flung places, pumping out billions of gallons of water from already depleted reserves beneath the ground. Within less than 100 years, the land has sunk around 28 feet in some areas. This sinking—known as subsidence—also pushes contaminants like arsenic into the water and poisons it.
Fracking continues—for now. During our last drought, in 2014 alone, Big Oil fracked California with 70 million gallons of water. Water and nasty chemicals injected under high-pressure deep into the ground break up rock and release trapped fossil fuels, which upon burning contribute to climate change and exacerbate drought. The process results in wastewater contaminated with a “toxic stew of chemicals known to cause cancer, reproductive harm and nervous system damage.” In other words, that water cannot be reused. Governor Newsom has proposed to ban fracking by 2024.
Nestlé steals our water. From San Bernardino forest last year, Nestlé “drew out about 58m gallons, far surpassing the 2.3m gallons a year it could validly claim.” California state officials have sent Nestlé a cease-and-desist order but the battle over the water has waged for years. Please, for the love of God do not buy bottled water, especially Arrowhead brand or anything labelled Blue Triton—Nestlé Water’s rebranded products—or really anything from Nestlé ever.
We’re bracing for this year’s fires. And we’re still recovering from last year’s megafires. Last week, scientists discovered a smoldering giant sequoia that burned last year.
So what can we all do about the drought?
Join a climate-focused organization
While difficult to imagine, the climate crisis will only worsen droughts and other severe weather. We have the tools to mitigate the climate crisis but we lack the political will to put those tools into operation at the rapid pace necessary. Join a group fighting for change and get involved. Don’t like marching in the streets? Participate in other ways—draft newsletters, update websites, raise money, call politicians, write letters. Just some organizations to choose from are:
Pre-Covid march in 2019
If you live in California, conserve water
Actually, do this if you live outside of California as well.
If you have an old water hog of a toilet, put a brick in the tank to reduce the amount of water required per flush. Keep a bucket in the shower to fill while you wash and save the water to flush the toilet. Follow the “if it’s yellow let it mellow” rule—horrifying to some yet standard operation here in the golden state (gold as in the hills, silly). Or just go outside. Yes, I said it. Urinate outside on the compost heap. The nitrogen-rich urine will do wonders and the little boys in your life will happily oblige.
Shower less often. I proposed this several years ago during our previous drought and probably horrified people. But during Covid, many people have been showering less. If you work from home, never break a sweat and never see anyone, why waste water showering every day? Daily showers strip your body of beneficial bacteria that help kill the bad bugs. You probably don’t smell anyway.
Even before the pandemic, I usually showered only every other day or so. (“I showered less before showering less was cool!”) I’m showering a little bit less than that now. On the days I don’t shower, a damp washcloth swiped where necessary keeps me socially acceptable. My hair dislikes daily washing. One of my children shaved her head at the beginning of the pandemic. Now that is zero-waste hair care!
Tear out your thirsty lawn and replace it with drought-tolerant plants. If you don’t live in California, consider doing this anyway and grow food. You’ll have access to delicious fruit and vegetables plus you will save money, get gentle exercise, cut your waste, reduce your dependency on corporations to feed you and learn a useful skill to pass down to generations who will need it.
Although I am happy to incorporate water-conserving practices into my daily life—I find them easy enough to do and they save me time and money—ordinary citizens like myself do not consume the majority of water in this state. Urban areas of California account for only about 10 percent of all water consumed.
Wherever you live, do not waste food and consider the water footprint of foods
According to the NRDC, almost 40 percent of the food we produce in this country goes uneaten. That wastes about 21 percent of all of our agricultural water usage. Wasting food wastes water.
While not wasting food, also consider going easy on the beef and dairy. This website shows the water consumption required to produce various foods. The site uses metric measurements so keep in mind that 1 gallon contains nearly 4 liters.
250 ml cup of tea: 30 liters water
tomatoes: 214 liters water per kilogram
250 ml glass of beer: 74 liters water
125 ml wine: 109 liters water
125 ml non-American-size cup of coffee: 132 liters water
250 ml milk: 255 liters water
potatoes: 287 liters water per kilogram
oranges: 560 liters water per kilogram
apples: 822 liters per kilogram
sugar (from sugar beet): 920 liters water per kilogram
bread: 1608 liters water per kilogram
rice: 2497 liters water per kilogram
ground nuts in shell: 2782 liters water per kilogram
cheese: 3178 liters per kilogram
chicken: 4325 liters water per kilogram
beef: 15415 liters water per kilogram
chocolate: 17196 liters water per kilogram (please don’t shoot the messenger)
If you live in New Jersey, or Canada, or England, or China, do not buy our food, buy your local food
I might be banned from my state for this suggestion, but why do we grow so much food in California, only to transport it elsewhere, even in summer months when “elsewhere” can grow its own food? And why do we raise cattle in a desert? When we export water-intensive products, we export water. We have none.
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