California Gov. Jerry Brown finally pulled the trigger Wednesday, ordering mandatory statewide water restrictions for the first time in state history. While Brown has been criticized for his slow, “lame” response to California’s water problem, the fact is, we are here, and must now make the most of it.
Four years in, with no relief in sight, here are the 10 weirdest facts about California’s drought:
1. Water is So Scarce that Farmers Are Making More Money Selling Water Their Supply Than Planting Food
It’s true. Rice farmers in northern California are selling their water supplies to thirsty Southern Californians at a serious premium. The Metropolitan Water District will buy water off the farmers for $700 per acre-foot, more than double what it paid for the same water just five years ago. One rice farmer put it bluntly: “We’re going to make a lot more selling the water than planting the rice. This is a huge deal.”
2. We Could Be In It For the Long Haul
The risk of “megadrought”–a water shortage lasting up to 35 years–is increasing. Take a look at this map; if what the scientists are saying is true, those could be the soil moisture levels by the end of this century. A University of Arizona study in August found that the risk of a Southwest megadrought are now anywhere between 20 to 50 percent. Which may be a problem, since California has just about a year’s worth of water left in its reservoirs.
3. If You Live In California, Chances Are You’ve Drunk Your Own Urine
In June of last year, California invested $1 billion in water recycling projects, which means exactly what it sounds like: purification plants “recycle” waste water and use it for drinking water. Hey, it’s much, much cheaper than building desalination plants. The state was forced to do this because Californians just couldn’t or wouldn’t meet Gov. Brown’s request for a 20 percent statewide decrease in water use (gee, I wonder how we’ll do with a mandatory 25 percent cut). If you’re concerned about it, take Slate’s advice: “If drinking purified pee weirds you out, don’t live in a desert.”
4. The State’s Water Rights System Essentially Boils Down to, ‘Shotgun.”
There are two types of “water rights holders” in California: those with “senior” rights, and then those with “secondary rights.” And God help you if you have secondary rights. It’s pretty easy to tell which farmers and landowners have senior rights; they’re the ones whose fields haven’t gone brown despite the water shortage. So how does an enterprising young farmer get his hands on the much-needed water? Build a time machine and take it back to the late 1800’s, when those who “got to the river first” got first dibs. The system is still in place today, and is blamed by critics for causing much of the dysfunction in the state’s water management.
5. The Federal Government Just Turned Off the Tap for a Second Straight Year
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, for the second straight year, will not send any of its reservoir water to the Central Valley in 2015. Of course, famers bear the brunt of this decision, as “senior” water rights holders still receive theirs from the feds, including fish and wildlife refuges protected by federal law under the Endangered Species Act. Oh, and the politicians in Sacramento are covered by the feds too. It’s getting scary for farmers; the State Water Project will provide only a 20% allocation to the Central Valley this year, further squeezing the state’s agriculture industry.
6. The Drought Sparked a Water War Between a Nudist Colony and a Water District
Back in September, the Midpeninsula Open Space District accused a Los Gatos nudist resort of stealing its water to keep the resort open during the drought. Authorities from the District had literally to rip out a hose that the Lupin Lodge nudists were using to capture about 5,700 gallons of water a day from a waterfall situated on District property. One of the lodge’s owners, Glyn Stout, vowed to do everything in his power to keep the pool open.
7. State Water Managers Are Still Flush With Cash Despite Water Shortages
If there’s one thing in abundance during the devastating drought, it’s the number of zeros at the ends of Bay Area water managers’ salary checks. Each of the top executives at the Bay Area’s four largest water districts take home more than double the salary of California’s best-paid government official, Gov. Jerry Brown. Nearly 150 employees of the districts make over a quarter-million dollars per year. And what’s worse: three of the four districts are considering passing on water rate hikes to customers due to falling revenue.
8. Unelected Bureaucrats Have Entirely Too Much Control
In February, a number of state and federal agencies petitioned the State Water Resources Control Board to increase pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the Central Valley due to a particularly dry winter. Federal wildlife agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who traditionally opposed increased pumping because of dangers posed to the river’s fish, sided with the farmers and gave their blessing.
The Board’s response? No dice. The Board had received a letter from liberal environmental group National Resources Defense Council saying the pumping would hurt the fish, even though the federal agencies just told them that wouldn’t happen. Don’t like the Board’s decision? Tough. Each and every member is personally appointed by the Governor, so they don’t need your puny votes.
9. The Money We’re Spending to “Fight the Drought” Is Not Actually “Fighting the Drought”
Last month, Gov. Brown unveiled an ambitious $1 billion emergency drought relief package, with the funds ostensibly going toward, you know, drought relief. However, that is simply not what’s happening: a full two-thirds ($660 million) of that money is going toward flood control. You read that right.
“All of a sudden, when you’re all focused on drought, you can get massive storms that flood through these channels and overflow and cause havoc,” Brown told lawmakers with a straight face last week. The measure also gives $30 million to green energy companies who are working on reducing greenhouse gases. Of the entire $1.1 billion spending spree, just $40 million will go toward emergency drinking supplies and and food assistance for desperate communities.
10. At This Point, Rain Dances May Be The Best Tool We’ve Got
Last year, the good people of the San Juan Intertribal Council realized how bad a predicament California is actually in. So, they did what needed doing: they got down with it for some good old-fashioned rain dances. At this point, who’s to say these people aren’t doing the most to actually combat the drought?
Follow Daniel Nussbaum on Twitter @NussBB.