How can we manage the impact of Californian droughts?

After multiple years of water shortages, California is experiencing a range of exceptional challenges. Joe Biden’s recently ordered environment review shows that problems such as drought are being taken seriously at a national level, but in the heat of the Californian sun particularly, action is needed sooner rather than later. 

During long hot summers, drought can seem INsurmountable, but there are reasons for hope. It’s clear that investment is taking place across the state and many lessons have been learned from past water shortages. In South California, the Cadiz Water Project is tackling the problem of water scarcity by trapping and conserving supplies that would otherwise evaporate in the heat. Eventually, they hope to provide fresh water to 400,000 families in the area and maintain a fully sustainable supply. Innovations like this are essential if the impact of drought on the California environment is to be managed successfully. Here’s a closer look at the ways in which water shortages are influencing life in the state. 

Out of control wildfires 

Although wildfires are always destructive, many occur naturally and preserve the ecological balance. The difference between these small cyclical wildfires and the more recent California wildfires relates to their size. In 2020 and 2021, the Dixie and the August wildfires burned for months in North California forest areas. Decimating almost a million acres of land, they also claimed lives, ruined homes and devastated businesses. Months of intense fire contributes to air pollution, as well as killing wildlife and shrinking habitable areas for the creatures which manage to survive. 

Wildlife habitat is changed for good 

As drought conditions continue and wildlife is displaced, animals and birds are forced to find new places to live. As a result, the number of encounters people in California have with all kinds of animals is likely to increase. This won’t just involve seeing the occasional bear or rattlesnake in built-up areas. Smaller animals like rats and mice will be unable to feed on the seeds and fruit that often make up their diet. This will lead to them building nests and burrows in walls or foundations of buildings, then feeding from garden scraps and garbage. 

Dented energy supplies 

Around 15% of the power supplied to Californian homes and business is generated by hydroelectric turbines. These are situated in a huge network of dams, reservoirs, rivers and pumping facilities. When water levels are low, generating power becomes more of a challenge and in the most recent spate of droughts, the amount of hydroelectric used by the state dropped to just 7%. In the short term, California has enough sources of power to cope with this dip, but in the future, it could mean an over-reliance on fossil fuels. 

Farmers struggle to irrigate their pastures 

The fertile lands of California are used to grow numerous fruits and vegetables, as well as cotton, walnuts and almonds. In order to keep each crop in great shape, the farming industry is particularly water-intensive. Even dairy and beef farms rely on green pastures to keep their animals healthy, but this can lead to compromises being forced on the farmer. Often, leaving fields fallow and delivering less to market is the only way to cope, but a lack of produce quickly leads to price increases for the consumer. 

Why action is needed

When severe drought becomes the norm and nothing is done to fix the problem, no part of California will escape the consequences. At present, cities, rural areas and farms have been able to adapt relatively well, but this is unlikely to continue, especially in more vulnerable remote areas. Moreover, a crisis is brewing for the local ecosystem. From birds, to fish and forests, the land is under stress and some species are now at risk of extinction. 

All sections of the community are involved in the cure

In communities, people can minimize their personal water use in simple ways. These include using a broom rather than a hose to clear driveways, collecting rainwater in a butt and ensuring that any plumbing leaks are taken care of. Local councils, of course, have to think bigger. They are investing in technologies that allow us to obtain water from sources that are often over looked. These include the type of storm water harvesting that happens in Anaheim Lake when the Santa Ana River is high flowing, seawater desalination, such as that planned for the Carlsbad desalination project in San Diego and waste water recycling.  

Change is needed now

It’s certainly not too late for positive change to take place, but the coming years will be a test of how the state can manage its water supply infrastructure. The involvement and commitment of all Californians will help to alleviate the most pressing threats. Then, long-term water-saving solutions and strategies for drought resilience will ensure the state is prepared for the future. 


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