Is It True that California Only Has One More Year of Water Left?

by on April 2, 2015 · 3 comments

in California, Environment, History

Calif droughtEditor: Back in March, NASA scientist Jay Famiglietti wrote an op-ed piece published in the LA Times, and the paper entitled it “California has about one year of water left. Will you ration now?”  Is that really true?

By Andrew Freedman / Mashable / April 2, 2015

California Governor Jerry Brown announced his state’s first-ever mandatory statewide water restrictions on Wednesday, seeking to curb water use by at least 25%.

While the governor cited a record low snowpack and below average reservoirs in the midst of a four-year drought as the reasons for the move, one particular scientist’s actions may have had something to do with the restrictions.

Climate researcher Jay Famiglietti has pioneered the use of a NASA satellite system to track changes in water use worldwide. His studies have shown that the Central Valley region of California, which is one of the most productive regions for growing fruits and vegetables in the U.S., is sinking by up to a foot a year as farmers tap underground aquifers in an increasingly desperate search for irrigation water.

Calif snow Yosemite 02-15On March 12, Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a professor at UC Irvine, published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. Online it was given this headline: “California has about one year of water left. Will you ration now?”

The piece sounded an alarm like a klaxon on California’s increasingly dire water supply situation — and may have frightened many Californians into thinking their tap will soon run dry. They may also have permeated the governor’s inner circle in Sacramento.

But was that headline strictly accurate?

In an email Q&A with Mashable, Famiglietti explains what he really meant by that article, and why he is so concerned about the sustainability of current water use — not only in the West, but also in other parts of the world such as the Middle East.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for brevity.

Mashable: You wrote an op-ed that may have left the impression with many Californians that the state is going to run out of water in one year. That is a scary thought. Can you clarify what you meant by that?

Famiglietti: The online headline, written (and now corrected) by the LA Times, was misleading. It originally read “California has 1 year of water left,” which I did not write nor did I intend to convey. My real point: at the time of writing, statewide, California’s surface water reservoirs held about a year’s worth of water supply, perhaps plus or minus a couple of months.

Of course, our surface water reservoirs are not designed to provide long-term water supply, and really cannot hold more than about 3 year’s worth. So after 3 years of drought, it is understandable that our reservoirs are very low.

However, we are at no risk of running out of water any time soon, since we have decades worth of groundwater in our aquifers. One of the key points of the op-ed was that, since we will be relying more heavily on groundwater this year (perhaps an unprecedented 85% to 90% statewide), that we need to be extremely mindful to use it sparingly — all the more important as we consider the great potential for an even drier future in California with even more prolonged drought.

Groundwater is clearly our strategic reserve, yet the public does not really realize it, and may also not realize how rapidly it is being depleted. Collectively, we need to make sure that we sustain our groundwater supply for the long term.

Mashable: From space, you’ve collected data showing the dramatic drawdown in groundwater supplies from California’s agricultural lands. This clearly is unsustainable, but can you put this into perspective for people regarding how much water has likely been taken, how much land has sunk, and what this means for another hot and dry season ahead?

Famiglietti: Data from the NASA Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) mission has shown us that since 2011, water losses in California have been catastrophic. In each of the last 3 years, California has lost more than 8 trillion gallons of water, which is more than all 39 million Californians use each year in their homes, and for industrial and municipal use.

Our last couple of winters — our wet seasons — have been drier than our dry seasons, so our reservoirs and groundwater supplies are not getting replenished. The snowpack is nearly 90% below normal for this time of year. Groundwater is at an all-time low. Wells continue to run dry. In some regions, the land is sinking at rates as high as a foot per year in response to the heavy rates of groundwater pumping.

All of this means that as we move deeper into 2015, that we will be relying even more heavily on our limited groundwater supply … which means that we all have to conserve as much water as we possibly can so that we don’t drain our precious groundwater reserve and leave ourselves unprepared for future drought emergencies.

A century of droughts

Mashable: Climate change may be playing a role in this drought by amplifying its severity through increases in the average temperatures. How should people think of the link between the California drought and global warming, without falling into the “did x cause y” trap?

Famiglietti: People must begin to recognize that the steady march of climate change is forging ahead and is having a huge impact on water availability. Droughts like the one we are facing now will become more common in the future, and likely even more severe, especially later in the century. It is climate change that is making drought the new normal, and we need to adjust our personal thinking, and our statewide and national water management accordingly.

Mashable: What has it been like for you to have an ominous op-ed go viral? Has it brought blowback from your colleagues?

Famiglietti: This was certainly a new experience for me, but one that has raised public awareness significantly. The general public has been hugely supportive, as has the state government. Even former Governor Schwarzenegger has reached out. Anything that brings attention and support to the problem is viewed as a positive.

The only concerns were on the NASA side, since the press propagated the incorrect headline: “NASA says California has 1 year of water left,” and because some of my recommendations were viewed as crossing the line into policy, which NASA should not do.

California’s mountain snowpack hit an all-time low on April 1, 2015.Image: Climate Central
Much of NASA’s concern also arose from the fact that they had not seen the op-ed ahead of time — an inconsiderate move on my part, for sure. They were unprepared for such a big response. However, I am also a university professor, a member of the State Water Boards, and my recommendations fall more into the area of best management practices. So we are all moving on and staying quite positive about the piece, which we should.

The Takeaway

Mashable: As a journalist who covers climate change and extreme weather events, what should be on my horizon — and that of my readers — as we enter the fourth summer of drought in a row?

Famiglietti: A few things come to mind. A big one is the human response. What will it take for 80% or 90% or 100% of the population to accept the realities of the drought, and to expect and to use far less water?

Will agriculture voluntarily begin restricting groundwater use? Will the government be forced to impose mandatory restrictions across all sectors?

Another thing to watch out for is whether there will be a rush to plant more water-intensive crops, like nut trees and vineyard grapes, before the new groundwater legislation is implemented. That would be unfortunate. But as you drive up and down the Central Valley, you can see it happening.

Mashable: What’s the number one lesson you take away from the GRACE data showing groundwater depletion around the world, much of it in potential hotspots for conflict?

Famiglietti The number one lesson is that our global water future will consist of haves and have nots. Our data allow us to now clearly anticipate where those places will be, and many of them are trans-boundary. We need to begin taking action now to plan for a future where we need to peaceably move and share water across political boundaries.

Disneyland is dead

All Californians need to work together on this. Our current water crisis — and those that we are going to face in the future – are not just the problems of our government or of a handful of water managers. It is a problem for each and every one of us. We need to come to terms with the realities that many parts of California, especially in the southern half of the state, are arid or semi-arid, so we finally need to start behaving that way with respect to water.

Water has made Southern California into a lush Disneyland of an oasis. But Disneyland, like an unlimited water supply, is a fantasy. Mickey’s dead. It’s time to get back to the real world.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Barbara April 2, 2015 at 2:31 pm

A fantastic article! Very informative.

I have two questions:

What about desalination plants? That wasn’t mentioned and I’m curious about that. Ensenada, Rosarito, Carlsbad and Pendleton all plan to open desalination plants that are right next to power plants (for the sake of conservation). Presumably, the ocean water supply is unlimited and this is what many Middle Eastern countries already do very effectively. Are there drawbacks or issues I’m not aware of?

Although Europe has an unlimited supply of water, their water prices are as high as their gas prices. (It’s around $8-10 for one gallon of gas out there.) That promotes conservation also. What’s wrong with increasing prices? We did it on tobacco and alcohol.


Christo April 2, 2015 at 3:02 pm

My wife is a construction Engineer for the Carlsbad Desalination Plant.

She told me the desalination plants are built next to power plants to take advantage of the heat the power plants provide. Raising the temperature of the incoming water makes the desalination process more efficient.

Potential Drawbacks are:
Cost (depends on the availability of other water sources)
High energy use (could be mitigated with clean energy generation)
Higher salinity in the water that is discharged (generally diluted to the point where it’s not an issue)


Barbara April 2, 2015 at 3:23 pm

Yes, that’s what I read too.

“Desal” is apparently the new “solar & wind” of water.

Higher prices will help with conservation.

Buying from Baja California, Mexico (Ensenada/Rosarito), could also help develop that area rise to a higher standard of living.

I could be wrong about all that, though, so I’m always sifting through information to find out more.


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