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Drought-stricken California: Wanting to be ‘Green’, but Forced to Love Brown

0 129 Economic

by Alex Carrick

It may be the state with the greatest longing to be 'green', but California is inescapably turning brown. That statement may seem to carry a political connotation, given that Jerry Brown lives in the Governor's Mansion; but no, that's not the meaning.
Drought-stricken California: Wanting to be ‘Green’, but Forced to Love Brown

'Brown' rather refers to the appearance of the state's arid landscape in the middle of a fourth year of severe drought.

Californians, once known for lush lawns serving as accessories for beautiful gardens, are adjusting to a new reality that insists on acceptance of earthier hues.

To be caught watering one's grass, at a moment judged to be inappropriate, risks the approbation of one's whole neighborhood. And a hefty fine.

Many homeowners are digging up their yards, laying down mulch and opting for drought-resistant plants such as yucca and acacia.

A Georgia O'Keefe-Taos New Mexico vibe meets with approval.

California, with the largest population base among all states, has a wonderfully diverse economy.

While the impacts of the drought are most apparent in agriculture, there are other sectors that are continuing to flourish.

Thanks to surging high-tech communities, San Francisco and San Jose lead the country in almost every category of significance to big cities. They are recording low jobless rates and rapid year-over-year employment growth.

They have the highest home prices and the greatest year-over-year appreciations in value.

San Francisco has the priciest hotel rooms and the lowest office vacancy rates.

Since the settlement of the longshoremen's strike, the international seaports of Long Beach, Los Angeles and Oakland have seen booming activity levels.

Hollywood keeps churning out blockbusters; tourism is holding up; and the military provides a sound economic base for San Diego.

There can be no doubt, however, that the daily lives of average citizens are being fearsomely disrupted by the drought.

In these new marvelously-connected times, I'm finding it's relatively easy to determine what's going on almost anywhere by simply tuning in to a local radio station that is broadcasting over the Internet.

Listening to any of the major outlets in California quickly reveals that the drought is a pervasive daily concern. Interspersed among their usual patter, disc jockeys are constantly reminding listeners to cut down on how much water they use.

Governor 'Moonbeam' – the sobriquet with which he's sometimes saddled, on account of his occasional 'out there' pronouncements − has introduced strict and mandatory water restrictions.

State-wide usage is to be cut by 25% versus two years ago (2013). Some jurisdictions that have already achieved notable success in lowering consumption have goals as low as minus 8%. Others – those most often dependent on groundwater sources – are aiming for as much as 36% less.

There are certain enterprises operating on the front lines of this crisis that are really feeling a pinch; for example, swimming pool vendors. Their customer base, uncertain about access to the input that will be the source of their enjoyment, has been shrinking fast.

As a counter-argument, pool contractors claim that filling a standard cavity requires between 20,000 and 30,000 gallons. Once at the brim, only limited additional amounts for topping up are ever needed, especially if a cover reduces evaporation.

According to estimates, watering a lawn in California for a year uses about the same amount of H2O. Regardless, there's a bigger problem: the optics. A swimming pool is too glaring an abuse of a sparse resource.

At first splash, it may seem surprising, but car wash operators have been receiving a boost from the dearth of precipitation.

Based on experience gained in previous dry spells, commercial car washes have become adept at minimizing their water usage, through high-pressure and precision-targeted soaking systems.

Plus, they're masters at recycling 'grey' water.

Soaping and rinsing one's car at home takes many more gallons of water than are used at a professional facility. Therefore, some municipalities have banned the former practice, thereby injecting more life into the profit and loss statements of the latter.

The lack of rain is lowering water levels in reservoirs. Snowmelt in the mountains is also being depleted. Lake Shasta's water crest has dipped by nearly forty feet versus a year ago. Its basin is estimated to be only 70% full.
Groundwater is the most abundant alternative, but the scientific community is concerned about how intensely it is being exploited.

California's important agricultural sector is being impacted in several significant ways.

Rice, cotton and corn harvests are diminishing. Revenues from livestock production are falling.

Part-time and seasonal employment is in decline.

And the costs of purchasing water, on account of pumping it from deeper wells or transporting it from further away, are climbing.

Farmers are leaving fields fallow and/or switching to hardier varieties.

The San Joaquin Valley, with Fresno as its unofficial capital, is at the heart of California's agricultural district. Citrus growers – California and Florida are, by far, the nation's top orange producers − are trying a technique that was successful in Australia a couple of years back, when record-hot days for long stretches of time were the norm.

They're 'painting' their trees with a diluted latex mixture to act as a form of sunblock. They've also been stepping up their pruning.

After only about three years, Australian orchards returned to normal output levels.

California has a large tree-nut sector (e.g., almonds, walnuts, pistachios and pecans). To grow a single walnut or almond takes a shockingly-large amount of water.

Higher costs are forcing up prices. Consequently, restaurants and food chains are switching to alternatives. Pecans, especially, are finding favor. Among states, the number one supplier of pecans is Georgia, followed by Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma.

In the Napa Valley region north of San Francisco, the impact on wineries has been limited so far. Relative to many other crops, grapes are hardy and can survive being thirsty for a long while – although, of course, not indefinitely.

For the moment, vintners are maintaining revenue streams by upping prices for their more expensive brands.

Growers nearer the Mexican border aren't facing as precarious a situation. The Colorado River is continuing to be a good source of water supply.

Consumers are becoming frustrated on a surprising score. Even when they drastically cut their water usage (e.g., by investing in low-flow toilets, etc.), they're not finding much relief in their water bills.

While conservation is lowering demand, utilities are paying more for pumping and piping. To combat their revenue shortfalls, and even as they're delaying infrastructure upgrades, they're also upping their rates and/or imposing drought surcharges.

You know the situation is bad when a blue-blood like Tom Sellick becomes embroiled in an illegal and embarrassing situation. He was recently fingered for absconding with water from a public fire hydrant to help sustain the crop on his 60-plus acre avocado ranch.

Over the course of two years, and on a dozen occasions, his work crews allegedly pilfered water from Thousand Oaks in Ventura County and drove it to Hidden Valley.

I was hoping to hear that Mr. Selleck was taking it away in double-sized champagne bottles, otherwise known as magnums, but alas such was not the case.

The reason this has come to light is because the Calleguas Municipal Water District assigned a P.I. to the case. (They'd have solved it a lot faster if they'd hired ... no, come to think of it, under this particular set of circumstance, probably not.)

For the construction industry, it's interesting to speculate on what the drought may mean over the longer-term. More storage units and pipelines to ship water from other wetter zones is a given.

But it's also interesting to note that Santa Barbara, not far up the coast from Los Angeles, has re-activated a mothballed desalination plant. Will there be more such investments in the future?

Tweeters and Facebook aficionados have solicited help from engineers in Israel, where a great deal of expertise has been acquired in desalination engineering.

San Diego is home port for the nation's aircraft carriers, all of which have desalination plants (as do nuclear submarines, for that matter).

Some commentators have suggested that, in an emergency, this source may be available to augment municipal supplies.

There is no shortage of other outside-the-box suggestions.

One is to lasso icebergs floating in the Pacific and haul them to California's shoreline.

Another finds inspiration in earlier times, going all the way back to ancient Rome. Perhaps all new building sites in the state should include cisterns. Then, when downpours do occur, there can be a natural increase to inventory.

The large oil and gas industry in the state goes through billions of gallons of water each year. Steam is used to dilute crude at the bottom of wells, facilitating the extraction process. Tapping into a copious amount of water is also often a byproduct of drilling.

Though it has a tendency to be salty, a portion of such water is processed for re-use. It can be cheaply converted for farmland irrigation. To render it potable, though, would require a sizable extra expense.

Billions of gallons are currently being squandered in 'disposal wells'. Chevron and California Resources Corp. (CRC) are endeavoring to find useful applications. To live and work in California is to understand that 'sustainability' must be a guiding principle in everyone's affairs.

Finally, there's another subject worthy of its own chapter: the relationship between the drought and the electricity demand-supply equation in the state.

During periods of normal rainfall, California obtains about half of its power from hydroelectric sources.  Currently, due to sinking reservoirs, that share has dropped to 10% or less.

Natural-gas-fired stations, with a usual 20% slice, are being called on to make up the shortfall.

New cogeneration plants also use a great deal of water. Their turbine generators spin as the result of pressure from two sources, gas that expands during combustion and steam that leaves the 'kettle' when water is heated.

The greater demands on gas-fired plants are providing an opportunity for Canadian gas suppliers.

Having been displaced in many eastern markets by the rapid rise of hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Field of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, they've been pleased to make new sales on the U.S. West Coast.

Due to strict carbon emissions standards, coal-fired power generation in the state is insignificant.

Legislation specifying a 33/20 renewable energy target has been passed in Sacramento. The goal is to generate one-third of California's power needs from renewable sources by 2020.

Wind and solar power generation are prominent in California. The Mojave Desert in the southeast portion of the state boasts a set of giant solar operations known collectively as the Solar Energy Generating System, or SEGS for short.

Wind farms also proliferate. One such can be readily seen through porthole windows during flight take-offs and landings in Palm Springs.

There's also "The Geyser" geothermal project north of San Francisco. It produces more power than wind and solar in the state combined.

In so many ways, California sets trends that eventually make their way across the rest of the U.S., into Canada and even around the world.

In this matter, drought, the state is teaching others to treasure more deeply whatever reserves of fresh water are available. And to urge measures ensuring its continuing abundance.

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