According to experts like Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California is currently experiencing the worst drought in its history.
“As difficult as it may be to face, the simple fact is that California is running out of water,” Famiglietti wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times.
“NASA data reveal that total water storage in California has been in steady decline since at least 2002, when satellite-based monitoring began, although groundwater depletion has been going on since the early 20th century.”(1)
Not one to understate the severity of the situation, Famiglietti said that the state has about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs.
“In short, we have no paddle to navigate this crisis,” he said.
Taking Steps To Address The Crisis
Water conservation in California has become mandatory.
“Today we are standing on dry grass where there should be five feet of snow,” said governor Edmund G. Brown Jr in a recent statement.
“This historic drought demands unprecedented action. Therefore, I’m issuing an executive order mandating substantial water reductions across our state.”(2)
However, if the drought continues, conservation may not be enough to fix the problem.
City officials have been considering and rejecting proposals for months, including trucking water down from Canada and transporting glaciers down the coast from Alaska.
Ultimately, the most practical option seems to be desalination – transforming seawater into drinking water using an old desalination plant initially constructed during a previous drought 20 years ago.
“It has two big disadvantages: It’s really expensive and it’s energy-intensive,” said Henry Vaux, a professor emeritus of resource economics at UC Berkeley(3).
But if the plant is reactivated next year, it could make up about 30% of Santa Barbara’s water demand.
While the desalination plant could help with California’s water crisis, environmentalists are concerned that it could come at a significant cost.
“The biggest concern about desalination is that it is expensive, it’s energy-intensive and it has a lot of side effects – a lot of unintended consequences to marine life both from the intake and the discharge,” says executive director of the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation Marco Gonzalez(4).
Environmentalists have raised the issue of the desalination plant damaging marine life by sucking microorganisms – which form a critical part of the food chain – into water intake pipes. They’re also concerned about briney waste water being pumped back into the ocean by the plant.
They feel that other alternatives, such as recycling waste water and capturing storm water, should be tried before reopening the plant, which ideally would only be used as a last resort.
But with only a year’s supply of fresh water remaining for the state of California, a multifaceted approach is clearly needed – and that may include desalination plants.