The End of California? — The New York Times #ColoradoRiver

Here’s guest column written by Timothy Egan for The New York Times asking how the current drought will permanently alter California? Here’s an excerpt:

But California, from this drought onward, will be a state transformed. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was human-caused, after the grasslands of the Great Plains were ripped up, and the land thrown to the wind. It never fully recovered. The California drought of today is mostly nature’s hand, diminishing an Eden created by man. The Golden State may recover, but it won’t be the same place.

Looking to the future, there is also the grim prospect that this dry spell is only the start of a “megadrought,” made worse by climate change. California has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs. What if the endless days without rain become endless years?

In the cities of a changed California, brown is the new green. A residential lawn anywhere south of, say, Sacramento, is already considered an indulgence. “If the only person walking on your lawn is the person mowing it,” said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, then maybe it should be taken out. The state wants people to convert lawns to drought-tolerant landscaping, or fake grass.

Artificial lakes filled with Sierra snowmelt will become baked-mud valleys, surrounded by ugly bathtub rings. Some rivers will dry completely — at least until a normal rain year. A few days ago, there was a bare trickle from the Napa, near the town of St. Helena, flowing through some of the most valuable vineyards on the planet. The state’s massive plumbing system, one of the biggest in the world, needs adequate snow in order to serve farmers in the Central Valley and techies in Silicon Valley. This year, California set a record low Sierra snowpack in April — 5 percent of normal — following the driest winter since records have been kept.

To Californians stunned by their bare mountains, there was no more absurd moment in public life recently than when James Inhofe, the Republican senator from Oklahoma who is chairman of the environment and public works committee, held up a snowball in February as evidence of America’s hydraulic bounty in the age of climate change…

But now, just about everyone in California knows that it requires a gallon of water to grow a single almond, or that agriculture accounts for 80 percent of the water used by humans here. Meanwhile, the cities have become leaders in conservation. It takes 106 gallons of water to produce an ounce of beef — which is more than the average San Francisco Bay Area resident uses in a day. Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles wants to reduce the amount of water the city purchases by 50 percent in the next decade, cutting back through aggressive use of wastewater and conservation.

It’s outlandish, urban critics note, for big farm units to be growing alfalfa — which consumes about 20 percent of the state’s irrigation water — or raising cattle, in a place with a third of the rainfall of other states. And by exporting that alfalfa and other thirsty crops overseas, the state is essentially shipping its precious water to China…

What will come, then, from this disrupting drought is likely to be a shift of power. The urban “almond shaming” chorus is quick to note that the crop uses enough water to support 75 percent of the state’s population. In other words, there would be no water shortage in San Diego or Los Angeles if nut growers shut off the pumps.

“Imagine if somebody ever said, ‘Let’s have a vote on how to use California’s water,’ ” said Daniel Beard, a former Bureau of Recreation commissioner and a critic of federal dam building. “That’s the last thing big agricultural interests would want.”

The food industry is ripe for disruption. The land that has been left fallow now in the Central Valley is still less than 5 percent of all the irrigation acreage in California. Another 5 percent would leave most of the industry standing, and leaner. Low-value, high-water crops would disappear, as is already happening.

Absent a vote of the people, the free market could end up as the decider. The big city water districts have more than enough money to buy farm water in a freewheeling exchange. Indeed, they’ve been making numerous purchases for years — though limited by complex water contracts and infrastructure that makes it difficult to pipe large amounts from one place to the other.

In addition, one fear of making water an open-market commodity is that rich and politically powerful communities would get all the clean water they needed, while poor public districts would be left out. A class system around breathable air has already developed in China. Is abundant water the next must-have possession of the 1 percent?

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