February 14, 2012
Climate change may leave California, as we know it, facing drastic reforms. As a result of heat-trapping emissions, not only will the state’s average temperature rise, but precipitation is also more likely to fall as rain rather than snow, and the snow that does fall in the Sierra Nevada’s is likely to melt earlier and more quickly. This will directly impact California residents because the snowpack formed during fall and winter provides the state with a third of its surface water, essential in the Golden State for human consumption and agriculture. The snowpack forms in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the upper regions of the state, but all Californians depend on it as a water source come spring and summer when the demand is at its peak. Although the California drought was declared over in 2011, the relatively dry 2011-2012 winter season has done little to restore confidence in California’s water security.
A severe reduction in snowpack, nature’s generous water storage, could likely result in inevitable major developmental changes across California. Among the most important, California’s current water reservoirs are not equipped to capture or handle larger influxes of rainwater in shorter periods of time. However, the current proposals for the expansion or addition of surface storage facilities would be minimal compared to the already existing capacity, and additional water storage facilities may be both economically and environmentally unsound. Consequently, new technologies such as large-scale rainwater capture or water-recycling plants may eventually need to be developed and implemented to ensure Californians have enough water. Additionally, California may become more reliant on alternate sources of water, increasing costs of transportation.
A water crisis could mean serious economic consequences for California. According to Frank Mittlebach, professor of Economics at UCLA Anderson School of Management, winter tourism in California, “contributed over $3.2 billion in spending in 2000.” Tourism in the mountain resort regions such as Mammoth Mountain, which is dependent on snow to attract visitors for recreational activities, has already decreased markedly this year.
More importantly, however, major water shortages would devastate California’s thriving agricultural industry, the largest in the nation, “which generated $39 billion in revenue in 2007, and which is responsible for more than half of all domestic fruits and vegetables.” One out of six jobs in California is linked to agriculture, and the state is one of the largest producers of milk, grapes, and cotton. According to UC San Diego’s Climate Research Division, the California agriculture industry could lose as much as 25% of the water it needs. Not only would this affect California residents regarding food availability and jobs, but also other states and countries due to California’s large number of exports of agricultural goods.
Overall, water as a commodity will dramatically increase in price due to higher demand and less supply. For a state already in debt, this could lead to devastating consequences unless major preventative changes are made. If California is unable to equip its water infrastructure for the climate changes to come, stricter conservation efforts will need to be put into effect–even if it means the Southern Californians have to sacrifice their evergreen lawns.
Sydney MacEwen and Danielle Tellez are undergraduates in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
California has always been seen as the Golden Coast. It is a land of plenty that supports millions of people and has an immense and productive agricultural industry, producing almost 15% of the nation’s annual crops.
But the productiveness of California has a limit, and both its climate and human overuse can distress the land beyond repair. Desertification is the process of the loss of nutrients (top soil) to drylands, resulting in infertile land that can be easily eroded due to the lack of vegetation that would normally provide soils with the structural component to combat erosion. Vegetation is vital to dry soils, prominent in much of the California climate, because the soils can easily be carried away by wind, or on the rare occasion of rain in Southern California, water. Over farming, which depletes the soils nutrients, or overgrazing, which physically strips the soil of vegetation, are two of the most common triggers of desertification.
Desertification can be a natural process too. The United Nations Conference to Combat Desertification identifies that desertification is also due to climactic changes, where extended periods of drought or dryness can harm vegetation and leave soil dry and exposed to the elements, although some may argue that these may be anthropogenic as because of the link between global climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.
But while desertification can be a natural process, these natural processes and tendencies of Southern California are only augmented by the anthropogenic abuse of the land such as over farming and overgrazing.
California is an extremely large and diverse state with a wide range of climate patterns and weather conditions. Therefore, while some areas are lush, others are experiencing drought. This raises the issue of distribution of water in California. About 65 percent of the state receives less than 20 inches of rain fall per year, which is indicative of the scrubland biome.  While 70 percent of California’s runoff occurs north of Sacramento, 75 percent of the agricultural demands are located in the south of the state. This is why California has undergone some of the most extensive water redistribution projects, which have created conflict over water rights between Northern and Southern California. Water supply to farmers in the far south, such as those in El Cajon, CA is still not enough, despite these water redistribution projects, to support their agricultural based economy due to the increasing water demands of Northern California.
So when Southern and Central California experience the periodic droughts indicative of their climate, the desertification that would have naturally occurred is only amplified by California’s reliance on it’s agricultural industry heavily based in the south, and it’s inability to supply the amount of water necessary for this huge, over-productive, and depleting industry.
Some political and socioeconomic implications of desertification in California include increased risk of wildfire, reduced crop yields, social unrest (water wars), and potentially dust bowl conditions similar to those that plagued the Midwest in the 1930s during the Dust Bowl. This dust creates health problems, and blows in to the ocean and other already contaminated and damaged water sources, further causing contamination.
The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification is an initiative of the UN that hopes to remediate degraded soils through additions of fertilizers and growth of crops that do not require many nutrients, and also to fight the source of desertification. This undertaking has several objectives, including anticipating and/or limiting land degradation, repairing degraded land, raising awareness of desertification, and developing sustainable management practices through education. While droughts and the climate of Southern California cannot be controlled, and the water limitations of the area will remain a chronic issue, the best way to prevent further desertification is by cutting back overgrazing and overuse of the land, and practice farming and agricultural use in a sustainable way.
California takes specific measures of its own to combat desertification. It releases a Drought Contingency Plan every 5 years, and in 2008, the California DCP proposed new groundwater and surface water storage facilities, environmental restoration, and increased conservation and sustainable practices.
Other methods for combating desertification include water harvesting from new technologies that can extract water from the humidity in the air. Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, can also be a potential solution, manufactured to be more resistant to drought and require less water, but they still pose a great deal of controversy due to other environmental factors and causes.
The fact is that desertification can only truly be diminished if the practices of the people living in the area change. Too much reliance is placed on farming in areas that cannot support the overuse, and if more sustainable farming practices do not begin soon, then the land will quickly become too unstable to even use.
Justin Bogda and Kimberly Knabel are undergraduates in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences.
February 8, 2012
California is currently experiencing a water crisis. Many believe that the state is safe after Governor Brown officially declared the three-year drought to be over on March 30, 2011. The reality is simple—California is not safe and the water issue has not gone away.
History has shown that California easily slips back and forth between times of water scarcity and water abundance. California has been able to cope with these drought patterns before, but as time progresses California will not be able to quench the thirst of citizens who overuse water resources. Thus, the government and citizens alike must begin taking steps to prepare for years of little rainfall, because who knows if there will be enough water in the future.
Southern California’s demand for water is rarely met with sufficient supply. Many regulations and laws have been implemented in the past couple of years in response to Southern California drought conditions, but different counties have different laws. The overall goal is the same: consume less water and penalize those who waste it. In 2009, Orange County faced a severe drought that spawned a series of regulations that helped the county through tough times. The city of Santa Ana raised its water rates three times within a two-year span in order to make people think twice before leaving faucet running or taking a long shower. Yorba Linda, Anaheim, Placentia, and other cities within the Yorba Linda water district even restricted residents from watering their lawns between 9am and 6pm.
A system of fines and penalties is common amongst different regions of Southern California. Los Angeles restricted its water usage to twice a week in 2009. The citywide restriction was imposed after Mayor Villaregosa called the drought “a crisis that we have not seen in decades.” A tiered system was also instituted, and residents were charged based on their water usage. The two tiers were based on water usage in cubic feet, where the base rate for Tier I was $2.92 per 100 cubic feet and $2.98 for Tier II. Residents that abused their water consumption, wasting more than the average for Tier II usage, were heavily fined and penalized. Some believe these strict regulations helped California escape from its three-year drought. Regardless, though, conservation is still an issue.
Citizens cannot leave it up to the government to save them from this water crisis. Government restrictions are not enough; instead, people must take it upon themselves to ration the amount of water they use on a day-to-day basis. The average California household consumes between one half-acre foot to one acre-foot of water each year, which is somewhere between 163,000 and 326,000 gallons! A family may consume 300 gallons per person each day if they are not water conscious, while those who are more aware may consume as little as 50 gallons per person each day. It is simply not enough for some to conserve water while others do not, especially when all it takes is turning the water off as you brush your teeth or purchasing more drought resistant plants.
The severity of outside factors on the California water crisis is increasing over time. Issues like population growth and global warming only complicate the water debate and intensify concerns over future water levels. As the population grows, Californians must monitor current water usage to ensure people in the future do not go thirsty. Nature itself must be taken into consideration, because issues such as global warming attribute to inconsistent precipitation levels that can strain water reserves. In order to solve this issue, one must think of the broader impact water has on the state. Water is not just necessary for life but an integral part of the economy and politics as well. Without taking proper precautions, California leaves itself susceptible to a mega-drought where citizens may be facing a modern American Dust Bowl.
Connor Schroeder and Albert Perez are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
September 19, 2011
The Central Valley of California is a fertile bed of over 350 diverse species of agricultural crops, some of the major cash crops being rice, grapes, cotton, and almonds. California’s agricultural industry makes up 15% of the entire nation’s crops and made a profit of $37 billion in the year 2009.
Despite these numbers, desertification is an increasingly major problem.
Between 1998 and 2000, 10,000 acres of farmland were lost every year in Central Valley from urbanization alone—this doesn’t account for the acres of fertile farmland lost due to overgrazing, climate change, or poor farming practices. Currently, California is losing 178 km2 of arable, fertile land each year. Southern California especially, being a very arid and drought-inclined region to begin with, has a problem with increasing salinity and compound minerals in the soil, caused by overdrawing ground water (United States Geological Survey).
Desertification is not only the result of human activity. The UN Convention to Combat Desertification identifies the other major cause of desertification to be climatic variations—for example, erosion, drought and irregular rainfall, and violent winds. Essentially it renders the soil infertile, not only for planting and agriculture but for any organic life. Desertification occurs on a global scale, particularly through deforestation and drought. Areas around the Amazons, for example, have undergone desertification because the trees are being harvested for wood and cleared for farmland, and much of the space lies fallow. Similarly, in California, trees are cleared using the “slash and burn” method to open fields for cheap soybean and livestock cultivation.
Desertification is a challenge for California because it is a desert environment supporting an increasingly large population on limited water imports. The situation becomes more dire when the effects of global warming are considered, which dramatically expedite desertification. Owens Valley, California, for example, became a desert when all of the natural water resources were diverted to Southern California for drinking water and crop irrigation. The San Joaquin Valley is a region that has undergone natural desertification due to climate change, a result of surface crusting, salinization and waterlogging problems.
Most popularly considered solutions to desertification involve addressing problems of drought. Every 5 years in California a new Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) is released. In 2008, the last DCP, tactics included aggressive conservation, new groundwater and surface water storage facilities, and environmental restoration. GMOs also offer the possibility of growing crops that are resistant to drought, thus using less of the precious water resources to yield the same or greater amount of agriculture.
Similarly, Air-to-Water harvesters are a new technology that essentially takes the humidity in the air and convert it to usable water. This can slow desertification significantly.
From a more bottom-up perspective, education and conservation initiatives will also drastically reduce the human contribution to desertification. Programs teaching grey-water usage, water conservation, and the transformation of lawns into food forests can save a lot of water if it is implemented locally and broadly. Natural forests and wetlands need to be protected rather than cleared, farmed, and abandoned.
While desertification is in and of itself a natural process, the human factors can and must be reduced, especially in California, if we are to live harmoniously with the land and reap the benefits of its yield.
About the authors: Xueyou Wang and Kayla Duarte are undergraduate students in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
It is believed California is currently undergoing desertification. The long-term impacts and environmental costs associated with this process will take a devastating toll on the environmental future of the state. According to an article from Remote Sensing by Doris Lam, Tarmo Remmel and Taly Drezner, the present conditions of the majority of California’s lands are arid and semi-arid, which makes California highly susceptible to climate changes and anthropogenic impacts leading to desertification.
There are a combination of factors that when placed together can have the potential for disaster. During the 1930′s in Oklahoma, the combination of drought, arid climate, and land misuse led to the dust bowl resulting in depression, a mass exodus of people, poverty, hunger, high economic costs, loss of biodiversity, and unusable land for agriculture. Currently, because of California’s arid climate, land erosion and misuse, and rising global temperatures, the potential for disastrous environmental impacts is on a greater scale and drawing near.
U.S. Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, projects the future of California’s agricultural lands to decline. According to the climate reports Chu has reviewed, global temperatures are only expected to reach staggering heights. Along with these increases in temperatures come major environmental impacts such as shortages in water supplies and loss of agricultural land. Without a secure water supply, agricultural processing and more importantly food production, could be in danger. In an article from Nature Geoscience, Diana Wall warns that the lack of water will cause great damage to the essential functions of healthy soil, which include providing proper environments for crop growth with various nutrients and other levels of biodiversity.
The rise in temperatures will also affect levels of precipitation and perhaps even cause valuable lands to lose their ability to sustain abundant crops for California’s growing population. A twenty-five percent drop in precipitation levels beginning in 2007 and lasting through 2009 is an example of this situation. The consequence of this occurrence was that the stream flows were forty percent below normal standards.
As a result, farmers pumped groundwater as a short-term answer to their water problems. However, in the long run, the groundwater resources were depleted greatly and a valuable resource was used unsustainably. A total reduction in groundwater during the drought proved to be 48 times worse than reductions in a comparable period earlier in the decade. A continuation of similar events in using water resources unsustainably will eventually force the water-deprived grounds of California to move quickly towards desertification.
The state of California’s economy relies heavily on its agriculture. A report from the 2010-2011 edition of the California Agricultural Resource Directory states that in 2009, California agricultural exports reached 12.4 billion, which was a 66 percent increase over a length of seven years. A sudden plummet to California’s agricultural productions due to the presence of desertification would result in not only a decrease in harvested crop acreage but also in jobs for Californian residents.
California’s success in farming over the years has earned the state the title of “the agricultural powerhouse of the United States.” The state’s economy is heavily dependent on the profits of their agricultural productions. The environmental impacts and costs of desertification in California will have a huge toll on millions of people. Not only will it do damage to the state’s economy but it will also cause a great increase in unemployment rates. Moreover, the total cost of attempts toward restoring the deteriorated agricultural lands will most likely continue to rise since the chances of restoring those lands to its native standards are close to impossible. The desertification of California agricultural lands will be detrimental to the entire population of the state.
About the authors: Ticia Lee and Wendy Whitcombe are working towards their bachelor’s degrees in Environmental Studies in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.