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.