The Impact of the California Drought

Posted by AM Conservation Group on June 29, 2016

California is now in its fourth year of continuous, record-breaking drought and its sixth month of strict statewide water conservation measures implemented by Governor Jerry Brown.

According to the U.S Drought Monitor, an estimated 36.7 million Californians — more than 90% of the population — are living in areas affected by drought. Forty-six percent of the state (by landmass) is experiencing exceptional drought (category D4), and 71% is classified as at least extreme drought (D3). Conditions seem to have improved a little over last year, when as much as 58% of the state was experiencing exceptional drought (and 82% extreme drought).

The drought has had a huge impact on the state. According to the USDA and NASA, the amount of idle farmland in the state has doubled to 1 million acres since the drought began. In response, Californians have stepped up to the plate and reduced water use by more than 26% in September, exceeding the Governor’s monthly target of a 25% reduction. The state has even imposed fines on municipalities that fail to meet the targets.

Despite expectation of incoming rain this winter, the drought is far from over. Over the past four years, the state experienced a precipitation deficit that has caused a reduction in groundwater and reservoir levels by more than 15 million acre-feet.

This groundwater depletion will take a long time to reverse, particularly because most of the groundwater lost was within the arid southern Central Valley. Furthermore, reservoirs will need to stay near full capacity for a long time in order to allow the state’s native fish populations to restore themselves.

Impacts on Energy Use

In addition to impacts on agriculture, and human and animal populations alike, the drought has implications on current and future energy use.

In response to the drought, the state’s Energy Commission implemented the Water Energy Technology (WET) program to deploy new technology for water and energy savings. Water-energy initiatives like this are being developed in response to the fact that water and energy resources are linked. For instance, water shortages result in less electricity production by hydroelectric plants; natural gas is used to make up the loss of electricity from hydro, which results in higher electricity prices and more greenhouse gas emissions.

Water is used for cooling purposes in thermal power generation as well, so low water levels could limit the electricity production potential from power sources such as coal and natural gas. Transversely, we also use energy for water consumption. Moving water through supply, treatment, and disposal systems all require energy, supplied by the grid. This interrelationship is called the water-energy nexus.

In the short term, the drought is going to cause greenhouse gas emissions in the state to rise. In the long term, future droughts could be made worse by climate change. Scientists have estimated that the current drought was made about 20% worse by global warming. The drought would have happened anyway — the main cause has been a persistent band of high pressure in the western Pacific Ocean that has prevented storms from reaching California in the winter — but global warming exacerbated it. The continued emissions of greenhouse gases could make future drought situations more severe than even these.

A Possible Solution

The best way to maintain or restore water reserves has always been conservation. There’s a huge opportunity for commercial and residential users to reduce their water consumption levels by eliminating waste.

At AM Conservation Group, we carry several products that can help, such as high efficiency shower heads, faucets, and hose nozzles. Tackling California’s water challenge is an opportunity for utilities: it’s a chance to leverage the public’s conservation mindset to achieve not only radical water use reductions, but also reductions in energy consumption that can be carried over into a post-drought era — and hopefully help prevent severe droughts in the future from having such a negative impact in California and elsewhere.

To learn more about the delicate balance between water use and energy production, known as the Water-Energy Nexus, download our free eBook, “The Complexities of Water and Energy: The Water-Energy Nexus” today.