One stark reality of climate change is drought. It is deadly and history reminds us that it annihilated powerful civilizations including: Akkadian, Moche, Tiwaniku, Mayan, and Pueblo peoples.
Without fresh water all life perishes.
Australia is beginning its eleventh year of drought. Water rationing at homes and at businesses is a reality. The government has given each household waterproof timer’s and recommends four-minute showers.
Drought is not just wreaking havoc on the land down under. Northern China and inner Mongolia are entering their fifth year of drought and last summer five million people were without water and 20 million acres of croplands failed.
Fresh water for farming and hydroelectric power is also being used as a geopolitical tool, and by some accounts benefiting the Taliban in Afghanistan. India is using water from two Afghan rivers that flow into the volatile Pakistan border region, where water shortages have been implicated in fueling local insurgencies. Pakistan is insisting that India is using water as a weapon against them.
Drought has significantly cut the flow of fresh water into the dam, which feeds three hydroelectric plants that supply 73 percent of Venezuela’s electricity. Currently, Venezuelans are faced with rolling four-hour blackouts every other day as the oil-rich country endeavors to contend with less fresh water.
California is entering its fourth year of drought. Tree rings from the ancient bristle cone pines living at almost 11,000 feet above sea level on the White Mountains in east-central California tell climate scientists that California is coming out of the third- or fourth-wettest century in the past 4,000 years.
California is currently floating an $11-billion bond to secure fresh water for over 38 million denizens, the eighth mightiest economy on the globe and the most intensive agriculture system on the face of the Earth. By 2050 the state is projected to have a population of 55 million people.
California receives about 90 percent of its freshwater from the accumulated snowfall long the Sierra Nevada’s. The melt waters feed the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the largest estuary in the west. Ecologically, it is comparable in its magnificence and beauty to the Florida Everglades.
The delta is a major Pacific flyway providing crucial habitat twice a year to millions of migratory birds. And two thirds of California’s remaining salmon pass through the delta in addition to being home for hundreds of native species of aquatic plants and animals.
The delta is the hub of California’s drinking and agriculture water. Also, over a half a million people live and work close by, and since the 2000 census, the population of towns and cities has grown by a whopping 18 percent.
The Los Angeles basin extends from San Diego to Santa Barbara and spread out over 467 square miles and it’s home to about 18 million people. One stop-gap-measure that so far has helped reduce urban water consumption has been to raise the water usage rates. Increasing rates almost 40 percent has saved over 37.7 billion gallons of water since July 2007.
Agriculture in California contributes over $37 billion annually to the state’s economy. Drought forced the tap to be shut off this past summer and over $3 billion in produce did not make the marketplace.
For every problem there are at least three solutions.
Farmers are turning to technology to help guide them through these dry times. Micro sensors in the field and drip irrigation, which feeds water directly to the root zone, are connected to telephones allowing farmers to get real-time information and immediately adjust water usage.
Since 2003 Californian farmers have invested over $1.5 billion in new irrigation. Some farmers have switched from water-spending crops like cotton, rice, sugar beets and alfalfa to seasonal vegetables, fruits, wine grapes and nuts that use far less water.
Other farmers are looking to safflower, a water-smart plant that sends its roots down as deep as 10 feet in search of water and nutrients out of reach of other annual plants. Safflower produces seeds, which make oil used in cooking and in salad dressings.
Interestingly, crop scientists have shown farmers that by cutting back on water, or dry farming, for navel oranges and pistachios they are able to produce sweeter, denser, crisper and higher-market value fruit and nuts.
California wineries are also changing with the times, seizing golden opportunities to save water and make money, entering into organic and eco-friendly wines.
Fetzer Vineyards in Mendocino County reduced water usage by 24 percent or 6.6 million gallons by installing drip irrigation. They use steam sterilization instead of hot water at their bottling facility, and all wastewater is recycled using a natural system of ponds and aquatic plants. In addition, Fetzer Vineyards does not use synthetic pesticides or chemical fertilizers derived from petro-chemicals. They have reduced their footprint equivalent to planting 70,000, 10-year-old Eucalyptus trees.
At the end of the day, if each of us lend a helping hand, both at home and at work, and conserve water, we can obviate businessman and inventor Benjamin Franklin’s warning “When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.”
Dr. Reese Halter is a biologist at California Lutheran University and founder of the international conservation institute Global Forest Science. His most recent book is “The Incomparable Honeybee and the Economics of Pollination,” Rocky Mountain Books. Contact him through www.DrReese.com.