See How Drought Is Changing California
The state's residents are adapting to what might be the new normal.
The historic drought in California, the most pronounced dry spell in the last 1,200 years, is having a domino effect that touches the lives of all of the state's residents. While a strong El Niño could bring some relief to the region, both residents and policymakers are adjusting to the idea that the drought may represent "the new normal," a return to the Southwest's ancient past when megadroughts lasted decades.
A state known for its innovation, California will have to make major updates to its infrastructure and its water allocation policies in order to thrive in a drier future. Those efforts will take time, effort and most of all investment. In the meantime, California has already undergone significant changes in its fourth year of severe drought.
One of the most apparent changes is the effect on the state's landscape. Rivers, streams and lake beds are dry throughout California. Once lush, wet landscapes have been transformed into parched wastlelands.
This photo, for example, shows a patch of dry ground that used to be Trinity Lake, a major California reservoir with a total water storage capacity of 2,448,000 acre-feet, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The parts of the lake that still hold water, not seen in this photo, are receding an average of a foot every two and a half days, down 33 feet in total so far this year alone.
Lawns are out; astroturf and native vegetation are in.
Spurred by state and local rebates, residents and businesses across California are tearing up their lawns and replacing them with more drought-friendly alternatives as part of a broader effort to reduce water consumption. California governor Jerry Brown also called for the removal of 50 million square feet of lawn on public lands, which should save an estimated $2 billion annually.
Water-wasting aesthetic choices are falling so out of fashion that neighbors are taking to social media for a practice that's been dubbed "drought shaming." Photos and videos are popping up on Instagram, Twitter and YouTube mocking residents with lush, green lawns or filling their pools.
Not everyone is willing to make aesthetic change for the sake of conservation, however. Recently, the city of Palm Springs, an upscale community known for its resorts and its golfing, voted to turn its decorative water fountains back on, insisting that little water is lost to evaporation. The Palm Springs area has some of the highest water usage in the state, according to USA Today.
The drought hasn't just reshaped the entire neighborhoods on the outside; the lack of water has compelled changes inside the home as well. Residents are showering for less time, washing their clothes and dishes less, and recycling water when possible.
Shortly after Gov. Brown announced a historic water restrictions order, state officials approved new regulations on appliances in kitchens and bathrooms that establish some of the most efficient standards in the nation, according to the L.A. Times. The new standards on furnishings such as faucets, urinals and toilets amount to a small savings of 2.2 percent out of a total the 443 billion gallons of water that Californians flush or wash down the drain.
Given that farmers are working with less water -- if they have any water allocation at all -- it's only natural that they would grow fewer crops, which in turn reduces their overall output. An estimated 564,000 acres of farmland will be left fallow this year, according to researchers at the University of California-Davis.
Data from the to the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that production of fruit, tree nuts and vegetables, all of which are areas where California producers generate a major share of U.S. consumption, declined in large measure because of drought. Oranges, olives, plums and watermelon are among a handful of crops that experienced double-digit declines in 2014 compared to their previous averages.
Cherries are one agricultural product in particular that has not fared well in the drought. A combination of winter heat, a lack of water, and scavenging ravens and beetles has led to the worst cherry harvest in years, growers told the L.A. Times.
The California drought has not only changed farmers' output; the dry conditions have also changed the crops farmers are choosing to grow.
Citrus, rice, alfalfa and other thirsty crops, which withered in the dry conditions anyway, are getting uprooted and bulldozed to make way for less water-intensive plants like lettuce, onions and carrots. Exotic crops like dragon fruit, pictured here, are getting a second look thanks to their drought-friendly nature.
Some farmers are being compelled to change their output after decades of doing business a certain way. In the case of Grass Farm Garden Accents, for example, which has been growing sod since 1969, the combination of drought and changing consumer tastes as a result of it has led the farm to switch 30 percent of its production to bell peppers, reports NBC Bay Area - KNTV.
With water in short supply and fruits and vegetables no longer available in the same quantities as under normal conditions, home cooks and restaurant chefs are adjusting their menus to coincide with water and produce availability.
Cooks are shying away from water-intensive operations like boiling and turning to steaming as a means of conserving water. Recipes that call for fewer pots and pans are also increasingly favored by chefs in an attempt to avoid excessive washing up after meal preparation.
As the New York Times reports, despite all the bad news for foodies throughout California, there's one small upside to the drought in terms of how it's affecting food: With fruits less full of water because of drought conditions, they're also sweeter and more flavorful. They're also, unfortunately, more expensive.
Hydroelectric power has long been a cheap, reliable source of renewable energy for California. Fifty years ago, hydroelectric facilities generated over half of California's energy supply. That number has been on a steady decline as the state turned to other sources of energy, including natural gas and solar. In more recent years, before the drought, in-state hydropower met between 14 and 19 percent of the state's electricity needs on average.
With the drought, hydropower output has declined rapidly. Between 2011 and 2014, hydropower output plunged 60 percent, according to U.S. Department of Energy estimates. The decline has led to a marginal increase in electricity bills for energy consumers, but the state hasn't had to make up the shortfall with more carbon-intensive forms of energy, as around 83 percent of the shortfall was offset by solar power generation, as the Sacramento Bee reports.
One silver lining from the drought is that state and local officials are beginning to invest in California's water infrastructure.
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, California needs to invest $39 billion in its drinking water infrastructure and $29.9 billion in wastewater management over the next two decades to support its projected population growth. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put forward yet another daunting number, estimating California will need to invest $44.5 billion over 20 years to fix aging water systems.
Some California regions taking steps to address these challenges. San Diego, for example, is constructing the largest desalination plant in the Western hemisphere, a $1-billion project in Carlsbad that will provide an estimated 50 million gallons of drinking water per day when it opens in 2016. The project is a start, but even the developer behind the plant doesn't expect desalination to be a major component of the state's overall water supply, according to the L.A. Times.