The Drought; California’s Water Shortage And Our Effect On It


by Bracha Turner

So you’ve had a rough week and want to reward yourself with a long, relaxing shower or a luxurious day at the spa? The car’s a little dirty, better get it cleaned? And a little hungry? Better head to the local market and buy some inexpensive, fresh produce. A few dishes in the sink might induce you to run the dishwasher and get them out of the way? Suits has a little smut—send it out to the dry cleaners. We forget how heavily we rely on water. We take water for granted and readily wash it down the drain, un-recycled, never to be seen again.

Following the driest year on record in over a century, Californians are urged to save water and there are signs that water rationing may be coming. Well before the onset of summer, Southern California has been hit with a heat wave, low rainfall and fires. According to the United States Drought Monitor, drought conditions in California have hit us harder this year and this is serious. Most of the state is facing severe drought conditions. The agency measures both Los Angeles and San Diego as “Extreme” drought regions, experiencing the second-to-most-pervasive-water-shortage possible on the scale.

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While some believe that California is naturally a dry climate, the evidence points otherwise. In Northern California which is historically moister than the rest of the state, drought conditions have risen in the past decade to measure as “Extreme” on the Drought Monitor. Already stagnating in drought for the three previous years, California needs to be more resourceful.

The greatest pull on our water resources is in agriculture and grocery store prices are sure to rise if water shortages continue. According to a report by NPR, California grows 95 percent of America’s broccoli, 81 percent of its carrots and 99 percent of the country’s artichokes, almonds and walnuts, among other foods. The majority of freshwater consumed goes towards the production of these food as well as clothing, and even manufactured products like cars. At the same time our domestic use of water has been heedlessly unconscious.

Nor is this the first time severe drought has occurred. Between 1987 and 1991, the state of California imposed mandatory reduction orders and heavy financial penalties for those who failed to comply. The worst drought on state record was between 1929 and 1934 which set the standard of how California handles shortages in our water reservoirs. Historically, well before the establishment of the state, tree rings (from stumps discovered below lakes) reveal patterns where water runoff from the Sierra Nevada mountains was extremely low for years on end and the result was not pretty. Heavy drought existed in medieval times at an interval of at least every 100 years.

Prosperity in urban and agricultural California is dependent on an assumption that the past century’s wetness will continue in the future. It is a problem when such a precious commodity that is essential for survival costs less than your Smartphone bill. Will Californians carelessly wait until they feel the pinch of a drought directly affecting their pocket, or even scarier, the water supply to their homes, in order to take action?

This water shortage is a call for us to remember that all prosperity is in HaShem’s hands. “R’ Yochanan said: Three keys the Holy One blessed be He, has retained in His own hands and not entrusted to the hand of any messenger, namely, the Key of Rain, the Key of Childbirth, and the Key of the Revival of the Dead” (Taanit 2a). From time immemorial, people have turned Heavenward to ask for Hashem’s mercy in delivering rainwater for crops to grow, and for life on Earth to flourish. The key of water is itself the universal link to all of life in the past, present, and future. Sixty five percent of the human body is comprised of water and each living being descends merely from a “putrid drop.” According to Midrash, even the revival of the dead at Mt. Sinai was dependent on dew descending on the body and reviving the soul. The drought is a reminder of our dependence on Hashem’s open hand for water and for life.

Water molecules are generated over the course of nine days and form clouds which can last less than an hour before they dissipate. Those clouds contain enough water to fill lakes. An inch of rainwater over an acre of land (a little less than the size of a football field) yields 27,154 gallons of water. If you knew that the water coming out of the faucet traveled 250 miles over the course of over nine days before entering your cup would you say a bracha with a lot more kavana?

In the past, people would dwell close to sources of water because water meant life. Our ancestors, notably Avraham and Yitzchak, earned a reputation for digging wells throughout the Holy Land where rainwater was often scarce. Here, too, in Southern California, with climates similar to that of the Mediterranean, rainwater is a dire need. With rains increasingly scarce, we rely heavily on groundwater to sustain our domestic and agricultural needs. Water remains a remarkably cheap commodity relative to the scarce allocation of it. Only 1% of the world’s water is consumable as freshwater. As of yet, water shortages have not yet affected the bottom line cost of farming since farmers receiving less water from municipal water sources instead draw from groundwater. Meanwhile, the water table shrinks down and farmers have no statistical knowledge of when it will run dry. At home, we don’t think twice about wasting freshwater while waiting for the shower to warm or flushing the toilet needlessly.

Where did that water from the tap originate? Although most water in Southern California primarily derives from the California Aqueduct, Colorado River Aqueduct or the Los Angeles Aqueduct, with the current drought, the majority of freshwater in our pipes comes from groundwater (aquifers). Most of this water emits from the Sierra Nevada snowpack which drip water slowly throughout spring and summer into our water supply. Without the use of aqueducts, Southern California could have sustained only 3 million people. Following an increase in the water supply pumped from elsewhere, there has also been a tremendous population growth in the past 50 years to the area. There are now over 16 million residents in Southern California and the number is increasing.

If Californians collectively becomes more water conscious, billions of gallons of water could be saved a year. According to the EPA, the average American family household of four uses 400 gallons of water a day. With California’s total population growing to more than 38 million, this draws upon a staggering demand for water, and state officials are concerned about what the future may hold. At the same time, research shows that all we need as a minimum to survive is 5 gallons of water a day.

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It is far easier to understand why our predecessors took care in saving and recycling water; they had to physically exert themselves to bring water home. In doing so, it was easier to appreciate every drop yet we are not carrying our water from wells. We are far removed from the delivery process. What can you do about your water usage? Adding inexpensive aerators to faucets, converting an old toilet to a water efficient toilet, and reducing runoff and evaporation in the backyard by installing a drip irrigation system are just some small ways you can make a difference. Perhaps if we mimic the way nature dispels water, in slow and measured flows, we will be better prepared to deal with any future drought. See below for additional lively suggestions.

Interesting water facts:

The average faucet flows at a rate of 2 gallons per minute.

Taking a bath requires up to 70 gallons of water. A five-minute shower uses only 10 to 25 gallons.

Tell your children not to play with the garden hose. Saves 10 gallons a minute.

A running toilet can waste up to 200 gallons of water per day.

If you drink your daily recommended 8 glasses of water per day from the tap, it will cost you about 50 cents per year. If you choose to drink it from water bottles, it can cost you up to $1,400 dollars.