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Earlier this month, I found myself in a campground in northern California, watching a water sprinkler twirl bright drops over a patch of lawn. If you've spent any time in the Golden State, you'll know the sound of the sprinkler – snickety, snickety – is typical background noise, as familiar as the hum of air conditioning and "dude" as an honorific.

But this isn't a typical time in California. The entire place is in a state of drought. The county we were visiting, like 60 per cent of the state, falls into the most extreme category, "extraordinary drought." The drought is in its third year, and 2014 will likely be the driest in the state's history. America's fruit bowl, where half of its produce and nuts are grown, is shrivelled and brown around the edges.

Yet the sprinkler kept sprinkling; there was a pleasant façade to maintain. We drove down the coast, past dry creek beds and wildfire alerts, past endless swimming pools and water parks, glistening by the side of the freeway.

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Since July, water restrictions have been in place across the state, but they seem pitiful, a literal drop in an empty bucket. In Los Angeles, where 40 per cent of the city's drinking water is sprayed onto lawns and gardens, the law says you cannot use your sprinklers more than three times a week. There are fines of $500 for violating the rules, but local officials are reluctant to enforce them: It is not a state built on a culture of privation. It is a state of swimming pools, and movie stars, and the dream of infinite bounty.

But that bounty is coming to an end, and America's richest state is paying the price for a century of taking its richest resource for granted. There's a lesson in there for all of us.

As politicians campaigned for mid-term elections in the fertile Central Valley, none of them would talk about the role that climate change has played in the current disaster. "Climate change doesn't really belong in the question, or answer," one candidate, Amanda Renteria, told The Hill web site. And she's a Democrat.

California, where I lived for three years, is an unnaturally green place, a desert made lush by human ingenuity and water bought from other states. Its history is a search for water, and its culture rests on the conflicts that arise when the water stops flowing: Think of John Steinbeck's East of Eden or Roman Polanski's Chinatown.

But what if the water doesn't come back, or at least not in the same quantities? Across the state, farmers are uprooting water-intensive citrus and almond groves, letting thousands of acres lie fallow, and trimming their cattle herds. More drastically, though, they're drilling for groundwater, sucking up precious reserves that may never be replenished. Astoundingly, considering that it supplies a vast proportion of North America's agricultural goods and regularly suffers terrible droughts, California is the only state without a groundwater-management strategy.

This, as you might imagine, has scientists alarmed. "I see a state that is standing on the edge of a cliff," Jay Famiglietti of the University of California's Center for Hydrologic Modelling wrote in National Geographic. "This current drought, if it continues, will be like none other in recent times. The stress on groundwater will be far greater than ever before."

Another UC professor studying water use, Richard Howitt, put it this way: "We're acting like the super rich who have so much money they don't need to balance their chequebook."

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Dr. Howitt and his team estimate the drought is costing the state $2-billion this year alone. The only reason that price tag isn't even higher is because farmers are relying on groundwater to keep their crops growing and sent to market – kind of like taking out a second mortgage, with no prospect of repaying it. Maybe that price tag will be enough to shock California into action. More likely, it'll be the sight of all those depressing brown lawns.

It's California's destiny to be the symbol of one thing or another: paradise or disaster, beach or landslide. Driving down the freeway, with the shiny malls perched beside dry river beds, it's hard not to see it simply as a consequence of a spendthrift today kicking the hell out of tomorrow. California has always been the beacon pointing the way to the future, from the aerospace industry to Silicon Valley. It's showing the way once again, if anyone has the nerve to look.

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