Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

California Gov. Gavin Newsom talks with local and state officials during a visit to the Antioch Water Treatment Plant Antioch, Calif., on Aug. 11.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

As reservoirs go dry and soils grow parched across the southwestern United States, the state of California is promoting a sweeping drought response plan that it says will usher in a new era of plentiful water, mainly through trapping rainwater for later use.

With a population larger than Canada’s and an economy larger than those of all but the richest of the world’s countries, California occupies the continent’s most important position in the response to a decades-long drought in the region – one that has created a deepening sense of alarm about the future availability of water. By the state’s own calculation, a hotter and drier climate could erase a 10th of its water supplies by 2040.

But on Thursday, California Governor Gavin Newsom said it’s time to move “away from a scarcity mindset to one more of abundance,” which he said would mean directing resources and energies “to create more water, to capture more water.”

Crews significantly slow spread of California wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park

The new plan predicts that the amount of water available to the state each year will decrease by six to nine million acre-feet, compared with current levels. That’s roughly 10 per cent of what California currently uses, and roughly two to three times the annual consumption of the city of Los Angeles.

To compensate, the plan describes a strategy for securing an additional 6.9 million acre-feet by 2040 – but only 7 per cent through conservation measures. Another 26 per cent would come from a major expansion in water recycling, while some modest volumes would be generated by new desalination plants.

The bulk of the anticipated gains, roughly two-thirds of the total, would come from storing additional volumes of rain runoff and stormwater.

As the climate warms, less precipitation is falling as snow and more as rainfall, which “can then quickly leave the landscape. It isn’t a reservoir the way snow is,” said David Lewis, a watershed management expert with the University of California Cooperative Extension offices in Marin and Napa counties. “That’s largely why the technologies of capture and storage are being explored and expanded.”

Mr. Newsom pledged new efforts to sweep away regulatory barriers to water-related projects, calling the current timelines for permits “ridiculous.” His office has also renewed a push to legislate a 2045 target for carbon neutrality.

“Let’s wake up to what’s going on,” the governor said Thursday, pointing to the mounting toll of extreme weather.

“We have to recognize the world we’re living in.”

The U.S.’s freshwater crisis could lead Washington to look northward. Is Canada ready to quench its thirst?

But critics say it’s not clear the new California plan fully grapples with the scale of change to the climate that is under way. For example, it describes expanding and repairing dams to capture more water, including at the San Luis Reservoir. That reservoir has fallen to historic lows in recent years, and currently stands at 30 per cent of its capacity.

The plan proposes conservation measures that underscore the immensity of the problem. By 2030, it says, California will remove 46 square kilometres of lawn, an expanse of turf three times the size of downtown Los Angeles, at a cost of US$1-billion. But that effort will spare just 66,000 acre-feet of water, less than 1 per cent of the total anticipated gains. (An acre-foot is 1.2 million litres.)

The plan also contemplates fallowing up to a million acres of farmland by 2040 – 12.5 per cent of what exists in California – but provides no estimate of how much water that could save.

Recent scholarship suggests the decline in water availability is already happening at a rapid pace. Earlier this year, researchers from several institutions – the Desert Research Institute, the University of California, Merced, and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego – found that warmer and drier conditions are creating a greater “atmospheric thirst.” In some parts of the U.S. southwest, that thirst alone is evaporating away 8 per cent to 15 per cent more water than in the past.

Parched soil and plants are consuming greater quantities of what water does appear, said Deirdre Des Jardins, a specialist in computational modelling who is the director of California Water Research, an organization that frequently contributes to the state’s policy discussions.

“There’s just overall less runoff in the watershed,” Ms. Des Jardins said. She criticized the state of California’s reliance on digital models that use historical trends to predict future water availability, which she said creates “magic water” – an illusion of future supply.

It’s likely, she said, that California’s available water has already shrunk by 10 per cent. Failure to respond appropriately, she warned, could lead to a situation like the one already taking place in Mexican cities like Monterrey, a metropolis of five million whose three reservoirs have gone dry, leaving many homes without running water.

“It’s a warning sign about what happens if you don’t look at the worst case under climate change and plan for it,” she said.

Achieving a meaningful reduction in water usage will require confronting long-standing lapses in California’s apportionment to water rights-holders, some of which have junior entitlements that give them lesser priority. The state needs “increased capacity to halt water diversions when the flows in streams diminish,” the new plan says. And it promises the state will “consider adopting regulations” for cutting off some allocations in years when droughts have not been declared.

What’s needed is a better system, under which California could “give people water when it’s available – and tell them they can’t have it when it’s not,” said Michael Kiparsky, a water policy expert who is director at the UC Berkeley School of Law’s Wheeler Water Institute.

Doing that will be hard, he said. “It’s going to result in a lot of legal battles, and it will test the political will of the governor and the legislature.”

Other changes will test the willingness of Californians to sacrifice established parts of their lives, including the grass around their homes.

“Grass is a luxury we’ve had for the past 100 years. But we may not be able to afford that luxury anymore,” said Mike Garcia, the owner of Enviroscape L.A., a Redondo Beach contractor that creates low-water gardens.

There may be no other choice. For as long as anyone can remember, water has flowed whenever Californians opened their taps. “The time is coming when that may not happen,” Mr. Garcia said.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe