In the southern California city of Santa Barbara, a coastal community of 75,000 about 125 km north of Los Angeles, it is illegal for residents to water their lawns. Farther north, in San Luis Obispo, civic authorities have banned any new commercial or residential construction that will increase water consumption. And in Los Angeles, 21 bylaw enforcement officers, known as Drought Busters, have issued 14,765 warnings and levied 235 fines since last May against individuals caught violating municipal restrictions on water consumption. But despite those austerity measures, California still faces acute water shortages after four consecutive years of severe drought. Said Don Maughan, chairman of the California State Water Resources Control Board: “This is one of the most serious situations we have ever faced.”
As the drought enters its fifth year, state and municipal authorities who manage California’s precious water supply are now considering even more stringent rationing. On Feb. 15, Gov.
Pete Wilson announced the creation of a so-called water bank that will allow the state to buy water from willing sellers and resell it to needy farmers or urban communities. Water shortages threaten to devastate California’s farm sector, which is almost totally dependent upon irrigation, and some analysts predict that crop failures caused by the drought could lead to higher prices for some vegetables, fruits and nuts in U.S. and Canadian stores. The crisis is disrupting industries as diverse as computer-chip manufacturers and pulp-and-paper producers. As well, water rationing in dozens of communities has cramped a California lifestyle famous for swimming pools and hot tubs.
Contemporary California, with its huge cities, sprawling suburbs and lush farmlands, is largely the creation of state engineers who built dams and aqueducts to store water from the mountainous north and move it to the state’s southern regions, which were once desert-like. Indeed, 75 per cent of the state’s water supply is located north of the capital, Sacramento, but 75 per cent of the water is consumed by farmers and urban dwellers who live in the south. Hundreds of dams capture water from northern California rivers and the runoff from the Sierra Nevada mountains, which are located in eastern California. An
elaborate system of aqueducts and canals transports the water south to farms and urban areas.
But below-average rainfall across the state during the past four years has seriously depleted the system. Between 1987 and 1990, the
runoff from rainfall and melting snow amounted to only 53 per cent of the annual average recorded from 1905 to 1990. As a result, the water stored in 155 major state reservoirs had fallen to 32 per cent of average capacity by Feb. 1, 1991, according to the California department of water resources.
Municipalities across California have adopted a mix of mandatory and voluntary controls on consumption. In 1988, Los Angeles banned the use of hoses to wash sidewalks and driveways. Last year, the city passed another bylaw prohibiting homeowners from watering gardens between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. William Ferguson, Santa Barbara’s water development planner, said that his city has cut its monthly consumption by an average of 40 per cent in the past year, primarily by imposing higher rates for water as usage increases. As well, late last year Santa Barbara approved construction of the country’s largest desalination plant. It is scheduled for completion in late 1992, but water from the plant will cost the city 10 times as much as water from alternate sources.
Still, some critics claim that municipal conservation programs will not solve California’s water problems because urban areas account for only 14 per cent of total consumption. The state’s 84,000 farmers use 83 per cent, yet agriculture contributes $43 billion annually to the state’s $700-billion economy. Phillip Isenberg, for one, a state legislator from the Sacramento area, declared that many farmers are growing crops that are completely inappropriate for California’s naturally arid climate. According to state figures, farmers growing alfalfa, a crop used to feed livestock, consume four times as much water annually as the cities of Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco combined. And farmers growing rice are the fourth-largest consumers of water in the state. Said Isenberg: “We tend to believe that water projects allow us to close our eyes to being an arid region.”
Some farmers say that they are now facing economic disaster. Spokesmen for agricultural organizations predicted that up to one million acres, out of 9.5 million under cultivation in California, will not be seeded this year. They contend that overall farm income could remain stable at $17.5 billion because higher prices will offset the revenues lost by taking land out of production. But many individual farmers say that they will lose money this year. Donald Elholm, who farms 5,000 acres in Kern County, 225 km northwest of Los Angeles, said that his water supply will be cut off entirely. As a result, he said, he will be unable to grow any grain, alfalfa or cotton. “I am shutting down my operation completely,” said Elholm. “We knew we might have shortages some day, but we never thought it would be this serious.” Now, the drought is forcing Californians to reassess a lifestyle that has been the envy of millions of people outside the Golden State.
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