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Friday, January 18 , 2019, 11:09 pm | Fair 50º


Kate Voss: Weathering the Dry Spell — How the Drought Harms Californians

From wildfires to power grid strains, California’s drought has created issues for residents and municipalities throughout the state. Californians are no strangers to the rigors of drought. In fact, droughts have plagued the area since long before anyone was around to call themselves Californian. But, recent years have brought dry seasons unlike any in recorded history.

In the face of extreme water shortages and a reducing snowpack, many areas of California have been forced to take desperate measures to tap alternative water sources to prevent a host of disasters such a drought can bring.

Crop failure is one of the most immediate problems that occur when water shortages begin to hit an area. In light of depleted water reserves for irrigation, the tapping of ground table water has become widespread, resulting in the destruction of orchards and the depletion of aquifers. On top of the destruction these practices bring, these unregulated water sources can threaten crop quality and even consumer health if not handled very carefully.

Obviously, the threat to crop production will only serve to raise the price of foodstuffs not just in California but across much of the United States, as well as putting a strain on California’s economy yet further.

Of course, crops aren’t the only vegetation that dies when a drought tightens its grip. Grasses and brush begin to dry out very quickly when water supplies dwindle, bringing a whole new and even more terrifying kind of threat — fire. Wildfires are a threat not just to homes but the infrastructure we all depend upon. Extreme heat can quickly destroy power and phone lines, knocking out electricity and communications across vast stretches of the countryside. On top of the stress this places on the power grid, yet more water has to be wasted in efforts to contain wildfires as they occur.

Needless to say, California takes severe droughts very, very seriously. While many areas have already taken to very strict and demanding regulations to fight the water shortages, Santa Barbara has made it this far relatively unscathed. There was even talk at one point about the local City Council declaring a stage three drought alarm. On March 17, the Santa Barbara County supervisors voted against a measure proposed by the Montecito Water District to prohibit the creation of new wells during the drought. Santa Barbara officials have, however, decided to reactivate an old desalination plant. Part of the issue with the plant though is that, historically, it takes so long to get those plants running, that by the time it would be operational, the drought could be over.

The fact that there was even a discussion about declaring a stage three alarm is worrisome to many California residents. A stage three alarm would open a serious can of worms for Santa Barbara residents and businesses alike. While not the highest emergency level (that being four), a stage three drought alarm brings very severe water conservation laws into effect. Landscape watering, both residential and commercial, is immediately restricted to no more than two scheduled days a week (once a week from November to May). Ornamental lakes and other water features may not be filled or refilled (save for preservation of aquatic life already present). While the obvious loss of beautification is unfortunate, the additional risk for fires in confined, populated areas that this can cause are quite serious.

Washing of vehicles is also prohibited during a level three emergency, save for via car wash businesses that recycle water or use a high pressure and low volume system. The cost of such service is guaranteed to skyrocket as demand arises. Also guaranteed to become costly are regulations requiring any leaks in water lines both external and internal, to be fixed within two days’ time or less.

The biggest problem, though, will be the severe limitations placed on potable water provision across the board. Under level three conditions, no new meters permanent or temporary may be placed and activated. Basically, anyone moving into a newly-constructed home or business location may be without drinkable water for an indefinite period of time.

Also to take a hit are repairs to existing water lines and meters and expansion into newly-developed areas due to very strict restrictions on annexation. With these limitations on irrigation of property, vehicle maintenance and supplying of potable water, the people of Santa Barbara may face not only a very highly increased risk of fires and dehydration-related illnesses but they may also experience inefficiencies with their power grid. Wildfires can damage power cables, and the persistent heat can also lead to more energy being wasted powering air-conditioning units. Californians might expect steeper utility bills as a consequence of these circumstances. The drought has created such an energy crisis in fact, that state officials are even purchasing gas from Canadian provinces, and urging lawmakers to follow the example of Alberta energy providers and consider adopting a deregulated energy market.

Fortunately, for the moment, government officials in Santa Barbara and other affected areas of California are confident that sufficient water supplies to function without declaring a level three alarm for the remainder of 2015 do exist, providing at least another 25 inches of rainfall in the duration. For now, we can only hope for the best, and be prepared to make the most of things if and when level three restrictions come.

— Kate Voss is an environmental and technology blogger from Chicago. She focuses her time writing about how to create a more sustainable society and the new technologies which allow this. The opinions expressed are her own.

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