Voices of the Future (10) - There’s No Crying in Water Issues!

“Seriously, we can’t afford the tears.”

By Sarah Xenophon
Environmental Resource Management Major, graduating Spring 2017


Water issues and water use policies have been a bit of a busy topic since, well the beginning of human collection of climate data. (A quick disclaimer: This is not a post about climate change gloom and doom. However, whether you believe that humans are the cause or not, there are many scientific studies that point to drastically changing global weather patterns and ultimately, climate change.) Recently, with California Governor Jerry Brown mandating a 25% reduction in water use across California, things are getting a little heated…literally. Now into its fourth year of record-breaking drought conditions, California is feeling extreme pressure to reduce its water consumption and save itself from desertification. Shown in the figure below, precipitation has dropped to dangerous levels and the temperature has been on the relative rise since the start of the 20th century.

It’s no surprise that California has implemented such a drastic policy to combat the declining conditions in the state, but with the long-standing water allocation policies in the west, the reduction has a variety of effects on different individuals and rights owners. This will be explained further in the next section of the blog, but for now, all you need to know is how water allocations work and what might be causing the shortage issues at their roots.

Water allocation, in its simplest form, is a long line for a limited resource. There are many straws in every natural waterway running through the west and as populations rise, more new straws are added. Allocations are basically claims on the water that strengthen with age. The older your claim, the higher on the list you fall for rights to the water and the more likely it is for you to receive all of the water you need. However, in recent years, it has been increasingly difficult to keep track of who is using what water and allocations have been found to be consistently higher than the actual amount of water available. In other words, more than 100% of water that is meant to be allocated is being allocated. This leaves a recurring deficit in waters that are required for other prescribed uses.

How could this be in the age of science you ask? The answer is poor quantification of actual water supply and tracking of uses. Policy makers are relying on often-incorrect and out-of-date information to make decisions on whose use should be restricted and where it is most necessary to show concern. It makes it more of an accounting issue rather than a rain dance type of situation to rectify the over-allocation issue. To learn more about over-allocation in California and what needs to be changed in order to make the policies already in place more effective, Waterblog has some excellent explanations and data sets to clarify the situation.

New Policy Outlook:

Let me just start by stating the obvious. A 25% water reduction in modern California is a lot of water. In fact, it’s a reduction of around 9.5 billion gallons per day, which is almost 3.5 trillion gallons per year according to the USGS. To achieve such a drastic cutback, the Governor has declared several water saving directives. Such directives include lawn replacements, consumer goods replacements, reduced irrigation on certain properties, and irrigation bans on other certain public lands.  Fifty million square feet of grass lawns are on the chopping block under this new policy. Grass is to be replaced by native, drought resistant plants that require far less irrigation and homes are prohibited from irrigating unless they use water efficient drip systems. Golf courses and other highly irrigated properties, like campuses and cemeteries, are to reduce their water consumption. There is also a state rebate program in place working to have consumers replace household appliances with more water and energy efficient models.

If you’ve come to the conclusion that most of these reductions are focused on the activities of home and private landowners, you’ll be glad to know that the locals did too. Many Californians who are most affected by these cutbacks are angry with Governor Brown for the restrictions, pointing fingers and blowing whistles at big agriculture. After all, around 80% of California’s water is used for irrigation in agriculture. What many people might not know is that they are already on it! Plus, having borne the harshest economic hit caused by this drought, farmers are more than eager to find ways to reduce their water use and thus their resource cost. Allocations have been reduced, water management plans must be submitted, water usage reports shall be collected for better understanding of where water goes, and local water suppliers working with the California government will enforce these directives. 

Why do I care? (And so should you!):

Well to start, I can’t get enough of water-related education in my life.  Water issues are to me as perms were to rock stars in the eighties. But in all seriousness, global water stewardship and ensuring clean water for future generations is the epitome of my college career. Aside from my personal mission to save the waters of the earth, you can see from the earlier video and make educated inferences that water issues in California, or anywhere on this planet for that matter, are really bio-indicators for potential water issues elsewhere. With an exponentially growing human population, there is a high demand for increased agriculture. Where there is a need for more agriculture, there is an intrinsic need for more clean water.

If California loses the capacity to supply roughly $37.5 billion in produce annually, more than any other state currently does, this agricultural production falls on the shoulders of other states, or is removed from the net US food production. The obvious direct impacts would include rising prices in products ranging from veggies to nuts to oils to everyday staples. It would also cause an increase in water use in other states trying to fill the hole California has left. This might not seem like a bad idea until you find out that the water tables in many other states have also dropped and added agriculture would cause more stressors on local watersheds.  Some of the most prominent water issues in my home state, Pennsylvania, include nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment runoff from you guessed it, agriculture. Seeing as it’s already a tough situation to control, a high demand on farming would only intensify the problems. To avoid such increased stressors on our local environments and on your local watersheds, the best course of action would be to contact your local and national governments and voice your concerns about the growing water issues. Along with that, in the modern era of NGO lobbyists, joining agencies like the Nature Conservancy, Water for People, or any number of other non-profits that are concerned with water conservation would be a great way to become more active.

Think you’ve got better ideas? Lay down the law and contact your legislator!

Tip Amount


A mostly reasonable article tainted by false claims and hyperbole! The last few years have not been unique, and precipitation rates are not the lowest on record; look at your own chart! There are years with lower individual year rates, and look at 1918-1938 and 1976-1996 periods for similar or worse droughts. Read The Visual Display of Quantitative Information for advise on how to construct and read a graph!

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