Water in California

Here are some things we learned from Introduction to Water In California by David Carle:

  • manufacturing 28 million water bottles a year for US sales required 17 million barrels of oil.

  • making one-time, plastic water bottles takes three times as much water as went inside each container (and produced a lot of carbon dioxide, 2.5 million tons)

  • an acre-foot of water, a standard measurement, is equal to 325,851 gallons, “which would cover a football field one foot deep.” A common estimate is that an acre-foot meets the domestic needs of five to eight people

  • snow that falls when it’s extra cold can contain significantly less water per cubic foot as snow that falls closer to 32 degrees

  • about seven million acre-feet make it to the state aquifers each year. About 400,000 acre feet come off the Eastern Sierra, averaging enough water per year for about 3.2 million people

  • “coastal redwoods specialize in growing massive on long, slow drinks of harvested summer fog”

  • 55% of all the country’s produce is grown in California

  • almost all of the eared grebes in North America use the Salton Sea at some point
  • There are an estimated 6.9 million dogs and 7.7 million cats in California

Great book, I’d recommend it. The topic of water in California is so complex, involving so many agencies and mandated plans and districts and projects and regulatory commissions. The most alarming fact in this book is that the twentieth century was California’s third or fourth wettest century of the past four thousand years. So all our plans, desperate as they often are, may be built on rosy assumptions that are unlikely to hold.

Since I got to California in 2004 and read Cadillac Desert, I’ve been trying to understand California’s water system. In the far north of the state, roaring rivers run through redwood forests and down to the sea, and it’s wet almost every day. In the southeast of the state, there are places where it hardly ever rains. A big feature on present day maps of the state is the Salton Sea, a “new” lake (though it’s been flooding there on and off for thousands of years). A big feature on old maps of the state is the Tulare Lake, which has now vanished. The Tulare aquifer is still used to grow cotton, one of the most water intensive crops you can plant. Across the center of the state runs a mountain system that traps huge amounts of moisture as snow, and still has at least one glacier. The central valley of the state was once an intermittent wetland, there were times when you could’ve almost paddled a boat from Bakersfield to Sacramento.

There’s not nearly enough water for southern California in southern California, that’s why our tap water has to travel three hundred miles. Despite that, through our produce and bottled water like Arrowhead, we export water. Yet turn on your tap, and out comes the water. It’s a miracle (and maybe some kind of crime, as the movie Chinatown suggests).

I see Slate Star Codex wrote a piece in 2015 about how much water goes to alfalfa, for feeding cows. California also exports water in the form of meat, which I guess is not ideal.


2 Comments on “Water in California”

  1. This was a helpfully concise post. I feel more knowledgeable! Thanks 🙂

  2. ShiraDest says:

    “we export water.”

    CA exports water?

    What feels dreadfully wrong with this picture?

    Thank you for this information, I think. I was depressed after reading Cady Desert, and then being told by a native of Fresno, CA that there really is not water problem. Then I watched a documentary based on the film China and started wondering if anything can be done about it, in any case.


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