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What a Mega-Drought Would Look (and Taste) Like in California

As the state’s drought reaches the next level, Californians will have to learn to live in a waterless reality.

California has been dreaming—at least when it comes to water. The state has built a massive system of dams, canals, and pumping stations to store and transfer water, all based on the assumption that the wet conditions of the past 150 years are the norm. Oops.

The severe dry spell gripping the state for the last three years is nothing new. Geological records and tree-ring data reveal that over the past few thousand years, California experienced two droughts lasting between 120 and 200 years. As dire as the current situation is (taps at hundreds of households have run dry), it hasn’t reached mega-drought proportions yet; it’d have to persist for at least a decade to attain that ominous status.

To see how the state would fare under chronically parched conditions, Jay Lund, an environmental engineer at the University of California, Davis, and colleagues modeled a 72-year drought. Their computer simulation projected that the agriculture industry, wetlands, and fish would bear the brunt, with the Central Valley getting hit the hardest. “If we manage the situation well,” says Lund, “the whole state will be in pain, but the impacts will be devastating for only some local areas.”

The state, and its economy, doesn’t have to shrivel up and die, so long as humans step up and change their wasteful ways. Here are five lifestyle tweaks Californians can expect if the dry spell progresses to a mega-drought.

1. Waste management

California has long taken a Wild West approach to groundwater, allowing well owners to pump away, unrestricted. Those days are over. In September, Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that for the first time requires local agencies to create groundwater management plans.

It’s a start, but a mega-drought would likely force more innovative—and restrictive—measures. Every year California uses six million acre-feet more water than its rivers and aquifers can sustainably provide, according to a June report by the Pacific Institute and NRDC (which publishes Earthwire). The groups found that the state could save up to 14 million acre-feet of water by capturing stormwater, installing more efficient irrigation systems, and fixing leaks in buildings and under streets.

2. They won’t grow ‘em like they used to

This year, farmers fallowed more than 19,000 acres but had to shell out $6.3 million to pump groundwater due to surface water shortages. In a mega-drought, says Lund, farmers will stop planting corn and wheat, and prioritize the most profitable crops: nuts, fruits, and vegetables. Those costs will be passed on to consumers; you’ll still be able to get your almond fix, but at a premium.

Some good news: Drought conditions might produce tastier, and even healthier, fruits and vegetables. Winemakers are already toasting their 2014 vintages, which they say will be exceptional due to the small and thus flavor-packed grapes that grew this year. Some small tomato, apple, melon, and potato operations are employing the dry-farming technique for the same reason: restricting a plant’s water intake increases the density of sugar and other flavor compounds. Drought-stressed pomegranates may also pack a more healthful punch.

Photo: Steve & Michelle Gerdes

3. Good-bye sod, hello succulants

Water restrictions have produced a spate of brown, crispy lawns across California. Some desperate homeowners are having their grass painted or installing synthetic grass. Others are giving up on the green stuff altogether and planting native vegetation that’s naturally drought-resistant. Many water districts are giving those drought-savvy residents a helping hand, offering them $1 to $4 per square foot of turf removed.

“In the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the incentive program has brought a large uptick in demand,” says Gregory Weber, the executive director of the California Urban Water Conservation Council. Prolonged drought, he says, will spur more Californians to make the switch. Planting native trees, cactuses, and flowers won’t just help keep homeowners water bills down, it’ll also create far healthier urban ecosystems that support pollinating insects, which are also being stung by the drought.

4. Feel the earth move under your feet

In central California, groundwater removal is a downer—literally. The ground has sunk by as much as 10 feet in some areas, wreaking havoc on roads, canals, and other infrastructure. When the rains return, some areas might recover from this subsidence, or gradual caving in of land, and bounce back up. But in other areas, sediments are compacting around the spaces that once held groundwater, reducing the land’s ability to store recharges of fresh water.

Subsidence isn’t the earth’s only response to groundwater depletion. Western Washington University geologist Colin Amos and colleagues reported in Nature earlier this year that it’s also causing uplifting in the Sierra Nevada and may be increasing the rate of tiny earthquakes in the town of Parkfield. Sounds scary, but Amos is quick to clarify that humans aren’t going to trigger the next big one. “We’re talking about one little spot on the San Andreas fault,” he says. “These are small earthquakes—if you were right on top of them, you might feel them.”

5. Enjoying the great outdoors

Drought could make skiing and whitewater rafting a thing of the past, and wildfires could hamper hiking. But Steve Fleischli, head of NRDC’s water program, says a day at the beach might become more pleasant in the future. These days you can catch nasty illnesses (stomach flu, pinkeye, hepatitis, to name a few) from swimming in the ocean. Urban runoff carries these bugs into the sea, but studies have shown you are less likely to contract the diseases during dry conditions than right after it rains, when sewage often mixes with stormwater.

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Wells and bank accounts would have to keep drying up for seven more years before Californians could say they’ve experienced their first modern-day mega-drought. Maybe it won't happen. But history isn’t on our side, so now’s the time to prepare. It’s never a good idea to bury your head in growing quantities of sand.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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