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California Drought And The U.S. Food Supply

The drought emergency in California, and what it may mean for the nation’s food supply.

With the edge of Folsom Lake, Calif., more than 100 yards away, Gina, 8, left, and Sydney, 9, Gerety walk on rocks that are usually at the waters edge, Thursday Jan. 9, 2014. Gov. Jerry Brown said he would meet Thursday with his recently formed drought task force to determine if an emergency declaration is necessary as California faces a serious water shortage. Reservoirs in the state have dipped to historic lows after one of the driest calendar years on record. (AP)

With the edge of Folsom Lake, Calif., more than 100 yards away, Gina, 8, left, and Sydney, 9, Gerety walk on rocks that are usually at the waters edge, Thursday Jan. 9, 2014. Gov. Jerry Brown said he would meet Thursday with his recently formed drought task force to determine if an emergency declaration is necessary as California faces a serious water shortage. Reservoirs in the state have dipped to historic lows after one of the driest calendar years on record. (AP)

They are praying for rain in California.  And facing drought.  A drought emergency, Governor Jerry Brown declared last week.  Worst in years.  Winter weather so warm you’ve got a confused bear wandering through skiers on the slopes last week.  So dry that farmers are thinning herds and letting fields go fallow.  Wondering which crops to lose.  Up in the Sierra Nevada, only 20 percent of the normal snow pack.  Less to melt, less to drink.  It’s just dry.  This hour On Point:  fire, food, climate and the drought emergency in California.

– Tom Ashbrook


Bettina Boxall, water and environmental issues reporter for The Los Angeles Times. (@boxall)

Jeanie Jones, deputy drought manager and interstate resources manager for the California Department of Water Resources.

Heather Cooley, co-director of the water program at the Pacific Institute. Co-author of “The World’s Water,” “A Twenty-First Century U.S. Water Policy” and “The Water-Energy Nexus In the American West.”

Daniel A. Sumner, director at the University of California Agricultural Issues Center and Frank H. Buck, Jr. Professor, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Davis.

From Tom’s Reading List

Los Angeles Times: California declares drought emergency — “Brown’s drought proclamation follows California’s driest year on record and comes amid dropping reservoir levels and no sign of relief in the near future. Some Northern California communities dependent on shrinking local supplies have already imposed rationing and others are asking residents to eliminate outdoor watering. Many Central Valley irrigation districts are warning growers to expect severe delivery cuts this spring and summer.”

Significant Figures: What Californians Can Expect from the Drought – “It is not too late for some big storms off the Pacific Ocean to bring relief. But the odds are against it andcurrent meteorological conditions are not encouraging. If the rest of the winter months are dry, or even of average wetness, the state will have much less water than normal, and much less than water users want – from cities to farms to our natural ecosystems.”

TIME: Hundred Years of Dry: How California’s Drought Could Get Much, Much Worse — “Californians need to be ready, because if some scientists are right, this drought could be worse than anything the state has experienced in centuries. B. Lynn Ingram, a paleoclimatologist at the University of California, Berkeley, has looked at rings of old trees in the state, which helps scientists gauge precipitation levels going back hundreds of years. (Wide tree rings indicate years of substantial growth and therefore healthy rainfall, while narrow rings indicate years of little growth and very dry weather.) She believes that California hasn’t been this dry since 1580, around the time the English privateer Sir Francis Drake first visited the state’s coast.”

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  • Brian Cartwright

    In thinking about drought, we should look carefully at the condition of our soil: what are the attributes that make it possible for soil to store water and support vegetation when rainfall is low? Look at the farms and landscapes that survive drought and you find sponge-like carbon-rich organic matter, the best protection our land can have,

    Soil carbon is the missing piece of much of our environmental policies; it’s been depleted by the excesses of industrial agriculture and by degradation of grasslands which are increasingly turning to desert. (And that carbon ended up in the atmosphere, by the way.)

    The hopeful news is that when we restore soil’s carbon content and diverse vegetation, water cycles can return to normal, first in small areas, then in larger regions. This is the sensible, down-to-earth solution for the land and the climate.

    • Labropotes

      Right on. Adding 1/100 of an inch of organic material per year to half of Earth’s arable land would reduce atmospheric carbon to levels normal a few hundred years ago. Plants naturally respond to high concentrations of CO2 by producing less leaf surface in proportion to their root systems. Carbon incorporated into root systems remains in soil as organic material much longer than carbon in the stems and leaves, which rot at the surface. By breeding or engineering plants with even larger root systems we can use solar energy to sequester carbon in the soil, which makes it more fertile, more biologically diverse, and more drought resistant.

      • Brian Cartwright

        Yes, drought resistant and flood resistant as well; just plain resilient!

        I hope the panelists will consider the fact that more water is stored in the soil than in streams and plants, so resilience in the soil is better insurance than dams.

        • Brian Cartwright

          No, they didn’t mention soil ONCE that I noticed. Pretty dismaying that these experts are looking for more reservoirs yet ignoring the biggest reservoir of all.

    • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

      Biochar is a big part of the solution.

      But it won’t help California, here and now.

      • Brian Cartwright

        No, it won’t create water supply, but it’s very effective at storing soil moisture and nutrients, also at filtration of runoff.

      • TFRX

        Biochar? You’ve had my mom’s meatloaf? (/rimshot)

        But seriously, a few words on the specifics of that term wouldn’t hurt us n00bs.

    • Brian Cartwright

      Some unconventional but very sensible comments are also here:


  • Bluejay2fly

    We waste water in this nation. A good example is not mandating the recycling of water during hydrofracturing. Perhaps even reclaiming water from the ocean would be a good place to start as well.

  • OnPointComments

    This is a classic tale of activist government run amok…

    For the sake of the smelt, California farmland lies fallow.


    You have almost certainly never heard of the Delta smelt and, in all honesty, nor should you have. As fish go, it is undistinguished…Human beings, the production of food, and the distribution of life-enabling water can all be damned, it seems. All hail the smelt, the most important animal in America.

    The Central Valley’s woes began in earnest in 2007, when the hardline Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) won a lawsuit against California’s intricate water-delivery system…the NRDC has long wished for farming operations in the valley to be curtailed on the peculiar grounds that it isn’t native to the area. What the NRDC could never have achieved legislatively, it achieved via the good old American tradition of lawyering up and smiling at a man in a robe…In 2007, the pumps were turned down; the Delta’s water output was lowered dramatically, contingent now upon the interests of a fish; and the farms that rely on the system in order to grow their crops were thrown into veritable chaos. Predictably, a man-made drought began.

    This is a classic tale of activist government run amok…As a direct result of the overwrought concern that a few well-connected interest groups and their political allies have displayed for a fish — and of a federal Endangered Species Act that is in need of serious revision — hundreds of billions of gallons of water that would in other areas have been sent to parched farmland have been diverted away from the Central Valley and deliberately pushed out under the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Pacific Ocean, wasted forever, to the raucous applause of Luddites, misanthropes, and their powerful enablers.

    Republican representative George Radanovich of California proposed the Drought Alleviation Act, which would have funded a fish hatchery to replace any smelt that were killed by the pumps, thereby allowing a return to normalcy. The House’s Democratic leadership refused even to discuss the bill…In the same year, Devin Nunes, another California Republican, introduced the Turn On the Pumps Act. It was defeated in the Democratic-led House…In 2012, the Republican House passed another bill, H.R. 1837, which would effectively have exempted the smelt from the ESA. It was dead on arrival when it reached the Senate.

    And so nothing happens. Each year, farmers sit and wait — praying for rain, and hoping that the federal government will send them a few drops of water so that they do not have to leave perfectly good land fallow and tell their employees that this month there will be no work. Of all our present troubles, California’s farming woes are perhaps the most inexplicably sourced and the most easily fixed.

    • HonestDebate1

      I hope someone takes note of your comment and gives the memo to Mr. Ashbrook to discus on the show.

    • Labropotes

      I like other lifeforms. Effective protection of species is something I am willing to pay and vote for. Before europeans harnessed rivers for power, there were large seasonal fish runs in almost every North American river that met the sea.

      Whatever you think of protecting one of the last such natural wonders, doing so is not affecting the Sierra Nevada snowpack.

    • nj_v2

      ^ Wherein the ecologically ignorant partisans reflexively distort issues to fit the right-wing political agenda. Guest Ms. Boxall just noted that water diversions for ecological reasons have played no role in the current drought,

  • James Patrick Dwyer Jr.

    We must develop the capacity to recycle every drop of water we use, every drop. Also it would seem that southern California, being in a desert, would capture every bit of excess water when it does rain there, it does not. We can and must do a better job of water management.

  • Human2013

    Petri dish, anyone?

  • Human2013

    Many people like to point out that millions of people around the world have been lifted out of poverty. This is almost entirely due to urbanization..basically the poor moving to city factories to enrich the rich. The problem here is that food is almost soley dependent on retail. We seem to miss the point that most Farms are now in the hands of big business or conglomerates. Moving to urban areas has seriously put our food supply in danger and more importantly, we could see the day that millions of hungry people are in densely populated areas.

  • Coastghost

    Hmmm? No transcript offered for Gov. Brown’s drought declaration, no link to any transcript of it?

    It’s not easy to find online, even though issued only ten days ago.

    The fifth “whereas” in the declaration I found an example of stunning candor, and if I heard correctly, Brown’s extemporaneous remarks at his announcement put it even more starkly:
    “WHEREAS the magnitude of the severe drought conditions presents threats beyond the control of the services, personnel, equipment and facilities of any single local government and require the combined forces of a mutual aid region or regions to combat . . .”
    As an exercise in extrapolation, exactly the same could be said for most Federal efforts towards implementing domestic policies, of all kinds: is our Federal government well-informed and knowledgeable about its own limitations? Or: why leave it as a tacit assumption? why do our Federales so seldom admit their own inability to solve any number of persistent troubles that citizens could take it upon themselves to address, were they not being coddled or flattered or lied to by the Federal government?

    • jefe68

      Nice anti-government screed. You might want to look up the Dust Bowl and how that worked out for the citizens.

      During President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office in 1933, governmental programs designed to conserve soil and restore the ecological balance of the nation were implemented. Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes established the Soil Erosion Service in August 1933 under Hugh Hammond Bennett. In 1935, it was transferred and reorganized under the Department of Agriculture and renamed the Soil Conservation Service.


      • Coastghost

        Thanks for the compliment, jefe, but requisite specificity, please: “anti-Federal”, not “anti-government”. (I am persuaded the Federal govt. has usurped and usurped and usurped from the various States since before the days of either of the Roosevelts.)
        I’m sure the Feds do some things right, but inasmuch as I haven’t finished my coffee yet, none leap instantly to mind.

        • jefe68

          You can start with the Dust bowl, after you finish your coffee.

          • Coastghost

            Even without finishing my coffee, I’m sure I would be reluctant to credit the Feds with curing the drought that resulted in the Dust Bowl. Certainly, the Feds were in no position to forestall the drought.
            Frankly, I don’t know how much of the effort to deal with soil management once the drought had arrived was top-down (Federal), how much was bottom-up (states).
            The TVA may be one example of Federal success, as far as it goes (bringing electrification to southern Appalachia).

          • jefe68

            Actually they did.

          • Coastghost

            I would credit members of that generational cohort rather than the Federal government in its institutional grandeur. (We’ll have to wait and see how Millennials rise to this fresh occasion.)

    • northeaster17

      While the Federales or the rest of the government can not make it rain, it is the job of these public servants to work towards equitable allocation of the resources available. Until the crisis has past. That is not coddling. Browns fifth declaration is a nod to reality and not pass for private citizens ie corporations to be in charge of where resources end up.

      • Coastghost

        Certainly, citizens themselves are capable of addressing problems without Federal intervention on each and every occasion. Indeed, I can wonder from here why California’s generation of Earth-loving Boomers (including whatever proportion of the Dust Bowl migrants’ descendants that jefe68 cited) never spontaneously practiced water conservation over the past forty years. It’s never been the case that California could annex the Colorado River in its entirety.

    • hennorama

      Coastghost — there’s a link to Gov. Brown’s proclamation in the Los Angeles Times article “From Tom’s Reading List,” above.

      Here it is:

  • wauch

    You think water stock/flow pressures are bad now wait till we exploit the shale gas beneath us using north of 5.1 million gallons per well. Here in Ohio the industry is already using >30% of county resident’s demands.

  • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

    Here is what we can no longer do:


    In places where they use well water, the aquifers are incredibly low. That is fossil water that will take a very long time (centuries?) to recharge.

    The runoff from farm land in California contains a toxic mix of fertilizers and pesticides – because the soil is not able to absorb the water. It is a desert…


    Los Angeles has concrete lined drainage so all the rain they do get sluices straight out to the ocean. Wassup wid’ ‘dat?

    Our agriculture is unsustainable. People living in the drought area better get ready for a lot of trouble.

    • NrthOfTheBorder

      We’re starting to encounter – having pushed things to the edge – the limits of perpetual growth as we know it.

      We’re on an unsustainable path, and there we have it folks, the meaning of “unsustainable”.

  • NrthOfTheBorder

    One hopes this is a blip, an out of the ordinary occurrence and not part of a longer trend.

    If the latter were going to have to concentrate on maximizing our food production from a wide variety of places – all in an effort – dare I say it ? – to dodge the accumulating effects and very real consequences of climate change.

  • Charles Vigneron

    Here’s 2013 and 2014 satellite photography of the Pacific coast from Professor Cliff Mass blog today. Last year and current conditions.


  • Bennie BER

    California looking for its water? I have seen some of it in the produce section of my supermarket! and in the wine section, too…

  • alsordi

    The situation in California exemplifies a critical factor in Israeli expansion and its occupation of neighboring property and even the AIPAC push for the Iraq War. WATER.
    Eventually, the water situation will become so desperate that Isreali will have to face not only Palestinians, but Syrians, Jordans and other thirsty neighbors. This is the reason destabilizing and disarming these countries is important to Israel.

    • jefe68


      • alsordi

        Not “what”… its spelled… WATER.

        • jefe68

          Israel has nothing to do with this show.

          • alsordi

            I guess for people like you, we should take the “global” out of global warming.
            A major drought in the M.E. will create a regional war.

          • jefe68

            You guess wrong. Your comment had nothing to do with climate change.

          • alsordi

            Its global.

          • George Potts

            Global warming has been cancelled because there hasn’t been any warming over the last 20 years. You have to use the new term, “Climate change” which can be used to prove anything.

          • hennorama

            jefe68 — actually, Israeli agricultural water use practices and water management technology are relevant. They are experts in drip irrigation, and are exporting their technology and practices.

            For example, “Israeli water tech comes to rescue of EU farmers

            “The Netafim drip company is leading a European project to ensure that crops are irrigated in the most productive way possible”


          • jefe68

            If I’m not mistaken that technology is used by some of the California’s wine growers.

            I think it’s pretty obvious that the comment I was responding to had nothing to do with what you are on about.

          • hennorama

            jefe68 — fair enough.

    • George Potts

      NASA is sending Rovers to Mars to look for water. Hopefully we will be able to use some Martian water here on earth.

      • alsordi

        Too late, by then, Israeli would have already unleashed their infamous “Sampson Option”. No more demand for water… from anyone. Except maybe the cockroaches.

      • nj_v2

        Maybe you can hop a ride on the next flight. Maybe the Martians would think you’re actually funny.

        • jefe68

          As his eyes pop from the atmosphere.

  • George Potts

    Chris Christie doesn’t like California, so he is causing the drought.

    • MrNutso

      So it’s pretty simple then.

  • creaker

    Wasn’t the Sahara created by hitting a tipping point?

  • Unterthurn

    Drought will effect world supply. Consider almonds or walnuts. This will be most noticeable in prices next Christmas when the winter backing season begins.

  • George Potts

    A picture of “environmenalist” hypocrite Al Gore’s home in California. Notice the native succulents that minimize water use.


    Oh, not that. Notice the grass that requires constant watering.

    • nj_v2

      Yet another victim of GDS*. Professional help is called for.

      Global climate change doesn’t exist because Al Gore has a big house. Who knew?

      (*Gore Derangement Syndrome)

  • Chris

    FYI: AG and cattle use 75% water, households use less than 10%. So while home conservation is needed, the bigger focus should be on changing farm practices and phasing out cattle.

    • NrthOfTheBorder

      Or the production of rice in the Sacramento Delta.

    • Roy-in-Boise

      Solar furnaces and desalination for domestic water use in the coastal cities. As the flow of the Colorado slows, agribusiness will inevitably have to roll back. Raising cattle in the land of “no summer rain” is a stretch of resources.

  • creaker

    Climate change drives land use change – much of CA farm land is that only because of imported water now. This land may no longer be viable farm land in the future.

    • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

      “Climate change drives land use change – much of CA farm land is that only because of imported water now. This land is no longer be viable farm land.”

      I agree – and no need for the modifier.

  • George Potts

    Is anyone claiming that the Sahara desert was caused by humans?

  • nj_v2

    With the human population beyond the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet’s ability to provide the basic essentials of life; with all major ecosystems in crisis or under stress; with unsustainable, corporation agriculture dependent on fossil fuels and synthetic fertilizer and pesticide inputs; with global climate change diverting resources; with national political leadership subverted by short-term, selfish, corporate interests…

    …crises like these are simply symptoms of a population which has outgrown its niche. The laws of nature are immutable. This is just the beginning.

    • George Potts

      What population of humans will be our maximum? What will cause this inflection point?

      Has human population growth slowed? What is the rate of slowing? When will we peak based on these projection?

      • TFRX

        Your questions might be taken seriously if you were merely investing in one of those Intrade things, where people wager on predictions of everything imaginable.

        For those of us living in the real world, the trollery is obvious.

  • eco-promos
  • George Potts

    Who doesn’t think that California won’t start to use desalinization when they run out of drinking water?

    • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

      Way too expensive.
      Uses way too much energy.
      Takes too long to build.

      • George Potts

        It costs $0.29 per 100 gallons of water. You are an idiot who doesn’t want to ask questions.

        If we used only desalinated water for everyone in the country, it would cost the same as running our refrigerators.

  • creaker

    I wonder how long this will drag out due to subsidized crop insurance? For a business, the point isn’t producing food, it’s producing profit. If farmers can make money from failed crops, will they care if they produce or not?

  • nj_v2

    Really?! Limiting car washing to every other day is being proffered as a solution?

    It’s an overused analogy, but rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic comes to mind.

    People need to stop thinking that making trivial lifestyle changes is going to avert or mitigate intractable problems which stem from the entrenched structural and systemic aspects of the way the entire society is organized.

    • J__o__h__n

      Shouldn’t they encourage more car washing as that will make it rain?

    • Coastghost

      Truly: from the sound of things, Californians need to wonder whether they can get by washing their cars every other month or whether they’d be prudent to wash their cars only four times a year.

    • George Potts

      Let them eat tofu!

    • George Potts

      The worship of money as a mechanism for efficiency is wrong. Harvard and Stanford professors need to be put in charge and tell us all to eat garbanzo beans and kale, bike to work, use one sheet of toilet paper, flush only on #2s (if it is yellow, let it mellow).

      Too many uninformed people are allowed to make choices like cigarettes, plastic bags, plastic water bottles, and steak.

      Until the better education among us can make ever decision, we will continue down the path of unenlightenment.

    • BHA_in_Vermont

      Every other day? Cars don’t even need to be washed weekly let alone every other day. Actually they don’t NEED to be washed EVER. Sure, the paint looks nicer all waxed and shiny but it will not suffer from not being washed during the useful life of the vehicle. And by “life”, I’m talking 15, 20 years in S.C..

      • nj_v2

        My car gets washed when it rains.

    • Bluejay2fly

      How about our obsessive compulsion of showering daily for people who do not even do anything all day to work up a sweat.

    • NrthOfTheBorder

      Telling people to limit their water use by reducing the number of times they wash their car is more of the circus’ ‘n bread mode of coddling the public. One’s immediate reaction is “it can’t be that serious”.

      As to your larger point, you’re right on.

      Too many people suffering from appetite of one form or another which includes just about everyone on the planet

  • creaker

    Infrastructure is all very nice, but who pays for it?

  • TFRX

    Tom, you grew up in a Plains state. Can you offer any insight on the changes, perhaps from stories your grandparents or such, from the “rain follows the plow” axiom to the post-Dust Bowl New Deal soil conservation methods and strategies?

    This is a big change in mindset. I have no idea if it’s taken hold in California agriculture because they didn’t have a Dust Bowl.

  • George Potts

    Climate didn’t change until we started burning fossil fuels. The earth has a fever.

    Bike or die!

    No more fossil fuels. Only windmills and solar panels. Anything else is a crime against the goddess Gaia.

  • Minor Heretic

    The talk of variation ties in with chaos theory. Force a complex system (such as a climate) from one state to another and it doesn’t go smoothly. It will spend time in a meta-stable state when it jumps back and forth between the initial state and the final state, with overshooting in either direction. Turbulence. Drought-flood-drought.

    I forgot who said it: Civilization exists with the permission of geology, revocable at any time.

  • George Potts

    Too much rain will cause drought.

    • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

      Evaporation increases in a drought, because once the ground dries out (which cools the area) it then evaporates faster. The extra water vapor then precipitates in higher quantities elsewhere.

      • MrNutso

        And in fact at a certain point under drought conditions, soil will repel rather than absorb water. Thus during the infrequent rainfall that occurs under drought conditions, rainfall runoff actually increases.

        • TFRX

          I’ve been in Phoenix in August. I think I’ve seen that in action.

        • BHA_in_Vermont

          Yep, hard and dry, absorbs water just as well a your dried out kitchen sponge when dropped on a spill. Not much happens until it is fully wet, then squeezed out.

  • tbphkm33

    I suspect this will lead to some of the most massive public works projects ever seen – make the Hover Dam look like a sandbox. First, canals already draining water into southern California will be covered, a ton of water is lost by the canals not being covered. Secondly, continental size water reallocation, bringing water from as far away as the Great Lakes into the newly dry regions.

    China is already working mega water piping projects like this. There are few alternatives for the US in embarking on similar projects.

    Of course, this will spur a lot of economic development … depending upon how much crony capitalism will skim off the top. Distinct price in having a corrupt economic system.

    • George Potts

      Maybe the guys who did the Big Dig in Boston can make billions with their substandard concrete in CA.

    • NrthOfTheBorder

      Not a pretty picture.

  • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

    The tree ring record (as mentioned on the air) show this is the worst drought since ~1580.

  • Coastghost

    Ms. Jones seems to be suggesting that Federally-instituted policies (courtesy here of the Army Corps of Engineers, dispatched by well-meaning Federal regulators) helped foment the conditions of the present drought by insisting that reservoirs operate according to a single (Federally-imposed) standard.

  • BHA_in_Vermont

    I grew up in Southern California, it is a desert that has been converted by irrigation. Only native plants will grow without irrigation, all those lawns would be dust without it.

    The history of water in S.C. is that people bought water rights from the north and Colorado River system. It flows through pipes and OPEN aqueducts to give water to all those people. Open aqueducts means large losses to evaporation. The “rivers” near the coast are cement lined conduits, dry most of the time, they really serve only to shuttle off water in the event of big rain storms.

    The problem? There are ~ 23 million people living in an artificial “oasis”. Too many people using too much water. Millions of swimming pools holding up to 25,000 gallons of water, evaporating minute by minute. Sprinklers running in the mid day sun, water evaporating before most of it can sink in, watering the paved streets because the sprinklers aren’t set up properly, running on a schedule regardless of the actual weather, including when it is raining. Wash your car with a running hose, maybe you turn it off between sections, maybe not. After all, the water always flows, why worry about it?

    Golf courses are economic engines so they should have hundreds of acres of lush green grass? Recycled water may be the case for fountains, but not for the fairways and greens. Anything that manages to soak into the ground is not recoverable for reuse.

    • NrthOfTheBorder

      Without imported water the Los Angeles basin is capable of supporting a population of only 250,000.

  • ELKennelly

    Agreed with Chris below: Cattle-raising (for both meat and dairy) in particular, and animal agribusiness generally, uses massive amounts of water, and all for food products we do not need at all (and aren’t even good for us).
    Shifting from animal-based foods to plant-based foods should be at the forefront of any environmental policy, at both the individual and institutional levels.

    • TFRX

      For me, the kicker is that I don’t know how much of a shift we might get out of simply not allowing agribidness costs to be offput elsewhere, to be socialized and borne by all of us at large.

  • George Potts

    Consumption USgal/person/day
    Consumption litre/person/day
    Desalinated Water Cost US$/person/day




    UN recommended minimum

    • hennorama

      Sources, please.

      • jefe68

        This might help. Those numbers seem a little on skewed side of BS.

        The Pacific Institute analysis finds that the cost to produce water from a desalination plant is high but subject to significant variability, with recent estimates for plants proposed in the state ranging from $1,900 to more than $3,000 per acre-foot.“Seawater desalination remains among the most expensive water-supply options available, although the public and decision-makers must exercise caution when comparing costs among different projects,” said Heather Cooley, co-director of the Pacific Institute Water Program and lead author of the report.


        • hennorama

          jefe68 — thanks for your response and the helpful link.

          My efforts found cost estimates for Seawater Reverse Osmosis (SWRO) fairly in line with the “$0.29 per day per person” figure given (which assumes a 100 US gallon/day usage level)

          “…a cost of US $2.91 to $3.7/1,000 gallons ($850 to $1,200/AF)”

          This is getting to be competitive with the incremental cost of adding new municipal water supplies.


          • jefe68

            From what I read on that site there is a bit of a variable but my guess is as more water is needed and there is less of it the cost factor will seem less of an issue.

            What seems to be left out of the cost factor is the major cost of infrastructure or so it would seem.

          • hennorama

            jefe68 — please note my important postscript, above.

            These costs do not reflect maintenance and other associated costs of the rest of any water delivery system to which a desalination facility would be added, but they do reflect (in 2005 dollars) “the total delivered cost of water” from the desal system, according to the linked source.

          • jefe68

            The link to the PDF is more up to date as it’s from 2012.
            From what I’ve read, and I have not read the entire document, it would seem that desalination is not as inexpensive as that report from 2005 states. However, it does seem to be an option that costal areas with drought problems will have to explore and the document does seem to be a very good overview of the cost and risk factors.

          • jefe68

            I forgot this graph.

  • George Potts

    Desalinization is $0.29 per day per person. Less than a cup of coffee per household.

    • creaker

      And a crop is equivalent to how many households?

      • George Potts

        Who cares? It costs $200 per year for desal water.

      • BHA_in_Vermont

        Use the “natural” water for crops. Desalinized water for people and recreation (including golf courses). If it costs them, they will conserve.

      • Bluejay2fly

        Maybe if we became more decentralized in farming, people ate less, did not waste food so much, and our population was not so high these problems would not be so severe.

    • Bluejay2fly

      I think that maybe a good idea.

  • George Potts

    A nuclear submarine can desalinate 1/2 the water that LA needs in one day.

    They never need to be refueled and their fuel lasts for their 20 year lifetime.

    • Bluejay2fly

      Love that solution!

  • George Potts

    This is a Chicken LIttle, “The Sky Is Falling” issue.

    It would cost 29 cents per day per person (100 gallons of use) to desalinate all of our water.

    • Bluejay2fly

      This is media world everything is a crisis!

      • George Potts

        The panelists don’t want to make it clear what the actual costs of desalinization would be. They just dismissed it without clarifying the 29 cents per day cost.

  • George Potts

    Desal water would be cheaper than the MWRA in Boston.

    • hennorama

      George Potts — please provide sources for your various claims.

      • George Potts

        MWRA costs 0.14 per 100 gallons.
        Desal is 0.29 per 100 gallons.

        I overstated. Desal is 2X the price of MWRA. But, only double. How much do you spend on water per year? I bet you don’t even know.

        It is about $100 per person per year (MWRA). So, desal would increase it to $200 per year.

        • hennorama

          George Potts — thank you for your response.

          Now, if you would kindly provide both a translation of the acronym MWRA, and a source for your statements, that would be wonderful.

          The figure of $0.14/100 gal. can’t possibly be the retail rate for water. Water is generally billed using units of 100 cubic feet (HCF). 1 HCF = about 750 gallons. Using your figure, this would be an average rate of about $1.05/HCF.

          As to your comment about my knowledge of annual costs of water, please allow me to say that your “bet” is a losing one.

          In any case, using my experience as an example is invalid, as my personal residency is geographically variable. I will say that I take great pains to reduce the overall use of potable water in all the properties that I own, wherever they may be. For example, in one of my personal residences, the amount of water provided by the municipal water system is about 33 gallons/person/day. This has been accomplished through a variety of measures, including low water use landscaping, rainwater collection and storage, high-efficiency plumbing fixtures and appliances, and water recycling.

  • ELKennelly

    Tom, terrific show as always. Thanks for continually pressing this issue of environment and climate.
    Once again, let me pitch the most effective personal change individuals can make, and the big-picture path to change as well: changing from animal-based foods to plant-based foods.

    I highly recommend perusing the website of J. Morris HIcks, author of “Healthy Eating, Healthy World,” for the most accurate, concise and readable assessment of why plant-based food choices and policy should front-and-center of any environmental discussion and action plan.
    “Not only are our food choices the leading driver of most environmental issues, they are the ONLY major area of human activity that we can change quickly.”

    Why isn’t this highlighted in any serious environmental discussion?

    • NrthOfTheBorder

      Good question and pointers.

      I’ll venture to say that environmental issues are forcing their way into our collective conscience like never before – and a moment’s contemplation of the enormity of what’s confronting us is so daunting no one wants to face it.

      Time is not far away however that we’ll have to confront it. One can only hope that climate-related disruptions won’t be so catastrophic that we don’t lose our wits, dignity and common decency in the process.

  • GJMF45

    I heard part of the discussion about drought in CA. I did not hear, but perhaps it was mentioned, that CA allows HIGH VOLUME HORIZONTAL HYDRO-FRACKING (HVHHF). This type of fracking uses a tremendous amount of potable water along with reused water and along with polluting the air and land the water that is returned is polluted with toxins like Benzene for centuries. Was HVHHF talked about or is it still a topic that “On Point” eliminates from discussions?

  • derKomentator

    Every time someone suggests that desalinization could be part of the solution, someone else like the Pacific Institute points out that it is “among the most expensive water-supply options available”. The problem with this is that water is still considered a commodity, and is discussed in the same framework — gasoline is $$/gallon, wheat is $$/bushel, water is $$/acre-foot.

    We need to decouple the water supply discussion from the historical assumption about what it “should” cost us based on precipitation norms, because those norms may be, as they say, history.

    I suggest we think of water supply more as a form of national security, in the same context as we think of military expenditures, or even the funds spent on local police departments. Then the costs associated with desalinization can be discussed as a form of security — whether economic, agricultural, or social.

  • Fred Fletcher-Fierro

    The timeliness of this topic is that here in L.A. we got a shower overnight.

    • hennorama

      Fred Fletcher-Fierro — the LA Dept. of Water and Power (LADWP) website shows nothing but zeroes for “24 hour Accumulated Precipitation in Inches Ending on 01-27-2014 10:14 AM [PST]”


      • Fred Fletcher-Fierro

        Dunno what to tell you. What do you call it when the street is wet, the sidewalk is wet, all the cars are wet, the bushes are wet? I didn’t say it was a lot of water, but we don’t much rain here so its noticeable when we do.

        • hennorama

          Fred Fletcher-Fierro — I’m not disputing your experience, but rather am pointing out that the amount of rain in the shower was insufficient to move the rain gauges. And of course, heavy dew and/or fog conditions can result in all the effects you described.

          Did you observe any actual precipitation falling?

  • Firecamp

    .A weak upper level disturbance did move through the Southern California forecast area last night. Though it did not produce at least a tenth of an inch of precip it did bring up the fuel moistures and made me turn on my windshield wipers at 1500 agl (flying home from Burnbank). There is a pattern change on the horizon especially for Northern California and Southern Oregon (Oregon is dry as well) A strong low will move off the coastal waters by Thursday bringing at least 2″ of water to the west facing slopes of the Sierra Nevada a feeder to many of the lakes and rivers that are very low. This will at least give us firefighters some reprieve that we usually see this time of year. High Pressure is poised to move back in next week though with dry northerly winds.

  • George Potts

    Desalinization would cost 0.29 per person per day (if you net out the current cost of water, that would be 0.16 per person per day.


  • George Potts

    People who think drinking water is scarce want to be worried about something.

    It would cost 29 cents per day to make 100 gallons of water per person per day.

    I pay 14 cents for 100 gallons of MWRA water already.

    I think that desalinization is feasible for wealthy economies.

    Right now, it is too cheap to get the stuff out of the ground. But relying on desalinization for drinking, cleaning, and bathing is affordable.

    • hennorama

      George Potts — $0.14/100 gal. = $1.05/HCF (about 750 gals.). This is a very low retail water rate, and does not seem plausible.

      Please provide a link to the rates charged by your water provider.

      • George Potts
      • George Potts
      • George Potts

        0 – 200 HCF/fiscal year $ 4.61/HCF First 1,000 HCF/bill
        >200 HCF
        $ 6.79 ”
        >1,000 HCF/ ”
        $9.70 “

      • George Potts

        Lynnfield – Lynnfield
        Water District (W)
        Residential Water Rates:
        Residential Sewer Rates:

        Base charge includes
        0 – 20 HCF
        Community not sewered.
        >20 – 100 HCF
        $ 2.67/HCF
        >100 HCF
        $ 2.90 ”
        Billing Frequency: Residential: Semi-annually

        • hennorama

          George Potts – thank you for your responses. I’ll consolidate mine here:

          Let’s do some arithmetic.

          The MRWA link you provided states, “Charges are calculated using a flat rate per million gallons – $3124.91 for FY2014 …”

          $3124.91/1,000,000 gallons = $0.00312491/gallon. Therefore, the rate for 100 gallons is $0.312491, which is nearly two and one-quarter times as large as your figure of “14 cents for 100 gallons of MWRA water.”

          Approximate conversion rates:

          one hundred cubic feet (1 HCF) = 748 gallons

          one acre foot (1 AF) = 325,851 gallons

          one acre foot (1 AF) = 435.60 HCF

          one hundred gallons = 0.1337 HCF

          Using the rates in another of your posts – “0 – 20 HCF $62.00/bill” – gives us a best case of $3.10/ HCF, which converts to $0.41444 per 100 gallons. The best rate quoted – $ 2.67/HCF – converts to $0.35695 per 100 gallons.

          You must have made a conversion error along the way. It happens.

          But your point about the estimated costs of Seawater Reverse Osmosis ($0.29/100 gallons) was confirmed by some research, with the important caveat that the estimates of “…a cost of US $2.91 to $3.7/1,000 gallons ($850 to $1,200/AF)” are in 2005 dollars.

          • George Potts

            The MWRA is a fully loaded cost. It includes transportation, sewer, and overhead.

            The cost of water in CA appears to be cheaper.

            The point is that desalinated water is economically viable to supply large populations.

  • Coastghost

    Unfortunately, billions of gallons now help constitute billions of human beings: thousands of years ago, far fewer than one billion of us roamed the planet. (What would we call this modern phenomenon: hydro-human sequestration?)
    Daily human hydration, daily bathing, daily clothes washing, daily cooking for our seven billion+ obviously requires billions of gallons of water daily. However, I don’t hear of any moves to commence reverse genetic engineering to return any portion of our teeming multitudes to the oceans our forebears emerged from . . . .

    • George Potts

      Why don’t you volunteer for the population reduction?

      • Coastghost

        Obviously, so I can continue dispensing sage observations like the foregoing. (Nota bene: I’m not being paid by either WBUR or “On Point”, nor by NPR nor by BU.)

        • 1Brett1

          I don’t know, CG, when you finally see the ad from WBUR or NPR stating: “wanted: a haughty, curmudgeonly pseudo-intellectual for sage, observational commentary…” you might just have too much stiff competition; and, of course, there are no guarantees in life, so I wouldn’t set too much of an expectation toward a publicly-funded media job.

          • Coastghost

            Thank you for your concern, Brett. My breath is not held. (I might quibble with the job description, too, but I appreciate differences in perspective, as you know.)

          • 1Brett1

            I gave you a proverbial up vote for your relaying a good working definition of ‘intellectual’ in addition to your kind acknowledgment of my concern.

            P.S.–And do be careful in venturing out amid all of that snow forecast for the SC coastal areas.

          • Coastghost

            Brett: grazie! Snow is much preferable to sleet, but this storm doesn’t look like the Christmas Eve storm of 1989, our last blast that dumped well over a foot of snow and left severe cold lingering for two weeks. (By contrast, we’re to be in the 50s again by next weekend.)
            Stay toasty wherever you reside, safe travels.

  • MattCA12

    I live here, and I’m the first to say our water is too inexpensive. Further, the agriculture lobby is so entrenched here, and farmers do not pay what their water is worth. Many California crops should just not be grown here (rice???).

    • George Potts

      I agree. However, the politics of cheap water for agriculture doesn’t justify the panic talk of no water for households.

  • George Potts

    This is a Russian Roulette of Apocalypse story.

    Population explosion
    Asteroid impact
    Global climate change (no longer warming)
    Killer bees

  • garrie keyman

    Why does no one mention desalination? There is an entire ocean next to California. The technology exists. California would do well to invest in desalination plants run by renewable energy sources.

  • HonestDebate1
    • nj_v2

      It’s always humorous when the conservodrones pretend to know something about science, or invoke it to support their bogus, right-wing disinformation campaigns.

      Excerpt from


      [[ Warming temperatures will likely further exacerbate drought in the Southwest in ways both with and without analogue in the past. The enhancement of the ocean/atmospheric circulation features that promote the establishment and persistence of drought in this region is a main driver of drought in the past. Paleoclimatic data can provide insights on the associated regional drought responses. The expansion of the region dominated by subtropical high pressure, an anthropogenic influence on drought extent (2), will need to be considered on top of naturally occurring forcings in the anticipation of future droughts.

      As far as we know, there is no reason why droughts of the duration, severity, and spatial extent experienced in the medieval period could not occur in the future. Even without the anticipated increased warming in the 21st century, droughts of the magnitude of the medieval droughts would present enormous challenges to water management agencies. ]]

    • JGC

      So how is it going down there in the southern corridor with the ice storm bearing down? I hope you and Coastghost have adequately stockpiled grits, hush puppies and mint juleps to ride out the storm. : )

      If the power goes out, at least the Corgis can keep you warm! Good luck!

  • http://hammernews.com/ hammermann

    Drought caused famine, of course, is going to be the great killer of AGW- and very soon (10-20 years). Every major food growing area: USA, Russia, Europe, Australian.. has seen 40-60% collapses of grain harvest in the last 8 years, when they happen in concert, hundreds of millions of poor will starve. Humans are not immune from iron laws of overpopulation, and we are causing a mass extinction as we speak, probably worse than any before. The future ain’t pretty.

  • Populationist

    Desalination may be much over-rated. I’m including a link to a very insightful piece about water scarcity … if you have five minutes, it’s well worth the read: http://www.capsweb.org/caps-issues/exploding-southwest-population-collision-course-water-scarcity

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