Saving the land of milk and honey

14 April 2022

Melons, peaches, almonds, pistachios, garlic and wine are just part of California’s bounteous agriculture that amounts to a US$50bn/year industry. If you include dairy, the Golden State supplies around one quarter of the food consumed in the US. But it will not for much longer if the drought continues.

The start of 2022 ushered in California’s driest start in more than 100 years and its third year of drought. The state is drying out and its reservoirs are way below average seasonal levels.

Indeed, much of the American West from Northern California, through Arizona to New Mexico is facing ‘extreme’ or ‘exceptional’ drought conditions seen as the inevitable result of climate change.

Furthermore, the historically low levels of investment in US water infrastructure are not helping what is a difficult situation. To make things worse, US water utilities have been slow to invest in new technology, one reason 2020 saw a funding gap in water and wastewater networks to the tune of US$40bn.

Clearly, increased funding is the remedy and, in true American style, a problem is solved by throwing money at it. But it has to be thrown in the right direction. The Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act 2021 established a variety of programmes for improving frameworks, but it focusses mainly on improving domestic drinking water supply and sanitation - seen as a generally more resilient and sustainable line of attack. But this constitutes a departure from the 20th century approach of building dams, reservoirs and water diversions.

While sustainable policies aim to provide more water security for historically-affected communities, they may not be enough to meet the major water challenges that the Western states are facing, particularly with regard to agriculture.

Climate change looks like it will be getting worse before it gets better so surely now is the time for federal government to start planning those ‘traditional’ dams, tunnels and reservoir systems that will most likely be needed in what looks like being an increasingly arid future.

George Demetri Editor