Seven Ways California Could Change in a 72-Year Drought from Elaine Golden Gealer


It’s very hot and very dry in Southern California right now, and it’s been this way for what seems like forever, which might make you wonder, “What if this never ends?” Glad you asked! Over at the LA Times, they’ve taken a look at a study a group of researchers conducted a few years ago that games out what might happen to California if it were to go through a megadrought lasting for, oh, 72 years. (That’s not so unlikely; the Twentieth Century was freakishly wet in California and the Western US has been in a drought for about 15 years now.) After some thorough computer modeling, the researchers came back with the surprising answer that we would not all shrivel up and die, and, in fact, “California has a remarkable ability to weather extreme and prolonged droughts from an economic perspective,” the director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences says.

Of course, looking at the effects from an economic perspective doesn’t account for the repercussions a prolonged drought would have on every other aspect of life. It’s going to be hard to see so much former farmland (likely half!) just sitting there, dry and unused. It will be frustrating for upper middle class people who can’t maintain any kind of lush, decadent landscaping in front of their McMansions once the water rates have been jacked up. (Rich people will no doubt find ways to get around any regulations.) So assuming a seven-decades-long dry period—with only half of the historical average runoff in reservoirs and rivers—here’s what California would have to deal with:

· We’d have to get used to using water that we’ve shunned as dirty: “Coastal Californians would stop dumping most of their treated sewage and urban runoff from rain storms into the Pacific and instead add it to their water supply.”
· Especially in SoCal, we’d have to reduce our dependence on sources of water that come from outside our area or that can be unpredictable (NorCal, the Colorado River). Already the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is hoping to meet 60 percent of its demands by using water from “local” sources (meaning things like recycled and treated water) by 2035.
· Water rates would rise, and lawns would be out of the question. Excessive water use will become “extraordinarily expensive,” and “[t]he days of making mini-Versailles around Los Angeles, I think, are over,” predicts DWP Commissioner Jonathan Parfrey.
· No surprise, but agriculture would change dramatically, and probably reduce its size by half—from eight million irrigated acres to about four million. Because there’d be less water available overall, farmers would drop less valuable crops (e.g., cotton and alfalfa) like hot coals, focusing their limited water resources on higher-profit crops like fruit, nuts, and vegetables.
· Sorry, anglers, but you’d have to say goodbye to some salmon: “Aquatic ecosystems would suffer, with some struggling salmon runs fading out of existence.”
· Some good news: with increased conservation, reuse of wastewater, “a little desalinization,” and some water purchased from farms, the computer simulation found that “the predominant part of the population and economy felt the drought, but was not devastated by it.”
· And what about the minority? Well, things might not be so great for them. “For a while, poor people would get a lot poorer throughout the Central Valley. Then they’d move.” So it’s pretty likely Califronia would have a giant swath of “ghost towns” in its center (where water is already very scarce).

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