You may have seen the article last week about how Sacramento now has water cops who patrol neighborhoods issuing tickets to wastrels who are caught “overwatering” their lawns or hosing down their driveways. And be warned: Los Angeles is expected to have four such water cops by this summer.
This is the latest overreaction that results from California’s much hyped “water crisis.” You’ve heard all about it over the years; the scarcity of water will limit growth, you’ll have to learn to shower using one gallon of water, yada.
To be sure, California has a water shortage, and a severe one. It has been calamitous for some Central Valley farmers. But is it really a crisis?
The word “crisis” implies there’s no good solution or even acceptable options; some form of doom is inevitable. I would argue that we have a problem, sure. But a crisis? No. Our options are good when it comes to water.
More about options in a few paragraphs. First, take a minute to think back on some other much-hyped crises concerning shortages of one commodity or the other.
A recent example, of course, is oil and natural gas. It wasn’t all that many years ago when we heard constantly about how we would “run out” of oil some day and in the meantime the United States would become a kind of vassal to oil exporting nations. It was the “energy crisis,” we were told.
But thanks to technology, much greater efficiency and alternative energy sources, this country could be energy independent in a few years, perhaps even a net exporter of oil. The only thing we ran out of was overhyped fear.
And back in the 1960s, we were told we needed to be very alarmed about the looming and dangerous shortage of food because of what was then perceived to be a worldwide “population explosion” and the inability of farms to keep up with ever-rising demand. It was already too late by 1968, according to Paul Ehrlich, who began his best-seller, “The Population Bomb,” by writing: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death…”
But of course, the real explosion – the one that Ehrlich and others failed to factor – was in technology. Since the late ’60s, yields for many crops have doubled and some doubled again, and food prices have gotten relatively cheaper as a result. Given that lots of places such as Africa haven’t even really begun employing modern farming techniques and using today’s fertilizers, worldwide agriculture is likely to see more big leaps of efficiency. One recent study reportedly suggested we will need less farmland by 2050 than we needed in 2000, even accounting for a rising population.
So what are our options for water? I’m no expert, but I’d say we can bank on two things that have taken care of past commodity shortages.
The first is conservation. Angelenos already consume 20 percent less water than 10 years ago, but we’ve only really begun. Water-thrifty landscapes that rely on native plants haven’t yet taken hold and neither have water sprinkler systems that self-adjust to the weather. If you’re a man, you’re familiar with certain waterless facilities, which have already started appearing in residences.
The second is technology. Take desalination as a conspicuous example. The big knock on desalination facilities are that they eat up a lot of energy, making the water too expensive. But you know how technology works. Processes get better, faster and cheaper.
An article in a San Francisco publication just last month reported on a small, pilot desalination plant in the Central Valley that uses solar energy. As a result, this plant produces fresh water that costs $450 an acre foot versus $2,000 an acre foot for the conventional desalination process. If that plant can be scaled up, you have to imagine it won’t be long before the price of its water drops to be competitive with the $300 cost of water from conventional sources.
A water crisis? Here’s a thought: Start from anywhere in California and go as far west as you can. Eventually, you’ll be stopped by a body of water. It’s pretty big. It could supply Californians with water forever.
Yes, I’d say our options are good.
Charles Crumpley is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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