Let’s Start Preparing For a Hot, Dry Century

John Michael McGrath is a Digital Media Producer for TVO.

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California is enduring its worst drought on record. San Francisco had, before getting some on Sunday, received less than four inches of rain since January 1. Quite aside from the fact that your average North American is a thirsty person, the problem with California not getting any rain is that a lot of people have bought flammable homes that are built too close to other flammable things—flammable things such as trees that have only gotten four inches of rain in 11 months. The state is still on high alert for wildfire season.

And since California is a state with more people than all of Canada, a drought in fire season is kind of a big deal.

Managing water resources is old hat in California, of course. Anyone who’s watched Chinatown has figured out that much. What people don’t often appreciate is how much of the hydraulic empire is still chugging along: Governor Jerry Brown has spent much of his return to statewide politics trying to figure out how to get San Francisco’s Democrats to agree to his plan to re-redirect the flow of the Sacramento River to the LA metro area. Brown’s plan would replace existing infrastructure that has ruined the ecology of the Sacramento delta—but San Francisco’s residents have seen Chinatown too, and they’re skeptical about spending an estimated $14 billion on sending water south.

(As you might guess, politicians from the LA area are more enthusiastic about Brown’s plan and called anything less a “half-measure.”)

The other option is for farmers and other mammals in the south of the state to simply make do with less. So they’re doing just that: farmers are shifting away from water-intensive crops where possible, and last month Brown and the legislature passed a handful of smaller tweaks for the state’s water rules.

Even if Brown gets his wish with a revamped north-south pipe and Californians agree to only flush half as often, towns all over the state will be looking for other options—and seawater desalination is back on the policy menu. While still twice as expensive as the competition, costs for desalination have spent decades coming down, while the costs of other sources are going up.

And, barring some major technological change, those are the options: move the freshwater we’ve got from one place to another; use less of the stuff; or separate seawater from its salt. Each method has its partisans who will be happy to tell you why theirs is necessary and others are, in the words of those LA politicians, half-measures at best.

It’s a list of options we should get used to hearing: Americans are continuing the decades-long trend of moving to hot, dry places in the sun belt that are increasingly water-stressed. But water stress isn’t just for America: climate change is screwing with rain patterns all over the planet. California’s problems are, increasingly, the problems the rest of the world faces, too. Except that most of the rest of the world isn’t quite as rich as California, so spending billions of dollars to get water in sufficient volume isn’t quite an option.

The future is looking parched, and we shouldn’t be surprised that the usual suspects are first in line at the taps.