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California’s prolonged drought is leading to bitter competition for water supplies between fish and agriculture. Water levels in the Klamath River of northern California dipped exceptionally low due to diversion of water to farms in the state’s Central Valley region, the source of some of the world’s major almond supplies. Low water levels mean higher water temperatures, which can be fatal to salmon and other fish. After a bitter court fight, federal water managers released water into the Klamath from an inland reservoir. If the drought persists, however, the same problem will reoccur next year, and any other time water is scarce. To make matters worse, salmon and agriculture are by no means the only sectors competing for the same water. The problem is predicted to become worse as climate change worsens drought conditions. How did we get to this point?

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The answer, it turns out, lies in a combination of geography and poor water policy in the United States. A 2010 article by Peter Gleick in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explains that whenever water became scarce over the past century, the focus was on finding new supplies, not finding ways to use less. Over time, as new sources became exhausted, water had to be obtained farther and farther from where it was needed. The result is expensive and highly inefficient infrastructure needed to divert water from far-flung sources into farms and cities. Furthermore, when users could count on new supplies being developed, there was little incentive to invest in water conservation strategies such as drip irrigation or native landscaping. The geographic part of the problem is that desert soil is often an excellent place to grow crops, provided water is available. Combined with a willingness to seek out new supplies, policy and geography encourage thirsty crops and rising populations in arid areas ill–equipped to support them. Solutions will require sacrifice and political will. Gleick points out that water use has decreased over time in most industries without economic consequences.

Farmers and other users need greater incentives to invest immediately in the latest water conserving technologies, and the rest of us need to be prepared to pay more for produce. Politicians may need to take unpopular steps such as raising the price of water and requiring water meters so actual water use can be tracked. Most radically, the United States may need to adopt a more scientific, regional approach to agriculture, shifting the thirstiest crops to grow in the wetter areas and supporting drought tolerant crops in arid zones. Salmon and other wildlife can’t change their requirements for survival, but the rest of us can work together to change how we use and pay for water. Nopales (cactus) salad, anybody?



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Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 107, No. 50 (December 14, 2010), pp. 21300-21305
National Academy of Sciences