from The Atlantic
As the U.S. Northeast emerges from yet another snowstorm, California has just concluded its hottest winter ever, registering average temperatures 4.4 degrees warmer than the state’s 20th-century average. Warm temperatures and clear skies may strike a beleaguered Bostonian as the cause for celebration. But in California, the dry conditions mean that the state’s drought has only grown more devastating. How devastating? Earlier this month, the title of a Los Angeles Times op-ed published by Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a professor at UC Irvine, got right to the point:California would run out of water in a year.
This headline—as Famiglietti himself pointed out—isn’t exactly accurate: The one-year limit pertains only to California’s reservoirs, which account for only part of the state’s water supply. Nevertheless, the state is taking action. Last week, Governor Jerry Brown announced a $1 billion plan to aid communities most affected by the drought, and imposed restrictions on some aspects of personal use. With the state’s snowpack at just 12 percent of normal, Californians figure to struggle more during the traditional dry summer months.
California is known globally for its coastal beaches, mountains, and desert. But the state’s most important economic region may be its Central Valley, one of the world’s most productive agricultural areas. Virtually all of the almonds, artichokes, lemons, pistachios, and processed tomatoes grown in the United States originate from the valley, whose productive soil is unmatched elsewhere in the country. California’s spinach yield, for example is 60 percent more per acrethan in the rest of the United States. The state’s marine climate allows it to grow crops like broccoli that wilt in humid climates. California is the world’s fifth-largest supplier of food, a big reason why the state would, if an independent country, be the 7th largest economy in the world.
But California’s agricultural output demands a lot of water. Irrigation claims up to 41 percent of the state’s water supply, while cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco demand comparatively little. Crops such as almonds, grown exclusively in California in the United States, consume 600 gallons of water per pound of nuts, more than 25 times the water needed per pound of tomato. These water-intensive crops tend to have high profit margins, providing farmers with an incentive to plant them.