The drought has given California a literal run for its money this year, with a recent study conducted by UC Davis estimating a whopping $2.7 billion hit on the Golden State’s economy. In the Central Valley, where agriculture and farming reign, groundwater pumping has necessarily increased to meet rising demands for water. News reports and research studies state the largest expenses will come from the fallowing of almost 550,000 acres of land that lack irrigation.
Instabilities in the land caused by alarming rates of water pumping have also risen. Sinkholes and land-surface elevation drops have occurred in the San Joaquin Valley, not to mention increased anxiety from residents regarding what comes next for California after a four-year stretch of rising heat. News reports state that between 2003 and 2010, the valley’s aquifers lost enough groundwater (20 cubic kilometers) to meet the household water needs of New York City for 11 years. That means a lot more forced pumping—and unstable ground—to come.
Recent news has focused on another worrisome strand of emergency stemming from the drought: the water shortage’s impact on California’s beloved giant sequoias. UC Berkeley scientists are concerned about “unprecedented signs of stress” in the trees. Whereas last year dense groves of Sequoias located in the Sierra Nevadas were a sea of lush greens, the vistas now feature spots of red and brown trees that are parched, researchers believe, from lack of water. UC Berkeley’s Anthony Ambrose has been scaling the towering Sequoias, some of which are more than 3,000 years old, looking for answers. While trees of this stature and age have endured several droughts and punishing weather systems over the years, scientists suspect the trees may have reached the limit of what they can take.
“There are a lot of trees that are dying, a lot of pines and cedars that have died because of the drought,” Ambrose told The Huffington Post in a recent news report on the topic. “The giant sequoia seem to be pretty resistant, but we want to know what does it take to kill one of these and what can we learn from this.”
NPR has released a video worthy of attention in which researchers scale the sequoias in an effort to “get a better understanding” of why the trees are losing their leaves and needles.
So what is to be done?
One interesting study cited by SF Gate pointed out that despite the drought, California’s almond and walnut acreage has grown by 200,000 since 2010. According to economists, the growing demand from “consumers in China for nuts as snack food” is driving the almond-orchard boom. Hong Kong and China are the top buyers of U.S.-grown almonds, and exports of the nuts more than quadrupled between 2007 and 2013.
Thanks largely to extensive media reports by Mother Jones, Americans on the whole are aware that it takes about a gallon of water to produce a single almond. And almonds use 10 percent of California’s water supply. The Almond Board of California is onto the negative press, and has for years been addressing its image problem with a marketing campaign billed at $28 billion a year, per news sources, by trying to side with farmers and argue on the humanitarian front that almond crops produce jobs, jobs, jobs. And while farm jobs are important, and citizens in China may be partly responsible for craving almonds as a snack food, you can bet your money that the Almond Board has been eagerly pushing almonds as a nutritious snack in the parched United States for several years.
In an effort to put a stop to what researchers call the slow-moving train wreck that is California’s drought, regulators must step forward to help cap the groundwater pumping limit and rebalance crops across the state. A drought is, lest we forget amidst forests of dying ancient trees, a state of emergency. That means special rules and regulations are necessary to rope in the trouble, whether it means we consumers eat less almonds, crop distribution veers toward the water conservative, or groundwater tapping is limited so the land can remain (somewhat) stable.
The drought should not be viewed as “a California problem.” From rice cultivation in Arkansas to the litigious water wars in states like Georgia, the lack of rainfall and irrigation is a national hardship. And as NASA’s dropping water table reminds us, we’re on our way to a global drought. “We need to get our heads together on how we manage groundwater,” said Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told the National Post, “because we’re running out of it.”