The ramifications of the historic megadrought happening in the U.S. right now are getting increasingly serious. Hydropower is faltering, farmland is too parched to produce, and millions of people are currently under water restrictions. It’s a drought so big that it has eclipsed 1,200 years of climate history. Human-caused climate change is at least partially responsible.
California is the U.S.’s produce aisle. The state grows more than a third of the country’s domestically harvested vegetables and two-thirds of our fruit and nuts. But feeding the nation requires a lot of water. Agriculture eats up about four times as much water in the state as urban water usage. Right now, farmers are struggling to meet their needs with what’s available.
Because of water shortages, hundreds of thousands of acres are sitting stagnant, without any crops growing. An estimated 400,000 acres of cropland were idled because of lack of water last year, according to one analysis from the University of California and other groups published in February. And things have continued to get worse.
One farmer told the BBC that he was forgoing tomato planting this year because there just wasn’t enough for irrigation. In a report from CNN, another farmer told the outlet he wasn’t growing crops on about half of his land. “I got the land, I got the people. I have everything but no water. I can’t do it,” the farmer said.
The state’s senate is considering a bill to help support farmworkers unable to find employment under drought conditions that is basically farmworker UBI. The legislation would provide monthly payments of $1,000 for three years to households that include a farmworker.
And it’s not just farmworkers and food production suffering: It’s the stability of the land itself. In recent years, the Federal Bureau of Reclamation has restricted how much water from rivers and reservoirs can go to farming. Just a few months ago, the bureau announced it wouldn’t be allocating any water for irrigation in parts of the ag-heavy Central Valley. In lieu of surface water being directed their way, farmers have been leaning heavily on pumping ground water from wells, drilled ever-deeper underground. But over-pumping means parts of the Valley are starting to collapse inward in a process known as subsidence. Thanks to drought, the very earth under Californians’ feet is falling away.
In an effort to help the water supply last as long as possible, both local and state agencies in California are asking people to limit their water use. Outdoor watering has been banned or heavily moderated in many regions. And those who fail to comply with new water restrictions are encountering actual consequences, from financial penalties to choked taps.
If people wantonly water their lawns, flower beds, and even sidewalks, they face fines of up to $600. Households that opt to repeatedly pay the fines and continue to flout the restrictions are put on notice. In the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, which includes some of the wealthiest areas of Los Angeles County, more than 600 households are on notice after three strikes, according to reporting by the New York Times.
Of those households, 20 of the worst offenders were threatened with the installation of flow restrictors on their properties’ taps. Four of the 20 households refused to sign a commitment to the restrictions, and so the water district went ahead with the flow restrictors last week, reported local news outlet KABC.
The flow restriction devices take taps down to a trickle, making outdoor watering effectively impossible, and are to be kept in place for at least two weeks. If people try to remove them once they’ve been installed, they’ll be charged another $2,500.
From the NYT:
“This is not our preferred way of interacting with our customers,” David Pedersen, the head of the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, told me. “We are in a situation where we can’t have customers wasting water.”
Outside of California, things have gotten even weirder. If a proposed ocean-to-Great Salt Lake pipeline sounds like sci-fi to you, consider that Colorado has been trying to combat drought by actively changing the weather since the 1970s.
The mountainous state’s $1 million “Weather Modification Program” primarily focuses on cloud seeding to boost snowfall. Cloud seeding is a process wherein silver iodide particles are released into the atmosphere in a targeted way to promote the generation of ice particles, which then turn into falling snow.
Multiple western states fund Colorado’s program, because snowpack in the Rocky Mountains is so integral to the region’s rivers, but the exact benefit of the technology is unsettled. It has big limitations. For instance, cloud seeding can only boost existing storms, not generate entirely new ones. It also requires very specific wind, humidity, and cloud conditions to work.
In winter 2020, cloud seeding contributed an additional estimated 326,000 gallons of water to Colorado’s snowfall, according to the Jackson County Water Conservancy District president. Yet this added precipitation barely scratches the surface of the what’s needed, and decades of cloud seeding haven’t yielded the promised results.
As drought conditions worsen, Colorado and its neighbors are hoping to lean even more on weather modification technology, but experts warn that it can’t stand alone as the only solution. Cloud seeding or not, if we don’t tackle climate change head-on, Colorado will soon be headed toward a future with half as much snow, according to a recent study.
Outside of the West, other U.S. states are also facing growing drought. For instance, almost three-quarters of Massachusetts is dryer than normal, and a big patch of the state is in moderate drought. Water shortages in Hawai’i are being exacerbated by a lack of rainfall. And, although nowhere near as intense as the Southwest’s drought, swathes of the Southeast are experiencing drought, too.
Across the border in Mexico, dry conditions are leading to water restrictions as well. The state of Nuevo Leon has limited residents’ water access to a six-hour daily window of time (a much more stringent limitation than what some in the U.S. are dealing with). Scientists have been able to specifically link much of the North American drought to human-caused climate change.
Droughts happen worldwide. Iraq and Spain, for example, are also reckoning with lack of precipitation, drought, and water restrictions. Although each event hasn’t been well studied enough to prove a direct connection to our greenhouse gas emissions, the most recent IPCC report emphasized that every bit of additional warming adds to the increasing risk of worsening drought.