By Brad Plumer
10 April 2015
(Vox) – California saw this drought coming. Even if people in the state didn't know it would be this bad — now the worst in recorded history — they've known that dry years are inevitable and had all sorts of ideas for how to deal with them.
But for all that planning, California's current drought has been a total disaster. Reservoirs are drying up. Crops are wilting in the fields. For the first time ever, towns and cities will face a mandatory 25 percent cut in their water use.
The problem isn't that no one foresaw the drought. The problem is that no one has been able to solve an underlying issue that is simultaneously less scary and also much harder than a dry spell: California's convoluted water system and intractable water politics.
Designed piecemeal over the last century, going back to a time when Los Angeles had one-sixth its current population, California's system for managing water doesn't just make it tough to deal with shortages — in some ways, it encourages inefficiencies and waste. This is partly an engineering issue and partly a political one, but it's become a huge dilemma for a state struggling to adapt to unprecedented drought.
Much of the bickering today around California's water crisis can trace back to this underlying systemic issue. Many people accuse farmers — especially its almond growers and cattle ranchers — of using too much water. Farmers, in turn, blame environmentalists for placing undue restrictions on water use. Others fault golf courses and overwatered lawns. Economists say California could better manage its water if only it was priced properly.
There's some truth to all these points. But it's worth understanding California's incredibly complex water system in order to grasp why all these conflicts have arisen — and why fixes are so difficult.
1) California's water comes from the north and is used in the south
Perhaps the most fundamental water fact about California is that, historically, water was extremely scarce in the southern two-thirds of the state. The vast majority of precipitation occurs up north, mainly in the winter.
So, during the 20th century, both the state and the federal government built an elaborate system of canals, aqueducts, and reservoirs to bring water south: […]
3) California is now suffering the worst drought in history, and its water system is cracking under the stress
Now, however, this system has reached a breaking point. This current drought, which started in 2012, is worse than anything California has endured in its history. Virtually the entire state is facing "severe," "extreme," or "exceptional" drought: [more]