Parched California seeks salvation in science

Dry run: California has suffered four years of lower-than-average rainfall. © PA

California is a naturally arid land made to bloom by grandiose feats of infrastructure. But water is running out and the state is enduring its worst ever drought. Is there a solution?

Garrett Rajkovich is a farmer from a long line of Californian farmers. His 1,200 acres of land are bursting with fruit trees — cherry, almond, grape. But although these trees are still standing, they may never again bear fruit. Starved of water for years, the orchards are dying.

Ever since the gold rush of 1849, California has been mythologised as a land of promise and abundance. It produces 90% of America’s tomatoes, 95% of its broccoli and 99% of its almonds. But today it is running out of one resource that all of the others rely on: water.

California is in the midst of a drought of catastrophic proportions. Fields once green with wheat are now deserts of cracked mud. Bridges tower over parched river beds. The governor has ordered towns to cut their water use by an enormous 25%. Rain has been scarce for four years, and 2015 has so far been even worse, with only 5% of the average levels of snow falling on the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Yet the state’s water shortages cannot be blamed solely on one freak drought. California is a naturally arid environment which has historically supported a population of roughly 200,000. Today it has 38 million inhabitants and valleys carpeted with crops. This transformation has taken grand feats of irrigation and engineering, with dams diverting hundreds of millions of gallons of water to previously barren land.

Some experts suspect that these efforts to make a dry land bloom have surpassed their limits. Agriculture and overpopulation have sucked the Golden State dry. The landscape is returning to its natural state, and climate change will only make the situation worse.

However, there is hope that technology may still provide an answer. On California’s western border lies the Pacific, which contains about a third of all the water on Earth. If the salty water could be made drinkable, it could cure the state of water shortages for good.

This is by no means a far-fetched idea. Treatment plants which desalinate seawater are already possible — 40% of Israel’s water comes from the sea. Yet these plants require a lot of land and fuel — neither of which is cheap in California.

State of nature

Excessive reliance on technology is exactly what got California into this mess, some say. This drought should serve as a warning to the world that we must learn to cut our consumption and, as one academic puts it, ‘come to terms with mother Nature’.

It’s far too late for that, others respond: we are already consuming far more than nature can ever provide. Technology has already made the planet unimaginably more abundant; crises like this drought will spur on greater innovations still. We must have faith that science is the solution.

You Decide

  1. Is it dangerous to interfere too much with nature?
  2. Can science solve problems like overpopulation or will we eventually have to change the way we live?

Activities

  1. Role-play a meeting in a Californian town hall. Some of you are residents who want water for drinking, washing and gardening; others are farmers who need it for their crops; others are local government representatives insisting that water usage must be cut.
  2. Where does the water you consume come from and how is it made drinkable? Do some research and present a summary of your findings.

Some People Say...

“Science causes no problems that it can’t also solve.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Tough for California, but it’s not really my problem — there’s plenty of water where I am.
For now, perhaps. But water shortages could be the most destructive crisis in the century to come. As the population grows and the world gets hotter, feeding crops and people will grow increasingly hard. Even countries where water is very abundant will suffer from this, since scarcity is likely to cause conflict, upheaval and mass migration.
Oh dear. Can anything be done to avoid all this?
Technology may provide some of the answer. But it’s also up to companies and individuals to cut their water use: don’t shower for longer than you need to, turn off the tap when you brush your teeth, put full loads in your dishwasher or washing machine. These might seem like small things, but the effects add up.

Word Watch

Gold rush
In 1848, California was inhabited mostly by Native Americans. But when a settler chanced on gold nuggets, it sparked one of the greatest migrations in history. 300,000 people flocked to California from around America. Many got rich, but others fell victim to the harsh and lawless conditions, while the majority of the indigenous population was wiped out.
Mythologised
In the past, California was known as the final frontier, where anybody could go to make their fortune. Later it was the land of Hollywood, and today Silicon Valley is home to most of the world’s most inventive and powerful high-tech and online businesses.
Sierra Nevada
Literally ‘snowy mountain range’ — there is another group of mountains with the same name in Spain. Aside from Alaska, it contains the highest peaks in the USA.
Desalinate
This just means removing the salt. The idea of purifying salt water is a very old one, but it has only recently become feasible. One idea which may work in California is to fuel the process using solar power.

Subjects

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