Environment & Science

Drought chat: We got answers to your California drought questions

Environmentalists decry harm to fish and fowl due to drought. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty)
Environmentalists decry harm to fish and fowl due to drought. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty)
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The California drought and calls for conservation have prompted many questions, from what the average person can do about personal water usage to how to address water wasters, big and small.

KPCC environment correspondent Molly Peterson and NASA water cycle scientist Jay Famiglietti hosted a live chat on KPCC’s Facebook page Wednesday, and you came up with some great questions for them. 

Here are some of the answers they offered. If you have a question that wasn't asked, post a comment below and we'll try to get you the answer. 

Bottled water

Question

Molly:

It's kind of a political question, so I'll offer you a political observation that this governor has so far avoided being called anti-business in mainstream analysis as a result of drought limits, and I think that's a consideration for him.

I really think that we're going to see more public demand for water managers to use tools that they don't use yet to manage use. That includes managing water to avoid wasteful use. It's a legal process, and it costs money, but the money water cost is greater every day.

Question

Twitter user PanAfricanSoul tweeted: "Water bottling companies are pumping critically needed water and trucking it out of state. What can be done?"

Answer

Jay: 

Stop drinking bottled water; review the permits and water rights to see if they still make sense today (not back in 1890 when they were first put in place). We'll probably see that it just doesn't work with our limited water supply.

Molly:

Check that the permits are in order, first of all. Also water rights contracts generally don't guarantee a specific amount of water, they guarantee a range at a price.

Number two, someone could look into legal adjudication of the water to which companies get rights. That way requires court action which is costly in time - but there are legal experts who think that more court cases are in the future.

Agriculture

Question

https://twitter.com/MaxGoldberg/status/589149021492514816

Answer

Jay:

Hey man, shop at the farmers markets. Send your message with your wallet --- and with your votes in future elections. Make sure to investigate candidate positions related to water and climate change when considering your future votes.

Molly:

Growing up in California I'm used to people dividing the cause between north and south, ag and urban use. I don't necessarily see it that way. I think it's about a smaller number of wealthier or resource-rich individuals or users in each of those sectors and a larger number of resource-poor people. that second category- you know, the rest of us - isn't as engaged in protecting its interests.

Question

Stephanie Castle asked on Facebook:

As farmers in the Central Valley have already received drastic cuts to their surface water supplies, isn't it fair that urban users must also reduce their water demands by a measly 25 percent? Is there a statewide percentage of what farmers have already had to reduce on average? I know in 2014, for some it was a 100 percent reduction of surface water use.

Answer

Jay: 

Farmers have had their surface water supplies cut way back -- like 80 to 100 percent. However, most have free access to groundwater and are using it without restraint, until the new groundwater legislation kicks in. We need to be careful not to use up all the groundwater so that there is none left for the next drought and the drought after that. As far as urban dwellers go, we waste tons of water too -- we need to cut back and the best way for homeowners is to kill the grass!

Molly:

...the problem is that it's hard to account for decreases in water use year after year because the water is applied to different crops. There used to be a lot more rice in California in the 1980s.

Question

Jake Staley asked on Facebook:

Residential water usage makes up only a small percentage of the states total consumption. What impact would restricting agriculture have on the state's economy? Can the average resident really make a difference?

Answer

Jay: 

Restrictions on ag water use, IMHO, are inevitable. We will wipe out the groundwater supply if we don't. Just a small cutback of ag water (just a few %) use will free up a huge amount of water for other uses while having just a small impact on the economy

Molly: 

Yes, and - yes, the average resident can make a difference. Average residents make up the demand in a city and as that city's use drops that matters not only to the city's ability to meet its requirements and avoid fines but also to the city's ability to qualify for grants and funding that will help save more water.

Drought-friendly eating

Question

KPCC science reporter Sanden Totten asked on Facebook: 

My vegan friend wanted to know: What are the impacts of a carnivorous diet (heavy in cattle products) on water consumption?

Answer

Molly:

Predictably, cattle takes a lot of water to make, and has a heavy footprint. This recent op-ed in the NYT has a headline that is to the point. 

Jay:

We need to feed those cows and they love hay. Especially alfalfa. And alfalfa takes tons of water to grow. CA uses lots of water (maybe most of its ag water) on alfalfa, and surprisingly, lots of this is actually exported to other countries like China. In short, cutting back on meat saves lots of water. But I do love Umami Burger.

Question

Athena Mekis asked on Facebook: 

Is it good use of our ground water for individuals to grow their own food or is it better to have commercial food growers only?

Answer

Jay: 

Both are important. there are critical economies of scale. on the other hand, having a very efficient, sustainable garden is a great way to lower food waste and your own personal water footprint

Molly: 

Lately I've been thinking a lot about the water we put into the ground for grass. Sometimes too much; so much it goes beyond the reach of grass roots. I know you asked about ag, and I know you were asking about groundwater specifically - but I'm just echoing Jay's point that the best thing is to use all water from all sources efficiently.

Water wasters

Question

KPCC science reporter Sanden Totten and listener Chrystal Czajkowski asked on Facebook how they can report water wasters they see in their communities.

Answer

Molly:

In LA, it's 311. They write it down and then a year later journalists like us do CPRAs and ask why nobody has addressed X-thousand complaints.

The state does take calls at its water conservation hotline but I wouldn't send you there until we exhaust local remedies. How fast they follow up in [your city], I don't know. Since last year everyone's been reporting huge increases in complaints - but we haven't seen a lot more enforcement.

Jay:

The best bet would likely be your local water district or your local police.

Take cell phone shots and send them to your local water district. Public shaming though may not be the answer, so be careful.

See the full drought chat with listeners' questions on KPCC's Facebook page. What are your drought questions? Share in the comments below.