California is in its fourth year of one of the driest drought on record. The drought has resulted in wildfires, agricultural losses, and water shortages across California. And despite the recent winter rains, every county in California has still declared a drought status. The social and economic consequences of this drought are immense, and it is time Stanford makes real shifts in policy to conserve water.
Drought is not something new to California. In modern history, there have been significant statewide droughts in 1928-34, 1976-92, and 2007-09. However, the magnitude of the current drought is unprecedented. These past three years have been the driest period in 119 years. More importantly, some scientists believe that climate change may be creating significant long-term changes to California’s climate. A study by Stanford professors demonstrated that greenhouse gas emissions have contributed to the formation of a zone of extremely high pressure which hovers over the Pacific. Dubbed the “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge” (or Triple R), this high-pressure region has diverted wet winter storms from landing in California. The Triple R shows little sign of dissipating anytime soon and has led to concerns of a mega-drought, similar to the Great Dust Bowl.
Not only is climate change making California more susceptible to severe droughts, but now the United States is also more vulnerable to changes in California’s water supply. Compared to any other state, California is the nation’s largest agricultural producer. Some food items in America are produced solely in California: 99 percent of walnuts and artichokes, 97 perent of kiwis and plums, 95 percent of celery and garlic, 89 percent cauliflower, 71 percent of spinach, and 69 percent of carrots. With less water, the associated cutback in California’s agricultural output would raise fresh produce prices nationally, increasing the cost of living.
Moreover, the drought is forcing California to divert larger amounts of water from the Colorado River, impacting other economic activity. The Colorado is crucial to energy generation, transportation and shipping, agricultural production, and tourism, resulting in $1.4 trillion dollars in annual economic activity. Even a 20 percent reduction in current capacity of the Colorado will result in a $287 billion loss and cut in 3.2 million jobs. In other terms, this reduction in water supply could increase national unemployment by 2 percent and threaten the fragile economic recovery since 2008.
These are the facts.
On its current trajectory, the drought has the potential to wreak havoc on the national and, even, global economy. Despite these macro-level forces at work, Stanford still has room to think global but act local. While Stanford has shut off its fountains in solidarity of water conservation, there is still much more students, staff, and administration can do. Specifically, Stanford consumes 2.1 million gallons of water per day. Roughly 50 percemt of this consumption is utilized for student housing, faculty housing, and irrigation purposes. On an individual level, Stanford students and faculty can personally make decisions to take shorter showers, shut off the faucet when brushing, and increase laundry loads.
On an institutional scale, Stanford can shut off its sprinklers and go brown. It can also heed water saving proposals of various departments, such as one by the Stanford Hospital’s Sterile Processing Department to save 12 million gallons of water. The proposal suggests replacing old sterilization equipment with new, efficient devices to disinfect hospital equipment. In the long run, this will save millions of gallons of water and cut patient care costs.
Finally, on a policy level, Stanford must advocate for projects that make water consumption and distribution more sustainable. Specifically, Stanford students and professors can publicly support the governor’s Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which will divert pump water flowing out of the Sacramento Delta to distribution systems in Southern California. Rather than being flushed out to the sea, these pumps will allow the government to conserve more water during times of drought and builds the overall resilience of state water resources.
Despite its potentially catastrophic consequences, we often forget that we are in a drought. Our situation is analogous to sitting in the garage with the car engine on. Because we are busy in our day-to-day lives, we do not realize that the danger we are in. We are lulled into a false sense of security. We believe that our rivers won’t dry, our lakes won’t empty, and our rains will eventually come back. But, the threat we face is real, and it is affecting every single part of California.
It is time to wake up. It is time to turn off the car.
Contact Neil Chaudhary at neilman ‘at’ stanford.edu.