If you were to do a quick Google news search of “California drought and population growth” you’d be lucky to find more than a few passing statements buried deep within articles that are regurgitating the same information. All of the news coverage on the devastating drought focuses on short-term problems and shallow solutions.
Most writing about the drought assume that population growth is a factor that won’t help California’s water shortage. Unfortunately, I have yet to find any news coverage that attempts to come up with real solutions to rapid population growth in the West. Nor have I read any statements from our elected officials addressing the population subject. Our “leaders,” however, have been quick to come up with multi-million dollar plans aimed at helping the victims of drought in the short term. No one is tackling the long-term problem of our never-ending population growth.
The drought is in its third year but only recently have conditions gotten so bad that it cannot be ignored. California Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought state of emergency last month after data came in showing 2013 as the driest year ever recorded for most of the state. Some records show that this is the worst drought to hit California in the past 500 years. Experts are saying that this drought could last decades or even centuries. Yes, you read that right: centuries. These are called “mega-droughts.” Many communities and water districts which depend on reservoirs could completely run out of water in the next 100 days or sooner and current conditions suggest 2014 will bring no relief.
The effects of the drought are far-reaching and not contained to California. Farmers whose land has gone fallow are laying off their workers. This is occurring in a state that has a higher unemployment rate than the national average, the highest percentage of its population on welfare, plus the worst state debt in the country. The California Farm Bureau estimates the overall impact of the idle farmland will be about $5 billion.
…. I wonder who’s going to foot that bill?
If you’re lucky enough to still have water, a piece of news coming from state officials this week has got something for you. Contaminants in the groundwater are becoming more concentrated with less water to dilute them. The official warning from the State says you need to watch out for: nitrates from over application of nitrogen fertilizer or concentrated animal feeding operations, industrial chemicals, chemicals from oil extraction and natural contaminants with chemicals such as arsenic. Arsenic. Lovely.
On top of all those contaminants to worry about, other health effects are surfacing. Dry conditions are turning ponds and creeks into stagnant pools where disease-carrying mosquitos are breeding. People with asthma and lung conditions are also at risk because of dust.
January is usually the slowest season for wildfires in California but this year, firefighters put out 400 blazes in the first three weeks alone.
Food prices will continue to go up as the drought worsens. The state produces nearly half of US grown fruits, vegetables and nuts. The California Department of Agriculture projects as much as 500,000 acres of farmland will be fallow by spring.
Governor Brown has urged Californians to conserve but has not enacted statewide water restrictions yet. He announced $687 million aimed at relief in the short term including food and housing assistance for Californians affected by the drought. A big chunk of the money would be allocated to local governments for conservation projects. Keep in mind that this plan needs to be passed by the State Legislature, a body divided on the issue just like the State (some Northern parts of CA are doing just fine).
President Obama visited the drought-stricken state last week to announce his own $200 million aid from the Federal Government including subsidies for farm workers who were laid off, food banks and livestock disaster assistance. As far as what he plans to do on the federal level to address long-term water shortages: “a commitment from the federal government to reduce water use and focus nation-wide on climate resilience.”
House Republicans have pitted environmentalists against farmers in their proposal that would halt restoration of the San Joaquin River designed to bring back the historic salmon flow because farmers want that water diverted to their crops.
POPULATION GROWTH IN CA:
California’s current population is 38 million, which makes it the most populous of the 50 states. This past year, the state saw its highest growth rate in 10 years. The population growth had slowed due to the economy but now seems to be back on the uptick. Nearly all of this growth is driven by immigration. (The natural increase measured by births minus deaths has stayed the same.) The Center for Immigration Studies estimates that if immigration policy is not changed, “California’s population is projected to grow to 60 million by 2050, with roughly half of those in Southern California dependent on the already inadequate waters of the Colorado River.” Nationwide, 82% of our population growth between 2005 and 2050 will come from immigrants and their descendants according to Pew Research.
The agricultural industry isn’t helping to mitigate the consequences of population growth on the state’s water supply. The industry uses around 80% of the state’s developed water supply and not many from that industry are volunteering to cut back. The State Water Project, which supplies water to 25 million Californians, dropped their allocations to residents to 0%. That means 25 million people don’t know if they will have any water this year. But, when it comes to agriculture, the law only allows The Department of Water Resources to drop allocations to 50%. The Governor is begging residents to conserve, but placed nothing in his plan aimed at big business including restrictions on water used in fracking and irrigation.
Keep in mind that the people heading up the big agricultural companies are the exact same people spending millions of dollars lobbying Congress to pass a Senate bill that doubles the flow of legal immigrants and guest workers into the country. If Big-Ag wants to bring in millions of new workers to provide cheap labor on their grounds, they better start sharing the water!
If you are a pro-S744 activist in California and want to bring in more workers- I’m talking to you Mark Zuckerburg, Bill Gates, The US Chamber of Commerce, and The American Farm Bureau- why don’t you turn off those sprinklers watering your perfectly trimmed lawns surrounding your four story mansions? Or how about you sacrifice your shower to a future immigrant!? This way you can offset water shortages that will be fueled by the policies you are pushing. If you had it your way, this future immigrant would move to California and work for one. Probably saving you a lot of money because you wouldn't have to hire an American. So you really do owe it to them.
Big business lobbies and many politicians argue that we need steady population growth (even more than we’re doomed to have with current policies) to ensure our economic wellbeing. But, how will we be better if California is a desert and the rest of the country is paying for it?
Here's simple solution to solving the Californian’s population growth crisis: start enforcing our current immigration laws and adopt the recommendations of the Barbara Jordan Commission which would reduce legal immigration to a half million people per year. These policies would allow the country and California to stabilize population growth, taking at least one factor out of the water shortage equation.
Event the EPA admits: "Future water scarcity will be compounded by the region's rapid population growth, which is the highest in the nation. Projected temperature increases, river-flow reductions, dwindling reservoirs, and rapid population growth will increase the competition for water resources across sectors, states, tribes, and even between the United States and Mexico. This could potentially lead to conflicts."
Where then is our self-described populist, progressive President on population growth and water shortage problems? I’d try the luxurious desert golf courses first.
MELANIE OUBRE is the Local Action Coordinator for NumbersUSA