California’s One-Year Water Supply vs. Fracking

What if the following headline comes true, as stated by Jay Famigliette, Ph.D. senior water scientist at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech, California has about one year of water left”? LA Times, March 12, 2015.

Well, maybe, maybe not, depending upon the depth of aquifers, assuming they are not polluted. More on this later.

On the other hand, what if a mega drought has set in?

According to Dr. Famigliette’s article, California’s 2014-15 rainy season and snowfall have done “almost nothing to alleviate epic drought conditions.” January 2015 was “the driest since 1895.”

In the Central Valley, farmers are pumping ground water like there is no tomorrow. The land is sinking by a foot every year.

This is the kind of stuff ready-made for horror films, like 35 million people scrambling/ migrating eastwards, back to their roots in the middle of the country, as hoodlums terrorize and vandalize LA and San Francisco. Not to mention the loss of 30% of America’s fruits, nuts, and vegetables. It’s crazy, but what can be done?

The one-year supply consists of water in reservoirs and strategic backup.  Thereafter, groundwater is all that’s left. No one has a lock on how long that lasts. But, if the ground is caving in by one foot per year, that does not bode well.

California has no contingency plan other than “staying in emergency mode and praying for rain.”

Why Harvest Rice if Selling Water is More Profitable?

Here’s one very temporary solution: The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (19 million customers) and other neighboring water agencies are buying water from Sacramento rice farmers, who stand to make more profit selling water at $2100 per acre compared to $1000-$1500 growing rice. ((Dale Kasler,  “As drought worsens, L.A. water agency offers cash to Sacramento Valley farmers”, The Sacramento Bee, March 12, 2015.))

Meanwhile, Metropolitan’s regular water sources are limping along. The State Water Project, which usually supplies one-third of Southern California’s water, expects to deliver only 20% of normal flow. Metropolitan’s other major source, the diminishing Colorado River, is running at less than 50% normal flow. The drought knows no borders.


Desalination is a partial solution, but a lot of time is required to get there. Carlsbad, California’s desalination plant, is scheduled to come on stream within the year. At a cost of $1 billion and after several years of planning, drafting, permitting, and building, it’ll deliver maybe 10% of San Diego County’s water requirements whilst doubling water costs to customers. “It took nearly 15 years to move from concept to construction.” ((Matt Weiser, Could Desalination Solve California’s Water Problem? The Sacramento Bee, October 18, 2014.))

Along California’s coastline, 13-to-15 desalination plants have been proposed, but the expensive plants take time to plan, permit, and construct. As it goes, the build-out will need to be massive, and hurried, but when consideration is given to “bang for the buck,” only 10% of San Diego County’s water needs cost $1 billion.

Other options for the state could be storm water capture, water recycling, groundwater treatment, sewerage treatment, and new storage facilities. Do something!

Price Mechanism Solution

One other solution is to make water costs proportionately pari passu with oil. Precisely pari passu would be cost prohibitive; e.g., according to the EPA, average tap water cost a consumer $2/1000 gallons or $0.002/gallon, whereas gasoline runs about $3/gallon. Since the average householder uses 100 gallons of water per day, pari passu with gasoline would be $300/day for water. That won’t fly.

But, what if water is priced higher but not exorbitantly? After all, the average consumer only pays $300 per year for water. Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average consumer spends $2000 per year on gasoline. Absurdly, Americans spend seven times more per year on CO2-emitting climate-fouling fuel than on life-saving water.

If consumers pay more for tap water, especially in drought stricken regions, they’ll likely monitor usage like never before. In fact, for heavy drought areas the EPA suggests a rate escalation plan whereby rates escalate as more water is used.

Do something!

Americans are Water Hogs

Americans are water hogs, using 100 gallons per day. The average European uses 53 gallons per day. The average Sub-Saharan citizen uses 3-5 gallons per day. Amazing what one can get by with, isn’t it!

Nationwide studies indicate that, on average, 14% of water is lost to leaks. A leaky faucet alone can waste 100 gallons per day.

A short shower cuts water usage in half from 40 gallons for a 10-minute shower to 20 gallons for a 5-minute shower.

Leaving water running while brushing teeth consumes 5 gallons of water whereas using water to only wash out the mouth requires less than one gallon.

Using a hose to wash down a driveway is equivalent to spraying water into the air to cool down several hundred people in the desert on a scorching hot day.

Do something else!

“Across the 50 states, 155,000 public water systems treat, filter, and deliver 100 gallons per person per day, all for the low cost of less than 1 cent per gallon.” ((Anya Groner, “The Politics of Drinking Water”, The Atlantic, December 30, 2014.))

Meanwhile in California, Governor Brown has declared emergency conditions and signed legislation making the state more resilient to drought; for example, collecting what little rain falls in forests and from rivers.

Also, deterrents – California residents can be heavily fined for wasting water, if only someone enforces it. According to Justin Worland: ((“California May Crack Down Further This Week on Water-Wasters”, Time, March 15, 2015))

The state established rules last summer that allowed communities to fine excessive water-wasters up to $500, but the investigation finds enforcement has been rare. In Los Angeles, for instance, only two $200 fines were issued in a service area of about 4 million people; in the southern area of Coachella, no homes with pristine lawns received a warning letter.

Nature Knows How to Survive in Droughts

Fines are one thing, but politicians should look to nature for answers, don’t count on an assortment of bills, rules and regulations that people avoid as soon as eyes turn away. Nature is the infrastructure for water. Forests, wetlands, and grasslands work as sponges by saving excess water during wet cycles for drier seasons. It is now nature handles droughts. Reconstruct wetlands.

Heat intensifies drought by speeding up evaporation and drying out the land. California just experienced its hottest year in record books in 2014. A bulging high-pressure system over the West is blocking rainy weather from coming ashore. Not only that, the National Academy of Sciences claims global warming increases the likelihood of warm and dry conditions.

California’s Department of Water Resources blatantly puts blame on climate change for the Golden State’s drought: “Climate change is having a profound impact on California water resources, as evidenced by changes in snowpack, sea level, and river flows.”

Fracking versus California Aquifers

If standing, please sit. Falling over backwards can cause serious injury.

Fracking for oil requires enormous quantities of water injected with high pressure deep underground. And, a concoction of toxic chemicals (trade secret formulas) are mixed in. The after-effect “waste water” is disposed by inserting it back into the ground. Sound crazy?

Remember the statement at the start of this article about California’s dependence upon its aquifers, once surface water resources dry up?

“State officials allowed oil and gas companies to pump nearly three billion gallons of waste water into underground aquifers that could have been used for drinking water or irrigation.” ((Stephen Stock, et al, “Waste Water from Oil Fracking Injected into Clean Aquifers”, NBC Bay Area, November 14, 2014.))

According to Hollin Kretzmann, Center for Biological Diversity, “It’s possible these aquifers are now contaminated irreparably.”

The NBC story referenced emergency shutdown orders for 11 injection wells in 2014.

But, it gets worse. Still sitting?

California’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources revealed that nearly 2,500 wells have been permitted to inject oil and gas waste into federally protected aquifers. Recently, the state ordered 12 wells to shutdown, bringing the number of shutdowns to 23 wells, so far. “Records show that some of those 12 wells had been injecting into high-quality drinking water since the late 1970s.” ((National Resources Defense Council, March 4, 2015.))

“The state is still in the process of reviewing all 2,553 improper permits. They’re prioritizing their review based on the type of injection well (disposal or enhanced oil recovery) and by the quality of the water into which those wells are injecting. The wells that have been shut down so far are disposal wells injecting into the cleanest drinking water – a group of just 176 wells. Regulators anticipate that reviewing just those 176 wells will take another three months. Reviewing the remaining 2,377 permits will take at least two more years. In the meantime, oil and gas operators are free to continue injecting into these disputed wells.” ((Ibid.))

Stand up and scream!


Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide. He can be contacted at: Read other articles by Robert.