The California Laboratory

“It have been so dry you can make a powderhouse out of the world,” sang the bluesman Son House in 1930. That was neither the first nor the last American drought. But even if droughts occur cyclically, the one that has afflicted California for the past four years is exceptional. According to NASA’s calculations, the state’s reservoirs only have enough water for one year of consumption.

Who or what is at fault for climate change? It is difficult to establish a link between cause and effect with this particular crisis. But we do know that the destabilized climate will cause more frequent and more severe droughts.

The Sierra Nevada Mountains, which usually fill a third of the state’s reservoirs, were already warm last week. Only 5 percent of the usual snow cover was found.

This was where Gov. Brown visited to announce a historic plan. For the first time, California is trading the carrot for the stick. It will impose a 25 percent reduction in water usage in urban areas. Golf courses, parks, cemeteries, football fields and landscaping are all in the crosshairs. For example, cities may no longer water their medians.

This plan adds to a billion other emergency measures that were announced a few months ago. These plans include, among others, investing in new technologies such as desalination.

Still, Gov. Brown’s plan suffers from two flaws: It shields agriculture and does not correct market failures.

It is normal to focus first on easy cuts like urban usage. No one will suffer too much over water rations in the golf oasis of Palm Springs.

In contrast, California agriculture is essential. It provides the majority of the country’s fruits and vegetables, and it has already suffered from the drought. Last year, 1,600 square kilometers of land went uncultivated due to lack of water, which resulted in losses of $1.5 billion.

But California won’t solve its problem without addressing agriculture, which accounts for 80 percent of the state’s water consumption. A law advocating reform was passed last year, but the 2040 deadline it imposed is too far away.

Water is scarce, but it remains less expensive for farmers. This encourages them to grow greedy plants like almonds or alfalfa. Alfalfa alone accounts for 15 percent of the state’s water consumption, and it is then partially shipped off to China, where it is used for feeding livestock, another food sector that is harmful to the environment. Meanwhile, California is prohibiting restaurants from serving a glass of water to customers who haven’t ordered one…

These absurdities could possibly be corrected by incorporating the cost of water waste into the price of water.

California, the most populous and most fragile U.S. state, was forced to become an environmental laboratory, as evidenced by its cutting-edge emissions standards for vehicles. It now has the opportunity to innovate with water, too.

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