How to Survive a Mega-Drought

Questions of drought ethics and etiquette answered

By Ben Phelan


When California governor Jerry Brown held his press conference about the drought last week, he chose the location with Hollywood deftness. “Today,” he said, from a grassy meadow in the Sierras, “we are standing on dry grass where there should be five feet of snow.” This total absence of snowpack was not good. Much of California relies not on rain, but the gradual melting of the snow to keep its land fertile and its towns’ reservoirs replete. But look around, he was saying: There is no snowpack. The drought was not over. In fact, it was about to get worse, which, for a state traumatized by the harshest dry-spell in recorded history, is hard to imagine. Things are so bad, he said, that for the first time, the state of California would be imposing mandatory restrictions on water use, ordering cities and towns to cut consumption by 25%.

It can’t hurt. But how much it will help remains to be seen. Meantime, we’ve assembled an FAQ to help you make sense of the unfolding calamity.


I live in California. My neighbor is very particular about his lawn, and waters it constantly. I feel like I should say something to him, but the idea of confronting him makes me uncomfortable. What should I do?
It is okay to harass your neighbor until he stops watering his lawn so much. Lawn-care accounts for about half of all residential water use, and what is the point of grass? Try saying mean things to him, such as “What is wrong with you?” or “You’re just an asshole,” or “Hey, man, I’ve got these tickets to see the Dodgers and I can’t use them. You want?” Then when he’s away, call a landscaping company and have them rip out his grass and replace it with plants appropriate to California’s arid climate, such as succulents (very beautiful) and cacti (pointy, beautiful) that need much less water.

Pro tip: “Hopefully,” Nancy Vogel, of the California Department of Water Resources, has said, “people will look at a green lawn and find it as annoying as second-hand cigarette smoke.”

I understand the drought is serious, but it’s not going to last forever. Things will get back to normal soon. Chill. That’s how we do things out here. I don’t really have a question.
California receives its yearly supply of rainfall — or doesn’t — over a few weeks in the winter. Once every decade or so, by chance or because of larger climate patterns, the rains don’t come for several years in a row. So droughts are normal in California. The last one ended in 2010, then 2011 saw record snowfalls, then we entered the current nightmare. Droughts used to be manageable — before the 20th century, before California’s population exploded from a few hundred thousand to 40 million. Without heavy-duty and intrusive regulation of water resources, that’s just not sustainable.

Pro tip: …and it’s going to get worse. A climate scientist at Columbia ran the numbers, looked into his crystal ball, and saw a future of “megadroughts” far drier and more destructive than anything seen in California’s archeological record for the last 10 centuries.

I heard Palin-wannabe Carly Fiorina say the other day that the drought was a “man-made disaster.” She blamed liberal environmentalists for the fact that it…hadn’t rained? Is there anything to that? She says she might run for president.
First of all, Ms. Fiorina was on the Glenn Beck show when she gave that quote. Second, Rush Limbaugh heartily agreed with her analysis. So… see what I’m saying?

Pro tip: No one, not even the Illuminati, can control the weather. We are at its mercy. Until it rains, use less water.

Why don’t we just use machines to take the salt out of ocean water? There’s a lot of ocean out there.
Desalination plants are extremely expensive; it costs about twice as much to take the salt out of a gallon of seawater as it does to import drinking water from elsewhere. Plus, the leftover water is so salty that it’s basically poison. It’s an industrial waste.

Pro tip: However, it is possible to install machines in homes that recycle “graywater,” or water that’s been used in household appliances, for purposes other than drinking, such as watering plants and filling toilets. Madelyn Glickfield, director of UCLA’s water resources group, admits that some people find the notion a little gross. “But we’re literally watering our plants with water we could drink,” she said. In other words, grow up.

Are there any foods I should avoid during the drought?
It’s true that some food products require more water than others to be produced. Rice paddies require wasteful flooding. California’s almond crop is notoriously thirsty, drinking up 1.1 trillion gallons of water a year. Beef, too — it takes around 700 gallons of water to grow the food crops necessary for a cow to give 1 gallon of milk, and over 400 gallons of water to produce ¼ pound of beef. So for purposes of water conservation, avoid water-intensive food. Then again, the farmers who produce almonds and beef are suffering from the drought, too. This is one of the reasons droughts just suck. Everyone loses.

Pro tip: For a cheap source of protein, eat a handful of crickets.

Is there way to survive without water?
You could become a bdelloid rotifer, a microscopic organism that can go into suspended animation indefinitely when water is scarce. When conditions return to normal, it comes back to life.

Pro tip: Become a bdelloid rotifer. Or start conserving water.

I’ve read that farmers use 80% of California’s available water supply, but only account for 2% of its economy. Seems like we should be squeezing the farmers, doesn’t it?
Farmers are already getting squeezed. California’s water-rights system is almost incomprehensibly complicated, but the result is that many farms that have depended for decades on an allotment of water from the state supply — their share of a public commodity — are now receiving nothing. Not a drop. Because there’s not enough to go around.

Pro tip: Think that through: California produces 50% of the United States’ fruits and vegetables, including 99% of several food crops. Humans needs food to live. Food needs water to grow. Farms grow food. You follow?

But if almonds consume so much water, why don’t California farmers just tear up the orchards and grow less water-intensive crops, like cucumbers and tomatoes?
Orchards are long-lived, with lifespans of many decades, so ripping up an orchard to plant other crops would incinerate decades of carefully planned investment. And yes — crops like almonds may consume a lot of water, but California is the only place in the US they’ll grow. Almond trees require a frost-free February in order to set flowers that will produce fruit, so — warm climate. But they also require low humidity in the summer to keep them disease-free. Everywhere else in the US that’s warm in February, such as the Deep South, is humid as hell.

Pro tip: Don’t bring up this idea with orchard owners.

Didn’t everybody used to get their water from wells? Why don’t we just dig a bunch of holes and use that bucket-and-pulley contraption to bring it up?
Groundwater probably provides the best illustration of how difficult a years-long drought is to manage. In normal times, we extract a a little groundwater at a time. Then the rain refills the aquifer, bringing the water-level back to normal. In a drought there is a sudden, urgent need for water now, or else very bad things will start to happen (death), so we extract as much groundwater as is needed to survive the moment. The thing is, when an aquifer is depleted, it’s gone forever, so it won’t be available during the next emergency. If the question is, When do we want to feel the pain? Humans will choose, Not now. And the future pain will usually be worse.

Pro tip: Inefficient irrigation methods waste water, but lining ditches to improve efficiency can prevent wastewater from refilling aquifers. Lose/lose. So, that’s not really a tip.

My neighbor recently told me I watered my lawn too much. When I told him that what I did with my water was my business, he used coarse language. He later apologized and offered me tickets to a baseball game, which I eagerly accepted. How do I deal with all the self-righteous environmental fanatics freaking out about the so-called drought? I’m sure everything will be fine.
First of all, enjoy the game. Go Dodgers! Meanwhile, you should bear in mind that the water that comes out of your taps is no more yours that the air above your house. It’s a commodity we all share, and there’s a limited amount to go around. Cut back on your lawn care regimen. Take shorter showers. Accept the fact that your car might have to be dirty once in a while.

Pro tip: While waiting for the hot water to warm up, collect the water going down the drain and use it to water plants. Go to wateruseitwisely.com for another 189 ways to conserve water at home. (Bonus pro tip: Beware the silent toilet leak!)

Need more FAQ? Read Matter’s previous FAQ!

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