Working together to tackle the California drought and its root causes

It often seems like we have an abundance of water on our blue planet, but in fact, it’s a limited resource. Much of our water is salt water, and a high percentage of fresh water is frozen in glaciers. Moreover, a combination of overuse, pollution and changes in land use have decreased the amount and quality of fresh drinking water that’s available.

Why do we have droughts?

During a drought, our reliance on this precious resource is brought into sharp focus and we think more about why water shortages happen. Droughts occur for various reasons, some linked to human activity and some to atmospheric conditions. Lower than average precipitation, agriculture and climate change all have a role to play.

What exacerbates a drought?

Droughts have occurred throughout our history, mainly during periods of especially low rainfall. It is normal for a very dry spell to continue in a specific area for weeks, months or years. However, under certain circumstances, droughts can be lengthened or intensified.

A loss of trees

Known as deforestation, the large-scale removal of trees for timber, or to make space for agriculture, has a huge impact on an area’s natural water stores. This is because the rain that would usually sink into the soil and remain in place, runs off the dry land instead. As a result, the ground begins to erode and take on a desert-like appearance, which leaves it vulnerable to future droughts. To compound the problem, drought and wildfires are known to create further tree shortages due to the loss of seeds.

Global warming

As the world becomes warmer and temperatures rise, the amount of water that evaporates from key areas such as reservoirs and lakes increases. That’s why the Cadiz Water Project aims to collect and store water from the eastern Mojave Desert which would otherwise be lost to evaporation. The initiative will eventually offer a safe and reliable supply to 100,000 families and also create hundreds of new jobs.

Meteorological changes

It is clear that climate change is influenced by human activity, but many meteorological events are out of our control. Drought can soon take hold when an area has less rain, snow, sleet or hail than average. A lack of water vapor leads to less moisture in the air and an increased risk of long dry spells.

Helping to prevent future water shortages

Water scarcity does not just affect California – it’s a global concern. However, the more we can do locally to manage our water, the better our chances are of avoiding a crisis.

Try your hand at xeriscaping

It might sound like a buzzword, but xeriscaping is a genuinely clever way of designing a beautiful outdoor space that needs minimal watering. The idea is to plant selectively, using only shrubs, trees and grasses that are native to your local area and able to survive on rainfall alone. You could incorporate rocks, shingle or sanded areas to add areas of extra interest to your outdoor space.

Recycling your water at home

Although many businesses are already collecting greywater and rainwater to reuse in manufacturing and waste, we are less likely to do so at home. Water that is left over from cooking, is ideal for garden irrigation and you can keep an empty jug handy in the kitchen just for this purpose.

Adapt your lawn care routine

Although it’s best to limit the time you use a sprinkler, there are ways to get the most out of each irrigation session. Primarily, always check that you are only watering plants and that any paved areas are not being touched. Timing devices can be an effective way of limiting the amount of water you use but check them regularly to ensure they are working correctly. Finally, resist the urge to have a short lawn. Longer grass has larger roots that work their way deeper into the soil and as a result, this type of lawn needs less watering.

Embrace water-saving products

Flushing the toilet, showering and washing our hands are everyday actions that use lots of water. A good way to reduce use is to look for devices around the home that can be retrofitted. You could install flow restrictors on faucets to use less water, put a displacement device in the tank of your toilet to minimize each flush and opt for a low-flow showerhead. When the time comes to change your large appliances, purchase washing machines and dishwashers that are water efficient.

To ensure we enjoy a sustainable supply of fresh water and avoid worsening periods of drought, it is necessary to change some of the ways we manage our supply. It may be a challenge, but if Californians are willing to learn new approaches to water usage, we will soon make valuable progress.