California, Paradise Parched

By Randy Alcorn
March 30, 2015

With its gentle climate and spectacular natural beauty, California has long been among the most desirable places on earth. One of two things could threaten that, either some ginormous natural disaster or excessive population.

Alas, California may be confronting both.

As Governor Jerry Brown observed, California’s disturbingly persistent drought is exacerbated by its glut of human population. The governor noted that for thousands of years California was inhabited by no more than 300,000 people, but now, what is mostly a modified desert, is trying to support a population of nearly 40 million.

Build all the dams and aqueducts you want, but if Nature delivers little or no precipitation those engineering feats become concrete curiosities. And, as Marc Reisner’s well researched Cadillac Desert warned, even with normal precipitation the desert west is being pumped dry by over-development. Currently, California’s aquifers are rapidly being drained by more and longer straws to keep crops irrigated and toilets flushing.

As California staggers into its fifth year of drought, even climate-change deniers are becoming apprehensive about more than just falling off the edge of the earth. If the state is in fact experiencing the first years of a multi-decade mega-drought, things are going to change drastically for Californians, and quickly.

In reaction, people desperate for solutions are proposing ideas at the fringe of fantasy: transcontinental pipelines from Midwest water sheds to western reservoirs; trains with hundreds of tanker cars delivering water from wet regions to the thirsty west; ice bergs towed up from the melting Antarctic; and a chain of giant desalination plants from San Diego to San Francisco.

Some of these proposals may be feasible, but any one of them would come with significant complications, not least of which would be cost. If pumping the dredges of Lake Cachuma and restarting a small desalination plant will cost the city of Santa Barbara nearly $50 million, how high will Californians’ water bills be if most of their water is derived from exotic sources?  Pumping water up hill and filtering sea water require huge amounts of energy. Where will that come from? California already suffers brown-outs during hot summers.

Without consistently adequate water much of California reverts to arid desert that cannot support tens of millions of people, let alone their verdant lifestyles. A more realistic solution to drought, and perhaps an unavoidable consequence of it, is depopulation. Just as millions of people fled the Great Plains during the dust bowl droughts of the 1930’s, millions of people may be forced to leave California during a desiccating mega drought.

That would leave a smaller population, concentrated mostly along the coast. Property values would plummet—to zero in some places—while cheap homes in Detroit might be scarfed up by California refugees lucky enough to have sold in time and gotten out with something.

Admittedly, such a bleak prophecy seems hyperbolic, but it is not without historical precedent and is, therefore, conceivable.

So, what to do, beside buy stock in moving van companies?  Act locally. State and big regional water systems dependent on snowpack and rain are only as reliable as the changing climate allows. The first step for any community is to live within its reasonably reliable water resources and to save water for non-rainy days. That means do not build more than is prudent given the realities of inconsistent water supplies, and be responsibly cautious with available supplies. Keep ground water in reserve, recycle waste water, and do not be exorbitant with any water.

The city of Santa Barbara gets much of this right. After the drought of the late 1980s, Santa Barbara invested in a water portfolio that included desalination, reclaimed water, conservation, and state water. Even though the city’s population gradually increased since that last drought, its water usage remained below pre-drought levels and is down again in the current drought by more than 20%.  Aided by a modestly funded city program, city residents are replacing lawns with low or no water alternatives.

Santa Barbara residents, often criticized for wanting to be the last ones in the door before slamming it closed, are wiser than they are selfish for wanting to limit their city’s population. In addition to maintaining the extraordinary ambience of the city, limiting population within locally controlled water supplies is prudently far-sighted.

While the usual forces of greed have prevented Santa Barbara from capping its population, the city has managed to restrict its growth to 25% since 1972, increasing from about 72,000 to 90,000. Over that same time, the state’s population has grown 81%, from 21 million to about 38 million.

If all of California had been as stingy with growth as Santa Barbara has been, droughts would be more manageable. Much of California is about to learn the hard way that limiting population levels to the realities of water resources is not just selfish elitist NIMBYism, it is vitally sensible policy.

Randy Alcorn is a Writing Fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS) and can be reached at