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Scientists Say Burning Fossil Fuels Has Exacerbated California’s Drought

Fossil Fuels and Climate Change

The connection between burning fossil fuels and climate change is well established among the world’s scientific community. Overall, the science is settled that human consumption of fossil fuels has been causing global temperatures to increase. Even multinational oil companies like Chevron, Exxon Mobil, and BP have acknowledged the need to mitigate the future risks of climate change. However, in addition to future impacts related to climate change, scientists say that the impacts of fossil fuel consumption are already creating extreme water supply issues in California.

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Record-Setting Drought in California

Beginning near the end of 2011, high temperatures and minimal precipitation events initiated a record-setting drought in California (USGS, 2016). For over five years, water shortages have impacted the entire state, with the most severe shortages being felt in the southern half of California. From 2011 to 2015, California suffered through one of the driest periods in recorded history (Ajami & Quesnel, 2017). As a result of this historic drought, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a statewide emergency in January 2014. State agencies were directed to cut water usage, develop methods to assist drought-stricken communities, and hire more firefighters to combat the increasing number of wildfires.

The Fossil Fuel Connection

Studies from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the United Nations, and numerous academic institutions have identified how burning of fossil fuels has played an important role in the California drought. Extremely high temperatures reduce the moisture content of soils, deplete water reservoirs, and widen the gap between water supply and demand. Scientists have concluded with near unanimous certainty that burning fossil fuels is making California hotter. While the global economy is projected to continue to need an increasing supply of fossil fuels in the coming years, California policymakers have been working to implement a series of policies and innovative projects to mitigate the impacts that fossil fuel consumption will have on the state’s water supply.

Source: Pixabay

Policy Initiatives

As the drought continued to worsen throughout 2014 and into 2015, more policies were put into place in an effort to conserve water resources in California. In April 2015, Governor Brown signed Executive Order B-29-15 requiring a 25 percent statewide reduction in potable water use in urban areas (Ajami & Quesnel, 2017). It wasn’t until two years later that the drought state of emergency was officially ended in the majority of California’s counties.

While much of California is no longer under a declared drought emergency, the National Drought Mitigation Center estimates that 10.3 million people (mostly in the counties of Fresno, Kings, Tulare, and Tuolumne) still experience frequent periods of drought (USGS, 2017). Much of the state relies heavily on the annual snow pack in the Cascades and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges for water resources. However, as warmer temperatures have shifted precipitation toward more rain instead of snow, communities have recently started to struggle with a combination of both droughts and floods (Diffenbaugh, 2007). In an average year, the Sierra Nevada mountains provide over 30 percent of California’s water supply as the snow pack melts in the spring and summer (USGS, 2017). A heavy reliance on the mountain snow pack for water needs has threatened the resilience of California’s water system.

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Balancing Water Needs

As the effects of climate change persist in the coming years, the snow pack in the Cascades and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges is expected to continue to decline (Dimick, 2015). California also faces other known geographic and hydrologic challenges. For example, nearly 75 percent of California’s available water resources are located within in the northern third of the state, while conversely, about 80 percent of the water demands come from the southern two-thirds of the state (WEF, 2016).

In drought years when the snow pack fails to supply California’s water needs, the majority of the state’s water supply is extracted from groundwater sources. To protect these aquifers, the state has implemented a series of policies regulating groundwater use. However, unlike surface waters, it can take years or even decades for groundwater aquifers to recover after significant periods of drought (USGS, 2017). In order to ensure the long-term resilience of California’s water supply without dramatically cutting the consumption of fossil fuels, more solutions are needed to balance the needs of urban communities, farmers, and natural ecosystems.   

Mitigating the Impacts of Fossil Fuel Consumption   

There are numerous viable options to enhance the stability of California’s water supply and mitigate the impacts of fossil fuel consumption. The emerging water scarcity crisis in California is a complex problem that needs urgent attention. The long-term impacts of drought could have immense effects on both the environment and the economy. During extended periods of drought, excessive groundwater pumping can deplete underground aquifers, permanently alter groundwater systems, and cause the land to sink, which could lead to devastating damage to both private and municipal infrastructure systems (USGS, 2016).

Extensive damage related to land-surface elevation changes are already being seen in parts of California’s San Joaquin Valley. In order to prevent further environmental impacts while also maintaining a sustainable and reliable water supply, California policymakers have called for the need to reevaluate its water system, implement stricter water regulations, develop initiatives to support water recycling, and invest in new and innovative water projects. While fossil fuel consumption will still be a necessity for many years, California’s policymakers are determined that proper planning will ensure that the worst water-related impacts can be avoided.

Source: Pixabay

Planning and New System

California’s water system was planned and constructed when impacts related to climate change were much less common (Diffenbaugh, 2017). Therefore, water solutions are needed to address the declining annual snow pack. Policy initiatives that implement new regulations on water use could be viable and relatively inexpensive options to address the water crisis. While the state has already implemented several new initiatives directed at reducing unnecessary water usage, more legislative actions could be taken to identify new policy-related solutions.

In 2014, Governor Brown signed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) into law in an effort to better manage groundwater systems (WEF, 2016). For decades, groundwater systems have been unregulated in much of California. While the SGMA law is an adequate first step in the process of protecting groundwater aquifers, it only requires municipalities to work to identify solutions in some medium- to high-priority groundwater basins and sub-basins.

In addition to looking at methods to develop more concrete legislation to specifically address groundwater conservation, policies could also be implemented to encourage residents to cut their water usage. While increasing the cost of municipal water services could be an effective way to decrease household water usage, other incentive-based programs could be developed to encourage residents to invest in water saving faucets, shower heads, and rain gardens. The most effective policy-based solution would dually increase the cost of municipal water services in addition to incentivizing water saving devices and programs.

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Water Recycling

Water recycling is an initiative that could enhance the stability of California’s water supply. Water recycling uses the same principles as recycling newspapers, aluminum cans, and other recyclable products. Recycling water involves the reuse of treated wastewater or gray water for additional purposes like irrigating agriculture, landscaping, aiding in industrial processes, toilet flushing, concrete mixing, and refilling groundwater aquifers (EPA, 2017).

Most recycled water is used for non-potable purposes. However, in some cases, it can become an indirect source of drinking water if it is used to refill groundwater systems. This process is a safe and cost-effective method that can help to ease some of the water supply concerns. Water recycling systems have become more popular around the country as communities have been looking for methods to improve the resilience of their water systems, conserve natural resources, and develop cost-saving initiatives.

Numerous cities are benefiting economically by investing in water recycling systems. The water recycling facility in Honolulu, Hawaii produces up to 12 million gallons of recycled water each day and will save around $35 million over a 20-year timeframe (Soriano, 2017). While many municipalities in California already invest in water recycling, there is clearly room for improvement. A recent study found that, on an annual basis, California pumps nearly a billion gallons of treated wastewater into the Pacific Ocean (Sangree, 2014). If more investments are made in water recycling systems, this gray water could be reused for a wide variety of purposes.

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Megaproject Proposals

In recent years, there have been numerous megaproject proposals that have promised a number of viable options to ensure for a resilient water supply. One of the most notable proposals is the Waterfix solution, which proposes to create a pipeline to transport water from Northern California to the drought-stricken areas of Southern California. The total cost of this project to use underground tunnels to reroute Sacramento River water to flow into the California Aqueduct and subsequently to Central and Southern California users would be between $18 billion to $26 billion (McNary, 2017).

While the Waterfix solution may sound like a radical project, it’s clear that radical solutions are needed to address the water crisis and mitigate the use of global fossil fuel consumption. In addition to transporting water to the most drought-prone regions of the state, supporters of the Waterfix project say that one of the added benefits of the project would prevent Sacramento River water from flowing into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which would help to protect the Delta’s ecosystem. Moreover, to pay for the project, only about $1.73 would be added to the $60 monthly water bill of the average single-family household in the Los Angeles region (McNary, 2017).

Rising Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Burning fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal has increased the amount of greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and caused global temperature to rise so rapidly that they cannot be explained by natural causes. A renowned Stanford University study that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that human-caused climate change has been a significant driver of drought in California. Higher than average temperatures coupled with atmospheric conditions that have reduced rain and snow events continue to create extreme periods of drought.

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Alleviating the Drought Concerns

In order to effectively address the lack of water resources in California, policymakers have two options to alleviate the drought. The first option would be to convince the rest of the world to stop burning fossil fuels. Given that this is option is completely unachievable within the near future, policymakers have turned to a variety of water-related projects and initiatives to combat future periods of drought.

California’s political leaders hope that a series of innovative water projects combined with new policy changes will mitigate the effect that burning fossil fuels has had on California’s water supply. While California knows that it will be unable to convince the rest of the world to stop consuming fossil fuels, the state’s leaders have decided to lead by example. Following California’s most recent period of extreme drought and detrimental wildfire season, lawmakers have set a goal of achieving 100 percent renewable energy resources and zero carbon emissions by 2045.


Ajami, N., and Quesnel, K. (2017). “Changes in water consumption linked to heavy news media coverage of extreme climatic events.” Science Advances. Vol. 3, no. 10, e1700784.

Diffenbaugh, N. (2017). What California’s Dam Crisis Says About the Changing Climate. New York Times.

Dimick, D. (2015). 5 Things You Should Know About California’s Water Crisis. National Geographic.

EPA. (2017). “Water Recycling and Reuse: The Environmental Benefits.” United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Sangree, H. (2014). California looking to recycled water to ease drought concerns. The Sacramento Bee.

Soriano, C. (2017). What Is Water Recycling? Governing.

USGS. (2016). Drought Impacts. United States Geological Survey.

USGS. (2017). “Is the drought over?” United States. Geological Survey.

WEF. (2016). California Water 101. Water Education Foundation.

McNary, S. (2017). “How much might ‘the California Water Fix’ cost LA?” Southern California Public Radio.

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