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Home > Resource Conservation > Water > Sink 

Resource Conservation: Water: California Drought

pic of California
This is quite the ambitious write up for us. However, we feel strongly that we can help provide guidance for this devastating problem. We are writing this in Early August, 2014, and the drought has been going on for the last three years.



California is running out of water.
We do not need to tell you that. However, this is very sever and we feel that when the rain/snow finally come there will be a lot more flooding than in the past. Most of the reservoirs are the lowest they have ever been (many between 5% and 40% of capacity) and well drilling is up by 300%. This is a very serious problem for California and the rest of the United States.
     Peoples wells are going dry, farmers are leaving more than 400,000 acres of production land go fallow. More than 17,000 farm workers are out of a job and many crops that are not getting water are drying up. Also wild fires are more prevalent than ever (45,000 acres and counting).
The state is loosing billions of dollars on tax revenue and have to spend more money just chasing the problem. Federal money is coming because of the "State of Emergency" but will that solve the problem?
     The unemployed are getting emergency food rations when all they want to do is work. While there are not enough people fighting fires.
     We can spend a lot of time talking about the causes, but that will not get us anywhere. This write up is to help prepare California for rain/snow, we will leave the speeches for politicians.

Current Measures To Solve The Problem:

Government Efforts:
The efforts of the state government have gone along way to keeping water in the reservoirs. They have had a tough balancing act to perform over the last few years. How do you balance wildlife, Agriculture and People needs when the resource is smaller than can fulfill them all? Anyway, these are some of the measures state and local governments are putting forward (in no particular order).

  • Cooling the waters of California.
  • Prevent salt water from traveling east of San Francisco.
  • Digging more reservoir capacity.
  • Encouraging people to conserve water.
  • Enlisting public figures to get the word out.
  • Other measures.
These all do their part in helping California deal with the drought. However it does little for the state when the rain/snow comes.

Cooling the waters:
Cooling water is great for the fish and to prevent evaporation. California does this by carefully releasing water from one reservoir to the next.

Preventing salt water intrusion:
This is basically making sure the Delta has enough water to push the sea water back into the ocean. This requires a lot of water and when the reservoirs go dry there will not be enough for that.

Digging more reservoirs:
From what we have seen, the Government is looking for places along the water flow to store more water.

Encouraging people to conserve
At the beginning of 2014, governor Brown asked for a 20% reduction of personal water consumption. Many counties reduced their water consumption by a lot, but some did not. There were subsidies for taking out parts of your lawn and for water saving devices (showers, aerators, etc.). However, these measures were not enough so they began fining "water wasters" by as much as $500 a day. That is great if it goes to creating more water.

Enlist public figures:
There are many stars who lend their time in promoting water conservation. Lady Gaga and Conan O'Brien are the two latest voices for water conservation.  We have no way of knowing if their efforts are producing results.

Other measures:
There is increased signage and PSA's regarding water conservation. This may build awareness but may do little to change people's habits.

Public Efforts:
Here we lump public and academic together. Many people are pitching in and we applaud all of their efforts. Many people and businesses are ripping out their lawns and putting in things that require less water (or no water).
     Likewise, UC Davis is making a lot of effort in curbing UC water use and having an impact on other California Institutions. Check the references below to find part 2 of their multi part series.
     Farmers are not planting crops that require water, mostly because they are getting 0 water allotment from California.
     People are also stepping up, volunteering to help in any way they can. These people are great but need a cogent plan to volunteer for.

We understand that there are a million more efforts going into conserving water. However, we would like to add some suggestions to the already valiant efforts.

Our Suggested Goals:

We feel it necessary to set some goals. We will suggest ways to accomplish these goals knowing that there could be better ways to achieve them.

  • Stop The Fires.
  • Build Soil.
  • Cool The Land and Water.
  • Build Reservoir Capacity.
  • Improve Water Infrastructure.
  • Residential and Commercial Conservation Improvement.
Some of these goals are to help manage the drought now and some are for after it rains or both.

We assume that it will take years to bring the land back from this extreme drought. If we do all these things in a measured and consistent way the land will recover and thrive. People have to be patient. The drought will be over long after the reservoirs are full.

Stop The Fires:

OK, this is like, duh! But how do we do it on limited budget and limited water?

One of the best ways to conserve water at a fire is to not let it spread and get out of control. Also, for every extra acre of land that is burnt, you are loosing the water capture ability it already has and releasing carbon into the air.
     We also know that water is more abundant on smaller fires than on larger fires. Therefore, fighting, containing, controlling and mop up will have more water available the smaller the fire. So, how do we keep the fires smaller?
     Simply put, "boots on the ground" or "when the snow flies". In other words, a larger labor force but this has to be done strategically. At this point we would like to break this discussion into 2 parts. Fire Attack and Mop-Up.

Fire Attack:
Here we believe there should be 1,000 extra persons stationed in California. We believe these people would perform several functions. All of these people would have to be able to pass any physical fitness test by BLM, Forest Service, or any other agency (tribal) fitness test.
     These people will be assigned duties of guard (observers), engine strike team crew, hand crew strike team crew and air support. They should go through "Fire School" as soon as possible. Half of them should also go through "Engine School". When not fighting fires they should be training or helping mop up crews.
     These new forces should be paired up with the more experienced fire fighting forces from BLM, Forest Service, Park Service and so on.
     This force should get paid a little more than minimum wage and be entitled to hazard pay and over time when on a fire. These forces will cost $8 to $10 million per month but the investment will be well worth it. The emergency funds from the state and federal government would pay for their support.

     Where will this labor force come from? We understand more than 17,000 farm workers have been laid off by the farmers. Perhaps some of them could join this temporary force.

     How temporary is this force? That depends on the fire danger and replenishment of their water sources. These forces should join the mop up/restoration crews when not fighting fires. If they go for more than 6 to 9 months without being called to a fire they should be disbanded.
Mop-Up And Restoration:
We believe that There should be a significant force just for this. Say 1,000 to fill this role. A mop-up crew would still have to go through fire school, but not be paid hazard pay and over time.
     As soon as the fire is considered mopped up, the mop-up crews should immediately work on restoration of the land. Since there is a need for biomass in restoration they should fall as many trees as they can (that have been burnt). They need to plant ground cover seeds and tree starts. The ground cover and trees should be typical for that area (while also bearing in mind the merchantable aspects).
     Since the piece of land has lost it's ability to slow down and hold water the planting should be designed to do that. Therefore, we recommend replanting not in the typical grid patter but in what we call a Pachinko pattern.
     Simple put, plant tree starts on the down hill side of a tree or stump (2 to 3 starts) within 2 feet of the stump. Then on the uphill side of the tree or stump dig a quick trench (on contour) about 6 to 8 feet long and 3 to 12 inches deep.  Just doing this will slow water down and allow it to soak into the soil. If you want to also store water, simply put a few large branches or tree trunks into the trench and cover it with the dirt from digging the trench. Water will be stored in the wood like a Hugelkultur bed. To store even more water dig a trench (swale) uphill and parallel to Hugelkultur bed putting the dirt over the hugelkultur bed. Fill the new trench with mulch (chipped up wood or whatever) if available. Then broadcast ground cover seed over the area. Water should be poured over the new planting. If the log in the hugelkultur bed is 6" in diameter, this system can hold about 3/8 of a gallon of water per foot.
      This should be done starting at the ridge top and go to valley for each drainage in the affected areas. This method will create something like a Pachinko board for the rain water as it travels down hill.
      This force may cost about $5 to $7 million a month. Also, this crew would be a temporary force. When they have restored the burnt acreage on public land they should be made available for private and corporate forest owners with a small supplement from the state.

Build Soil:

We are not just talking about a back yard garden here. We mean soil (dirt) everywhere. We believe that one of the best ways to prevent floods is to slow the rain water down where ever it lands. This can be done with physical barriers and good soil at these barriers. Thus we can recharge the water tables and have a more consistent water flow all year in the rivers.
     Many people think these steps should be mandated by law. However, we believe that the most effective ways to implement these changes is to educate the public.
Our Suggestions:
  • Waste biomass should be conserved.
  • Farming practices should regenerate soil with little input.
  • Reclaim artificial ground cover.

Waste biomass should be conserved:

Biomass is all material that was part of a plan or animal. For the purposes of this discussion we exclude human waste (urine and fecal matter), pet waste, noxious weeds, chemically treated wood, animal bones and human and pet bodies.
     What biomass does include is table scraps, yard waste, trees, newspaper, compost, rotten vegetables, livestock poop and much more. It should be the goal of every person, business, farm and municipality to have a useful path for all waste biomass so that it can be used to build soil or help us in other ways (i.e. wood to heat our homes).
     Seattle Example: A few years ago (2010), Seattle enacted a law for any place that serves food to have a compost waste receptacle. They also insist in this law that food serving venues make all the serving items (utensils, napkins, cups, etc) be biodegradable. Looking at year over year garbage and organic hall rates since 2009 the garbage haul has gone down about 12% and the organic haul has come up by 5 to 7%.

In 2013, the city of Seattle sent to the composter nearly 140,000 tons of organic waste to be composted. Assuming that yields 100,000 tons of compost, that is enough to spread a 3 inch layer of compost over 1 a square mile.

Our Stance:
We believe every city in California should save every bit of organic material it can. Then either use it locally or send it a short distance east. Why? This water rich material should go back up the water path.
     Whether the city can make money on it or not, it is essential to start spreading this soil holding material around. A city can start by asking residents to bring their organics to a central location. This would include yard waste and maybe even meat and dairy. After a month or so of aging (decomposing) this material could be spread around the edge of town (a mile or two away).
This decomposing material, in contact with the ground, will allow it to hold water when it rains. This material will also deposit nutrient on top of the soil. As it rains, the nutrients will find their way into the soil.
     Attracting wild animals? Who cares if the organic material is a few miles away from town. The wild life in California is getting hungry. So hungry in fact, we are seeing wild animals coming into towns to try to find food and water. Would you rather have the wild animals in town?
     Wind? Wind may blow the material around and even back into town. We believe this is manageable compared to the hassle of cleaning up after a flood.
      Best places for the organic material? Bare slopes. We suggest starting with hills or areas that have a slope that will channel the water into a town.  We suggest a swale is dug on contour on these hills and the organic material put inside.  Then the swales can be buried with the dirt just dug up. This method should start high on a bare slope and work downward.
     Pesticides, herbicides and junk in the organic material? While this may be a concern for people putting compost into their back yard garden it should be less of a concern for creating a flood break. The important thing is to get the soil held. The pesticides and stuff will break down over time.

Farming practices should regenerate soil with little input:

Most all farmers we have ever met are very smart people. They are open to new ways of growing things and are very good problem solvers. However, most limit themselves to growing crops they wholesale and have local elevator storage for. Likewise, some will establish contracts with food producers that will only accept certain practices. This creates stability for a farmer but may not lead to a good profit. The problem is, conventional farming may lead to flooding and thus loss of the crop and soil anyway.
     Therefore, we ask the farmers to consider "no-till" farming. In a nut shell, this method of farming allows farmers to keep the soil alive all year long and build biomass into the soil.  Generally, there are three ways farmers do "no-till" farms.
    1) Permaculture: These are the kings of harvesting and slowing every bit of water coming on their property. They do this by creating swales on contour, creating ponds and having most all soil covered with either mulch or plant. These farmers build wealth through the cultivation of their crops in a very efficient way. Most, however, grow 100's of species of plant and rely on hand tools to plant and harvest. The ones that utilize machines still grow too much diversity to make one big cash crop. These farms tend to be less than 10 acres and their product tends to be sold at farmers markets and local restaurants. We believe every farmer should take a couple of hours learning permaculture principles even if they will never use them.
     2) Cover/Cash Crop Rotator: This type of farm is just like a conventional farm, except, most of these farmers virtually eliminate the use of chemical fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide over the long term.  No-till farming has been around for decades, however, these farmers now grow a cover crop. They seed the cover just after harvest of the cash crop and kill the cover just before seeding the cash crop. This basically turns the worked fields into one giant thin compost pile (kinda). This method of farming builds soil so it is generally called "regenerative" (better than "sustainable"). As the soil builds farms tend to see higher yields (per acre) of their cash crop utilizing less water (can be 50 to 70% less). How long it takes depends on current soil fertility and average annual rain fall. There is a lot of detail involved with this type of farming which we will not go into here. We feel the best source of information about this is your local extension office or Soilhealth.net.
    3) Mob Feeding Livestock: Many ranchers do not like the term "mob" when applied to this style of feeding livestock. However, the results are quite astonishing. Many no longer seed their pastures or have to provide hay in the winter. All done with irrigating the pastures less. The idea is to let large groups of livestock eat in a small area (paddock) for a short time. Then move the herd to a new paddock. Keep rotating paddocks until you come back to the first. By then, that paddock will have recovered and actually produce higher amounts of food for the livestock. After many years of this type of livestock rotation the soil is very rich and could easily be turned into highly productive crop land. Or a farmer could grow cash crops and graze cover crops when they want to kill the cover.
Farm Crops:

Annual Farms (growing on an ocean of water): Here we mean crops that are only harvested in one year like wheat, corn, potatoes and so on. Most farms in California are sitting on an ocean of water at the sub soil level. We say "ocean" because all that water is salty and unusable in its current form to water new crops. A few new companies have popped up in California that pump the water out and use the power of the sun to distil it into clean water. However, doing a "no-till" cover/cash crop rotation should be able to leave enough life in the soil to create the necessary conditions to reclaim that water over time. That is, if you do not fertilize anymore with synthetic fertilizers because that is what put the salt there in the first place.
     Bottom line. Most farmers see a 0.1% to 0.2% point increase in the amount of organic matter in their soil per year. This is usually at the expense of roughly 1-3 inches of rain fall. This makes cover cropping a small risk at first and even smaller as time goes on.  Less risk because the higher the organic matter in the soil the higher the infiltration of water.

Perennial Farm (The Kings of Carbon): Here we mostly mean the orchardist. Every year orchardists trim their trees and cull old trees. Many take all this carbon rich material out and burn it. We suggest that this material becomes an asset for the farm instead of a liability. A farm could chip it in place and leave it on top of the soil or bury it and make it a receptacle for water storage. Either way, this woody material eventually (a few years) becomes usable soil full of nitrogen, carbon and other minerals. And there are no transport and labor costs to get it out of the orchard, no burn permits, and no danger the fire will get away from you.
     An orchardist can also grow a cover crop between the rows of trees. This crop could be food for livestock. If not, it could be mowed with a side discharge to the base of the trees giving soil cover (armor) and a nutrient rich mulch. Either way, the cover crop will hold water when it rains.

Wholesale Sucks:
There we said it. Oh, don't get us wrong, it is great to have a dedicated elevator set up in town and to have a market to sell to automatically.  However, if farms do what we are suggesting, they will have a better product than most of their neighbors.
     We suggest that farms choose to take a small portion of their cash crop and sell it in the local market (farmers market). Maybe, a farm can assign a small portion of land to grow another crop it can sell locally. Either way, if these farms process the crop in a small way they can make even more money in the local market. For Example; Say a wheat farmer grows 20% protein wheat. He/she could sell wheat, flour and bread in a local market (farmers market, restaurants, grocery store, etc). The farmer can get a premium for such a high protein product.

Selling The Farm?
There are many factors that go into establishing what farm land price should be sold for. Among them is the amount of soil fertility. Conventional farming = decreasing soil fertility. No-till farming = increase soil fertility. You choose.

Reclaim artificial ground cover:

Here we means all ground surfaces that do no allow water to penetrate into the soil. Examples of this are roads, sidewalks, vacant lots, buildings, rail road tracks and much more. City planners accommodate rain water by placing storm drains throughout a city. These drains allow water to come to a centralized location. The city might process this water and release it back into a local stream or river. Likewise, on the highways, ditches can channelize water and create large volumes of water that need to go somewhere. In some cities, buildings can go for blocks with no connection to the soil underneath.

The Problems:
There are many problems with a system like this.
    As run off paths age, they break down. This could mean that they leak. They will also collect debris. This debris can clog the drains allowing water to back up to the storm drains that feed it (creating flooding at the drain). If enough of them back up, they can flood buildings.
     Run off systems are basically washing off (during rain) chemicals left on roads, sidewalks and buildings. These chemicals can be gasoline, oil, antifreeze, pesticides, fertilizers and so on.
     New construction will tie into these storm systems. However, the "processing center" will tend to stay the same size until a city bond is passed. This means that many cities will not be able to keep up with all but the smallest of rain storms.
     Older systems themselves tend to put a lot of energy into the water so that it flows out to the water body as quickly as possible. This does not allow the sediments and chemicals to be removed or diluted from the waste water.
     Perfectly good water that can be used to water plants is wasted.

The Solution:
We do not think there is any one fix to the problem of flooding in cities and along roadways. What we can say is, it is best to slow the water down and have as much of it be absorbed by the water table as we can before it hits the water body. We are not saying that there should be standing water where cars drive or people walk, that would defeat the purpose. The trick is to divert the water to places that it will do some good or at least slow down the main water body flow so that it has a chance to drop silt and chemicals before it gets into main streams and rivers. The following are the creative tools people have come up with to help prevent flooding.
BioSwales: A popular thing for edges of parking lots and sides of roads. These swales are basically a ditch with vegetation. Usually the lowest part of the parking lot, they are built to allow water to spill over into this ditch. Many times there is a storm drain 6 to 18 inches above the lowest level of the ditch. This allows the chemicals and silt in the storm water to infiltrate into the vegetation (and soil) which filters the chemicals and builds soil.
     Permeable Pavement: is a popular alternative to sidewalks and parking spaces in a parking lot. Here we are talking about the use of pavers (spaces between) or there are some concrete that has a 15 to 25% void fraction. This pavement basically allows 5 gallons a minute to be absorbed by 1 square foot of pavement. The cement looks like Rice Krispies but functions just like concrete. A neighbor hood (20 homes) in Sultan Washington used permeable pavement for all the driveways, sidewalks and roads. Because of this they eliminated the need to plumb in a storm drain, detention vaults, ponds and perimeter structures. This saved $ 0.5 million on the project.
     Building Roofs: There are many alternatives here. Some people do green roofs which is turning your roof into a garden or lawn. We feel that in California, there are too many years that have drought conditions so a green roof might be a brown roof. If you have a gutter that goes directly to the storm drain or sewer, you could simply disconnect the gutter and allow the water to go onto a lawn or garden. That will infiltrate the soil some. However you must watch out for allowing water back into your house (foundation). Once disconnected, some people divert their roof run off to a rain garden . However, if the area is prone to drought the garden will need some supplemental watering. Some people will install a rain catchment system. For every 100 square feet of roof you have and for every inch of rain that falls you can collect 63 gallons of water. Therefore, at typical house that has 2,000 square feet of roof with 10 inches of rain fall per year can collect roughly 25,000 gallons of water a year. What you do with that would be up to you.

Other Solutions:
Many people have great ideas as to how to curb run off and slow the water body. These include (but are not limited to): Serpentine the water body, gabion the water body, Shading the water body, planter boxes, urban tree canopies and much more.  check out the following EPA page for more ideas.

What The Government Can Do:

When we use the word "government", we will mean in the general sense (State, County, City) unless we point to a specific entity. We can see, everyone is looking to the government to help provide them with water. This includes farmers, ranchers, big business, small business, wildlife preservation, a thirsty population and others. Everyone fighting for a shrinking resource. And the government is in the middle deciding who gets what. These are some very tough decisions and we do not envy their task.
      This should not be about punishing someone in an unpopular group, but about agreeing on how best to replenish and build a water table for all parties involved. Something fair and not necessarily equal.

Build Reservoir Capacity:

Coming Soon

Improve Water Infrastructure:

Coming Soon

Residential and Commercial Water Conservation Improvement:

Coming soon.

Green Calculator :

Glossary Of Terms:

  • Aerator: A device placed in a faucet to reduce the flow rate (gpm) of the water coming out the faucet.

  • Compost: A material that provides fertilization to gardens and fields. Usually made from broken down (decomposed) organic material such as food or yard waste.

  • Greywater: Water that has been used for some other purpose but is not contaminated by human waste (urine and/or fecal matter).  Also, this water should not be contaminated by medicines, pesticides, and other toxic chemicals.
  • GPM: Gallons Per Minute.

  • Brass: An alloy of Copper, Lead, Zinc and Tin.

  • 100 Cubic Feet of Water: About 748 gallons of water.

  • Hugelkultur bed: From the German "Mound Culture" A raised bed using rotting wood as its core covered in dirt (soil).


http://www.ibtimes.com/california-drought-2014-exceptional-drought-levels-now-cover-more-half-state-soil-water-1645650, International Business Times, California Drought 2014, taken 8/10/2014

http://www.acwa.com/content/2014-drought-watch, 2014 Drought Watch, Association of California Water Agencies. Taken 8/10/2014

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aal7AAGSis0#t=30, Symposium at UC Davis, Published May, 2014, Taken 8/10/2014

http://ca.gov/drought/, CA.gov, California Drought, Taken 8/10/2014.

http://ca.gov/drought/news/story-59.html, State Water Board Approves Emergency Regulation. Ca.gov, taken 8/10/2014

http://www.seattle.gov/util/Documents/Reports/SolidWasteReports/index.htm, Solid Waste reports, Seattle Pubic Utilities, Taken 8/18/2014

http://atyourservice.seattle.gov/2010/06/30/seattle-restaurants-switch-to-composting-and-recycling/ Seattle Restaurants Switch to composting and Recycling, Seattle Public Utilities, Taken 8/18/2014

http://puyallup.wsu.edu/soilmgmt/CompostMixCalc.html, Compost Mixture Calculator, WSU - Puyallup, Taken 8/19/2014

USDA Website, No-Till farming is a growing practice. taken 9/11/2014

http://thefarmerslife.com/environment/what-is-no-till/ , What is no-till? The Farmers Life, taken 9/11/2014.

http://sustainableagriculture.net/ National Sustainable Agriculture web site, taken 9/11/2014.

http://www.sare.org/ Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education web site. taken 9/11/2014

http://soilhealth.net/ Soil Health web site, taken 9/13/2014

http://www.landfood.ubc.ca/research/soil-water-and-sustainability-group/soil-water-systems-group/ Soil-Water Systems Group, University of British Columbia. Taken 9/30/2014.

http://water.epa.gov/infrastructure/greeninfrastructure/gi_what.cfm What Is Green Infrastructure? (dealing with storm water), US. EPA site, taken 10/1/2014.

http://www.perviouspavement.org/ Pervious Concrete Pavement, taken 10/1/2014.

http://www.boe.ca.gov/pdf/pub66.pdf Publication 66, "Agricultural Industry, Oct 2014", California state government site. Taken 12/19/2014.

Water conserving products in our Amazon.com store.

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