More than 93% of California is now in a state of severe drought according to the latest assessment. New NASA estimates predict California is headed for its worst drought in the last thousand years. While some would say these droughts are naturally occurring, historically these droughts last only a few years. Even some of the worst droughts like the Dust Bowl lasted no more than a decade.
However, NASA’s predictions for California and the Southwest are much more grim. With worsening climate change, many formerly typical droughts like California’s will likely now last for 40 years, much longer than the even the droughts of the warmest period a thousand years ago.
In addition to irreversible environmental impacts, water costs are rising fast and Californians are paying the price in more ways than one. This year, about 500 million of acres of California’s land is expected to be taken out of production. The state’s Central Valley agriculture industry stands to lose $1.7 billion this year, and an estimated 14,500 workers could lose their jobs in an area that is responsible for 5% of the nation’s agriculture. The consequence: higher prices for all Americans. The most affected will be low income families facing food stamp cuts and lack of access to fresh produce. As a state, California would be facing a billion dollar financial loss year after year.
Much of the nation’s conservation efforts have been aimed at curbing public use of water and irrigation, but what seems to go largely unnoticed is the power sector alone consumes more water than any other sector in the U.S. Thermoelectricity withdraws 117 billion gallons of freshwater per day. That’s almost three times the amount of freshwater drawn for public supply.
How does this affect California? The average daily electricity consumption for a California household is 18.8 kWh, and California uses 4.64 gallons of water for each kWh of energy produced. That means the average California household uses 87.2 gallons of water a day for electricity consumption alone. Put in perspective, the average California house uses 700 bottles of water a day just for their power.
Electricity generation from non-renewable sources also has a drastic macro impact. California has 13 million electricity customers. This means that 1.1 billion gallons of water a day are used on electricity generation in California alone, or 417 billion gallons of water a year. It is estimated that California uses 850 billion gallons of water per year for residential and urban purposes, so eliminating water from the energy production process would meet half of California’s total residential and urban usage of water.
Power sources including coal, natural gas, and nuclear power, utilize cooling systems, and as a result, use an extreme amount of water. However, non-thermal technologies such as wind power, do not require any water for operations. By switching to renewable energy such as wind power, not only are you eliminating the number one producer of C02 emissions, but the number one user of water as well.
Imagine, a city like Los Angeles could seriously mitigate its smog problem as well as increase the supply of water by increasing the supply of renewable energy onto it’s energy mix. While many efforts have been made to curb the public use of water, it is surprising that there have been few attempts to lobby against coal and natural gas energy providers’ use of water.
Regardless of the slow movements in state-wide energy policy, Californians can make a huge stride towards water conservation right at home by being mindful of their electricity usage, and where their energy comes from.