About this Article
Written by: Hannah Gray
Written on: October 1st, 2009
Tags: civil engineering, energy & sustainability, environmental engineering
Thumbnail by: Ikluft/Wikimedia Commons
About the Author
In Fall 2009, Hannah Gray was a sophomore at the University of Southern California with hopes of earning a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Engineering. Currently, she is performing research through the Sonny Astani Environmental Engineering Department concerning methods of water filtration for third world countries.
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Volume XI Issue II > California's Water Crisis
With its naturally arid landscape, Southern California has always relied on water piped in from other locations in order to meets its demand. However, a growing population and dwindling supplies are creating a huge water deficiency. Traditional methods of tapping into new surface or groundwater sources have proven to be very detrimental to the environment, leading engineers to search for new sources freshwater. Desalination is a popular option, but it too comes with its own environmental impact. To truly create a sustainable future for Southern California, new conservation technologies and practices must be designed by engineers and adopted by the general public.

Southern California: Land in Crisis

Imagine Los Angeles 100 years from now. Southern Californians would like to picture a futuristic and thriving center of the West Coast. Yet, in current times, a more realistic vision is a barren land, with crumbling buildings and sparsely scattered plants. This bleak outlook on Southern California’s future is a result of excessive water usage and rapidly shrinking water supplies. The average Californian household uses about one acre-foot, or 325,851 gallons, of water per year. While most of this water helps produce crops, factories and power plants utilize some and over forty million thirsty residents consume the rest. Forty million people each using at least 100,000 gallons of water a year require a massive quantity of water. Because this water cannot be found in the region, some is diverted from the Colorado River and some is piped from Northern California through a lengthy aqueduct. Even with these outside water sources, Southern California’s needs are not quenched and water consumption rises every year. As this ever-increasing demand for water continues, engineers attempt to tap into new sources of water for residents. However, due to the detrimental environmental impact that the new water solutions can bring, the only way Southern California will truly survive another century is by adopting a variety of water conservation practices.
Eric Polk/Wikimedia Commons
Figure 1: The Bristol Mountain Range in the Mojave Desert. Southern California’s natural landscape consists of dry brush rather than expensive lawns.
Few know the true extent of the California water crisis because the Southern California region is replete with green lawns, decorative fountains, and gigantic swimming pools. Driving south of Orange County, one can observe the true natural landscape of the region. Between Camp Pendleton and San Diego lie 50 miles of chaparral - barren, dry land covered in sparse shrubs (see Fig. 1). In their attempts to turn this naturally arid land into a green paradise, Californians use an average of 50% more water than people in the Eastern regions of the United States [1]. Because it rains less than 10 inches a year in most southern areas of the state, this water must be taken from elsewhere, particularly the other desert states surrounding California, and Northern California. In fact, while Northern California provides 75% of the state’s water supply, Southern California uses approximately 75% of California’s water resources [2]. This discrepancy points towards Southern California’s water problem: too much use with very little inflow.
The mindset of Southern Californians only contributes to the dire situation. This summer, even though many counties in Southern California issued warnings to take more caution with water consumption, few residents paid heed to these caveats and even fewer areas enforced the imposed water regulations. Although few individuals are aware of the precarious position of this precious resource, estimates by the U.N. suggest that by 2025, humans will use 90% of the available fresh water, and in an area as arid as California, this number could be even higher [3]. If all available fresh water goes to human needs, natural environments and habitats will suffer.
Climate change and outdated infrastructure also pose a threat to California’s water sources. As snow caps and glaciers in the surrounding mountains begin to melt earlier in the year, water quantities from these natural resources will become extremely sparse by mid-spring. By summer and early fall, water needed for crops, pools, and gardens will no longer be available. Evaporation from exposed aqueducts due to an increase in temperature and less frequent rainfall also place greater stress on the region. Furthermore, leaks and disrepair cause aqueducts to lose large quantities of water. With all these contributions to Southern California’s decreasing supply of water, imagining a solution is intimidating. In order to prevent Southern California from turning into an empty desert, both the government and citizens are attempting to discover ways to access more water.