The Fallacy That Will Make California Uninhabitable

Owens dry lake, the unsightly path on the route from LA to Mammoth, should be a warning of what could come...

Kyla Tate
Content Editor
August 12, 2022

If you live in California, it’s no secret to you that we are in a drought.

We’ve been hearing the familiar off-and-on hum of “no more water” so often written in alarmist headlines that the cries of the drought are easily dismissed, just like the boy who cried wolf. But we’re on a dangerous path when normalcy becomes complacency. The problem hasn’t gone away; we are just tired of hearing about it.

Owens dry lake, the unsightly path on the route from LA to Mammoth, should be a warning of what could come. An aqueduct was built in 1913 to quench the thirst of Los Angeles’s growing population. One hundred eight square miles of pure Sierra fresh snowmelt was completely drained in 13 short years. A lake that had been in the area for over 800,000 years was gone in just over a decade. The lush green valley, once called the “Switzerland of California,” irretrievably transformed into a toxic barren wasteland.

owens dry lake

Along with the water went the cottonwoods, willows, and the happy livelihood of the residents. Once a paradise, now a dusty unlivable hell. Nothing planted grows, people can’t grow old, and Los Angeles is still short on water. Nobody won — except the pockets of those who chose to divert the water, decision-makers who are long dead. Many don’t know the story of Owens dry-lake, and the voices, who warn of similar environmental fates, are drowned by more “interesting” chatter. But interesting can be deadly when reality is ignored. Without changing our approach to drought, we will experience dire consequences.

A world without water in Califonia does not just mean hardship for the 39 million people who call this state home. California is the world’s fifth-largest supplier of food and agriculture commodities; without water, it would cease to exist, and we’d experience a severe worldwide food shortage. These fruits and vegetables would become a delicacy only in memory. California produces 99% of artichokes, 99% of walnuts, 97% of kiwis, 97% of plums, 95% of celery, 95% of garlic, 89% of cauliflower, 71% of spinach, and 69% of carrots (and the list goes on and on). Whatever you ate today, statistically speaking, probably had something grown in the central valley.

“They want this valley all jackrabbits and sagebrush,” (1) says Jeff Yarbro, a resident of the valley, more commonly known as the bread basket of the world. By they, Jeff means environmentalists, who he blames for the central valley shriveling up with every passing day. In some places, the groundwater is already gone.

A drive along Highway 99 in the summer will leave you with a good understanding of the problem. The relentless sun, 100-degree heat, brown, dried-up farms, and large painted-white wood signs with alarming red crimson text that says:

“No water = no jobs,”
“Water cuts = higher food cost."

The tension is thick; it’s palatable. Farmers need water to grow food. Our food.

California's Central Valley is home to 75% of the state's irrigated land, and accounts for a staggering 20% of the nation's groundwater consumption. Lake Corcoran once covered the entire San Joaquin Valley 700,000 years ago, but shifts in the earth's crust caused the water to drain into the bay, creating the deepest parts of the bay area we still see today. Just 12,000 years ago, the valley was home to three lakes, but by the 1800s, only one remained - Tulare Lake. At its peak, Tulare Lake was the largest lake west of the Mississippi River, spanning over 800 square miles and able to be traveled across by steamboat. However, the drying up of Tulare Lake was a man-made tragedy, caused by the diversion of its tributary rivers for agricultural irrigation and municipal water usage. The San Joaquin Valley, like Owens Valley, is a dust-field graveyard created by human greed.

One approach we’ve taken to solve the water crisis here in California is to build more infrastructure, more damns, and reservoirs. There are currently more than 1,400 dams in Califonia, and building more is extremely cost prohibitive, though some argue that it’s necessary. The snowpack that feeds the rivers and lakes is decreasing and as the snowpack drops, the water runs off quickly. Snow trickles, feeding rivers throughout the spring and summer; without it, we’ve got problems. We will likely see an increase in flooding and extreme downpours throughout the state of California over the coming years. The rain that falls will run off into the ocean at best, or cause destruction on its way to the ocean, at worst. But the reality is even well-placed dams don’t always provide a lot of water and they leave destruction behind in their wake. Dams destroy carbon sinks in wetlands and oceans, deprive ecosystems of nutrients, destroy habitats, and disrupt rivers. If 1,400 dams haven’t solved the problem, a few dozen more likely won’t do the trick.

Another approach to drought stems from a simple sentiment: just cut back. Decrease the total amount of water used. At some point, most of us willingly obliged. We got those unattractive low-flow water shower heads, turned off the sink while washing dishes, and generally conserved. Though, this approach, even when diligently followed by everyone, hardly even makes a dent. The reality is that 50% of California’s urban water use goes to landscaping, and agriculture accounts for approximately 80 percent of all the water used. Using low-flow showerheads is like trying to refill Owens dry lake with a few water bottles; it’s simply not going to work.

A simple solution to the problem is water efficiency. Efficiency involves creating permanent improvements with the aim of creating massive water savings with minimal change in behavior or diminished quality of life. An example of efficiency is taking the water that we use today and recycling it. Every flush of the toilet, every long shower, every drippy faucet, we can capture, treat and reuse. Every glass of water you drink has been drunk ten times by people before. All of earth's water has likely existed since our planet's birth, meaning all water is recycled, so we may as well do it ourselves. We currently only treat about 13% of our wastewater here in California.

Another part of the efficiency solution is creating permanent and semi-permenant demanding changes in human behavior. A great example of this is the urban water space. 50% of California’s urban water use goes to landscaping, and almost all of that goes to turf or lawns. Software solutions, such as WaterView, use metrics, such as demographic data, parcel characteristics, evapotranspiration rates, and hyperspectral imaging to identify vegetation type. They use this data to pinpoint inefficient users with a large amount of turf. They then target these customers to offer turf removal rebate programs and provide irrigation timers that automatically stop watering when there is rain. The data shows that if they focused on getting the least efficient 30% of customers to reduce use by 30%, it would result in a savings of nearly 67,000 CCF. These permanent water efficiency solutions provided the same water savings as if every single customer reduced their water use by 15%.

Conservation is taking a shorter shower and letting your lawn go brown, but those improvements go away as soon as people stop doing them. Efficiency makes improvements that are permanent. By changing the goal to wasting less rather than just using less, we can achieve significant strides in long-term drought management. Efficiency is the solution. It’s the future, and we need to start utilizing the knowledge and tools we have available before it’s too late.


(1) California Water Science Center, U. S. G. S. (n.d.). California's Central Valley. San Joaquin Basin | USGS California Water Science Center, from 

(2) Staff, T. W. (2015, January 8). How California's Central Valley went from breadbasket to wasteland. The Week, from

(3) Eb5 Northern California. EB5 Northern California - Breadbasket of the world. (n.d.), from

(4) How dams damage rivers (no date) American Rivers. Available at:

(5) Fazekas, A. (2021, May 3). Mystery of Earth's water origin solved. Science, from

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