As California heads into high summer in the midst of its fourth year of a punishing drought, the question most residents ask is whether the state has hit the limits of growth. If the answer is yes, then radical lifestyle adjustments must be made.
University of Southern California historian Kevin Starr who has exhaustively chronicled the fluctuations of the state’s fortunes in his multi-volume series “California and the American Dream,” is candid in his evaluation. Starr said that Mother Nature didn’t intend for 40 million people, today’s population, to live in California, and that the culture which has since 1880 continuously invented and reinvented itself is on the brink. California is not, said Starr, about to cease functioning but will have to make major changes in the coming years. Those modifications will have to start soon, and should begin with dramatically reduced water consumption. Some experts predict that the drought could last for decades if not indefinitely.
At jeopardy during the sustained drought is California’s economy. California’s $2.2 trillion economy is the world’s seventh largest and is, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, more than quadruple 1963’s $520 billion economy, adjusted for inflation.
The median household income jumped to an estimated $61,094 in 2013 from $44,772 in 1960, also adjusted for inflation.
In what may be California’s most daunting challenge, the largest contributor to the state’s economy—agriculture—also uses the most water. Approximately 80 percent of California’s surface water is allocated to agriculture.
According to the California Department of Finance, California will have 50 million residents by 2050. Today’s 40 million Californians struggle to comply with a mandatory and first-ever 25 percent water reduction usage to accommodate its 164,000 square miles of farmland, coastal regions, and cities. Desert cities like Palm Springs have been ordered to cut water usage by 50 percent. Forty million is more than double the 15.7 million people who lived here in 1960, and the state’s labor force exploded to 18.9 million in 2013 from 6.4 million people in 1960.
Governor Brown agrees with Professor Starr but isn't as worried. Brown says that if Californians live "more elegantly," the state can easily house 10 million more people. The metaphor Brown likes to use is "Spaceship Earth," where everything is reused. Brown, however, said little about the billions in the dollar costs of planning, engineering and implementing systems that would recycle water.
Californians have taken tiny steps in the right direction. Public utilities pay their customers to replace their lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping. As a result, consumption is down in major cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco compared to the 1980s, a major triumph given that during the elapsed 30 years, California’s population has soared, home construction has exploded, and thousands of new businesses have opened.
Optimists like Professor Starr predict that California will, over time, change itself into a state that can cope with the drought and whatever other natural disasters may come its way. After all, Starr reminded Californians, in previous eras the state has run out of electricity, and even money, but always rallied back from the brink.
Pessimists, however, can’t envision any practical solution to coping with an additional 10 million people who will put pressure on California’s water supply, and its roads, highways, schools, and hospitals. When looking ahead, Californians comfort themselves with the “one day at a time” mantra.