Another drought? Not enough water… or too many people?

Published on February 4th, 2014

By Ric Oberlink
February 4, 2014

California. A drought. Again. But is a drought not enough water for the number of people, or is it too many people for the supply of water?

During California’s severe drought of 1976 and 1977, saving bathtub water to flush toilets became common, and water districts installed flow restrictors in the homes of profligate water scofflaws. Marin residents faced rationing of 37 gallons a day per person.

Some differences since then—low-flow toilets are standard and widespread; many residents have replaced water-sucking lawns with xeriscaping. Another difference—California’s population in 1975 was 22 million. Today, it is over 38 million.

The 1928 to 1935 Dustbowl drought provided impetus for the construction of the large Northern California reservoirs that dominate the state’s water supply system. California’s population in 1930 was under 6 million.

Of course, there is some media hyperbole regarding our current situation. This is the first occasion I have heard of the state’s precipitation measured in a calendar year. California has a Mediterranean climate with a wet season and dry season. Rainfall is tabulated, until now, according to a water year, typically from October through September, encompassing an entire wet season. Only by giving the precipitation for calendar year 2013 do we have the “driest year in California history.” If we have a wet March and April, we may forget about this drought… until the next time.

Still, we have an ongoing problem with insufficient water supply in California. Whether the current dry spell marks some shift in climate patterns, and, if so, whether that shift is due to human causes, makes little difference. Extended periods of low rainfall, compared to anything experienced in recent centuries, are natural to California and the West. A growing human population makes the situation that much worse.        

We now know from research into tree rings that California experienced megadroughts from A.D. 850 to 1090 and 1140 to 1320. To the best of my knowledge, no one has yet claimed they resulted from anthropomorphic climate change. Droughts of several years over the last century and a half are mere blips in the record. In fact, the past century has been among the wettest of the last 7,000 years.

UC Berkeley paleoclimatologist B. Lynn Ingram notes, “If you look at the archaeological record, you see that the Native American population in the West expanded in the wet years that preceded those long droughts…. Then during the droughts, they were pretty much wiped out…. We’ve had this wetter 150 years and we’ve expanded. Now we’re using up all the available water, yet our population is still growing.”

Yes, I realize that agriculture consumes 80 percent of the state’s water, and much of its output is not consumed here, but shipped around the country and world. In turn, California imports food from all over the world, and much of that is from irrigated farmland. Even if we consider that population pressure affects only the remaining 20 percent of the state’s water supply, that is a huge part of the problem, and a part that cannot be addressed by letting lands lie fallow or switching to less water-intensive crops. Moreover, many localities are not tied into larger distribution systems and must depend on local supplies.

Water is a precious natural resource and a limited one, and, like other natural resources, strained by a growing human population. The Department of Finance projects that California’s population will grow to 53 million by 2060, a population gain that would exceed the current populations of either Illinois or Pennsylvania.

More people, less water. It is not a pretty picture.


Ric Oberlink, J.D., is a Senior Writing Fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization and can be reached at [email protected]

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