There’s this crazy American billionaire called Tim Draper, who’s currently spending tens of billions of dollars on raising signatures amongst the voters of California to hold a referendum on splitting their state in 6 – in effect, to add another five states to the existing 50 states. So far he claims to have secured 1.3 million signatures – more than 7% of California’s eligible voters – and commentators now believe that he’ll succeed in getting his proposal onto California’s ballot some time in 2016.

The proposed dividing lines are predictably political: Democrat / Republican, urban / rural, rich / poor, San Francisco / Los Angeles / San Diego / Sacramento. But so far as I can tell, there’s mighty little recognition of the single most important political factor in the state of California today – and that’s water. Who has it, who doesn’t have it, who needs it, and who controls it. If Tim Draper hasn’t got his head around that, he might as well go and live in New York.

Basically, California’s stuffed – on any kind of business as usual model – from a water perspective. It’s always been a ‘magnificent illusion’ that it could keep on growing its population, growing its per capita water consumption, and growing a huge percentage of the total fresh produce demand of the USA. It’s now into the third year of what most people believe is the most serious drought in the state’s history; the US Drought Monitor has just put out a warning that more than half the state is experiencing ‘exceptional drought’.

(Apparently one business that’s really booming as a result of the drought – and some fairly draconian regulation regarding use of water for domestic purposes – is lawn-painting! I kid you not.)

But it’s the longer-term story that should be giving people like Tim Draper the heebie-jeebies. Some have even suggested that this might be just the start of a mega-drought that could continue for decades. The projected temperature increase by 2050 (as a consequence of accelerating climate change) is at least 2oF and possibly up to 3.6oF. Rising temperatures are already reducing snowfall in the Sierras (10% less today than 100 years ago), which means less snow melt in the dry months, which means less water for irrigation. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the impact on agricultural yields is already massive, and getting more severe from year to year.

In California’s hugely fertile Central Valley, salinity is increasing all the time, with farmers already having to get out of salt-sensitive crops, such as strawberries or almonds, just as fast as they can. The salt content of Central Valley water is projected to increase by between 4% and a staggering 26% over the next 40 years.

Not a happy prospect. And that’s just farming – which still commands the lion’s share of total available water. But what about California’s cities? What about its water-hungry industries – in Silicon Valley, in particular? And what about the water that nature needs?

That’s a particularly controversial issue at the moment. As sea levels rise all along the Pacific Ocean coastline, saline water pushes further inland, especially around the all-important Sacramento–San Joaquin delta – the largest single source of water for southern California. Huge amounts of fresh water are already having to be pumped through the delta to reduce salinity levels – water that would otherwise be available for other purposes.

On top of that, there’s now growing concern that the levees that keep the seawater out are more vulnerable than was thought previously. As all the world knows, this is a part of the world very vulnerable to earthquakes – and experts have calculated that a quake of 6 or 7 on the Richter scale would have a cataclysmic effect on most of the levees, many of which are not in good repair. The US Geological Survey has estimated that there’s a 62% chance of an earthquake of magnitude 6.7 or greater in the Bay area between now and 2032.

But this is California, ok?! Not some basket case of a country in the developing world. So let’s just get it sorted – through improved efficiency in every aspect of water use, through increased prices, through improved civil engineering works, through smart new technology to keep that reducing volume of water in gainful use for longer before it flows out into the Pacific Ocean.

And, to be fair, all of that is happening. Big time! And it’s all highly political! Essentially, there’s lots of water in the north, and most of the demand is in the south, particularly in terms of farming. Getting it there is the challenge – so there’s now talk of a $25 billion tunnel project to bypass the problematic Sacramento-San Joaquin delta in order to ‘guarantee’ the supply of fresh water to southern California. Regardless of what’s happening in terms of climate change, or even earthquakes.

This is, of course, massively controversial – as Tim Draper must by now have spotted. Somewhat less controversial is the use of technology to recycle residential waste (from toilets, dishwashers, showers and washing machines) into drinking water.

At the moment, that’s not possible from a regulatory point of view. But for the last six years the highly conservative Orange County has been pioneering water recycling (to the not inconsiderable tune of 70 million gallons a day!) to help replenish groundwater supplies. It’s a costly business (involving sophisticated filtration, reverse osmosis and UV light), but apparently significantly cheaper than importing water from northern California, let alone desalinating seawater.

Which explains why the Fountain Valley Plant (from ‘toilet to tap’, or ‘showers to flowers’, depending on how you look at it!) is currently being expanded so that it will be able to produce 100 million gallons a day – enough to supply about one third of the 2.4 million residents of Orange County, as and when the regulations are changed to allow direct supply to households rather than replenishing groundwater indirectly.

This kind of capex on more resilient infrastructure is just the start. No-one’s giving up on California just yet, not even its immensely resilient farmers, for whom the climate writing is well and truly on the wall. But central to all these solutions is the need for an unprecedented level of cooperation between the different parts of California – and between the state, the federal government, the private sector and civil society.

Which is not exactly consistent with Tim Draper’s vision of what needs to happen next!

If you want an update on the state of play regarding California’s water at the moment, Mark Schapiro has an excellent chapter on this in his book, ‘Carbon Shock’, published by Chelsea Green.
And particular thanks to Suzanne Goldenberg (of the Guardian) for bringing the existence of the Fountain Valley Water Recycling Plant to my attention.