“My cat knows how to turn the faucet in the upstairs bathroom and I believe she ran the water for nine hours while I was out.”
I’ve been hearing stuff like that almost every day since renting an office in a building that houses the local water company. Customers line up at the service window and rattle off more excuses than a third grader claiming the dog ate his homework.
You can’t blame them. Residential water bills here sometimes run as high as $1,000 a month. And it could get worse: 2013 was California’s driest year on record.
Oakland, for example, typically gets about 22 inches of rain per year; in 2013 it got just over three. Santa Cruz, which averages 30 inches, suffered its previous driest year back in 1929 with only 12 inches; in 2013, total rainfall in Santa Cruz was five inches.
As bad as it is for residential users, California’s drought is worse for farmers and ranchers. By next summer, shoppers nationwide are likely to see the impact in higher food prices.
Normally at this time of year cattle and sheep graze in pastures made lush by winter rain. Now, some ranchers are buying expensive hay and alfalfa to keep their animals alive, while others are selling off herds prematurely to cut losses.
In Castroville, known as the artichoke capital of the world, expensive watering is already underway - long before it would normally be required.
Even California’s fishing industry is threatened by drought - which seems like a contradiction in terms. Yet, with reservoirs at historic lows, water might not be released as usual into rivers and streams, damaging salmon eggs and ultimately impacting the large commercial operations.
Drought conditions are reported in neighboring states, too, including Oregon, Idaho and Nevada, as the jet stream that usually brings winter storms to the region is staying far to the north.
The impact is also evident in wildfires such as the one last month just south of here in scenic Big Sur, where dozens of homes were destroyed and nearly 1,000 acres blackened. In the last 12 months Big Sur has received only about 15 percent of normal rainfall.
Southern California has also been dry, with Los Angeles recording less rainfall in 2013 than in any year since 1877, when record keeping began. But unlike areas to the north, L.A.’s water supply seems to be holding up well.
The National Weather Service’s long-range estimate is for drought conditions across California to persist or intensify in the coming months. Gov. Jerry Brown has set up a water emergency task force.
The dry spell has folks here sharpening whatever political axes they like to grind. Some are quick to blame climate change and global warming. Others insist that California has mismanaged its water supplies, hurting farmers - especially those in the San Joaquin Valley, where wildlife conservation efforts have diverted water from farms.
Here in Central California, the political hot potato is a contemplated desalinization plant that has produced gallons of editorial-page ink over the years but not a drop of water.
Following California’s 1976-77 drought, a state report concluded that “water is a limited resource, and water conservation and water recycling are practical and must become a way of life.” Four decades later, that would qualify as a good New Year’s resolution.
But at the water company’s customer service window in my building, many people seem more concerned about cost than conservation. The clerk told me she has seen water bills as high as $7,000 a month for those with huge lawns and swimming pools.
The real long-range forecast across the West is that in years to come, water rather than oil or gas, will likely be the most coveted natural resource.