California drought pits farmers vs. cities. But neither is the biggest water victim
By Andrew C. Revkin
After more than a year’s worth of rain across California, with more to come, our state is experiencing its driest four-month period in more than a century (see chart above).
The state’s farmers, who generate nearly 70 percent of the electricity used each year in California, are taking the brunt of a long-term drought. And in the end, the drought may do as much damage to California’s farmers as it does to its cities.
Farmers, as we have seen, rely on water from wells and surface water, and a long-term drought can put them out of business. That has happened here before.
California’s population has increased by more than 200,000 since 1910, as people left California’s agricultural heartland for San Francisco, the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. San Francisco has been the state’s biggest city for seven decades. No one can say when the drought began, but it has been getting steadily worse — and the consequences are already devastating for agriculture, cities and rural water access.
A drought like this doesn’t just hurt the farmers — it also hurts the city of San Francisco.
San Francisco’s infrastructure is designed for rain, and its residents have never had to worry about water shortages. In fact, in the 1980s, when the state was in a drought, San Francisco was the biggest generator of electricity in the country. But now, while the state’s farmers have been hurt, the city’s infrastructure has been hit too — including water distribution systems that serve the city of 7.6 million people.
The result is a gridlocked crisis of water supplies in San Francisco. And the city has nowhere else to turn. Water rates are already among the highest in the country. When the sun comes out in San Francisco — as it does only briefly each year due to high demand — you’ll know the drought is long over.
And yet water supplies in San Francisco and the Bay Area are still at the lowest level in recorded history. During the last 30 years, San Francisco has experienced the lowest water levels in San Francisco’s history.
When the drought first began to bite, the city did not see much rain. The water problem became known as the