The final feature story in a four part series—A look at the past may reveal the future of San Diego’s water supply, and how it stands to affect local farmers and beverage producers
The world is changing faster and in ways we can’t possibly comprehend. Abstract and easy-to-ignore warnings of looming climate change have stopped knocking at our door and have kicked it down instead. Too much heat, too little water, erratic weather patterns, and the ongoing fight between addressing immediate economic needs against investing in long-term global sustainability—along with America's deeply ingrained and misguided sense of exceptionalism—means that while we’re somewhat prepared for what lies ahead, our current climate trajectory remains grim.
Below our feet, wells are running dry. Look above, and the sky seems as barren as the earth. As I write this in the fall of 2021, 50 of California’s 58 counties are under a summer drought state of emergency, with San Diego being one of the notable exceptions. According to Richard Tinker, longtime meteorologist and drought expert on the team behind the US Drought Monitor, 75,748,354 people live in areas of at least moderate drought in the United States. That’s nothing new, says Tinker, explaining that in September 2002, nearly 160 million people lived in areas affected by drought. But what’s more alarming is the number of Americans now living in the most severe drought zones, which are classified as Extreme or Exceptional: approximately 41.3 million people.
San Diego currently falls under D1, or Moderate Drought conditions. “[That’s] far from ideal, but better than the rest of the state,” says Tinker.
Don’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet. “Many people are not most impacted by the drought severity they live in, but by drought in a distant water source or reservoir,” he explains. “For instance, Los Angeles gets much of their water from the Sierra Nevada snowpack. A bad year for snowfall there has a much greater practical effect on Los Angeles than drought physically in Los Angeles per se.”
He goes on to say that there are three main stressors on California’s water supply. First, the long-term trend towards precipitation extremes, which he attributes partially to anthropogenic climate change. “[There have been] more dry periods than wet since the mid-1980s,” Tinker says. Second is a consistently increasing population (despite much attention spent on the rising number of people leaving California), and third is rises in temperature in areas that have a wider ripple effect. “Temperature increases have led to less snow on long-term average in higher elevations relative to how much total precipitation has fallen,” he says. “Rainfall-runoff is only about 40% as efficient at filling the large California reservoirs as melting snowpack, so ‘snow drought’ has been more common and more deficient than precipitation total.”
Most of the time, it’s California’s roughly 76,000 farms that feel the effects of water shortages first. Lack of water, like so many other resources, has disproportionately affected BIPOC farmers. Non-white farmers are historically less likely to have the ability to access new capital for projects like well-drilling, nor able to rely on generational wealth to tide them over—unlike white farmers, who currently own 98% of all farmland in the United States, according to a 2020 land policy report from the National Young Farmers Coalition and confirmed by the USDA.
A huge variety of crops grown in the United States, like soybeans, are struggling more than ever to survive in current conditions. Crops often used in the beverage industry, like barley or grapes, are far from exempt. “In California, 55% of rangeland is in poor or very poor condition. [Nationally], almost 40% of spring wheat toward late June was in poor or very poor condition ([compared to] 6% same time last year), [and] about 30% of oats were poor or very poor in late July ([compared to] 12% same time last year),” says Tinker.
But despite the seeming inevitability of the southwest’s inability to remain hospitable for farmers (and indeed, humans in general), Californians are actually poised better than most. That’s thanks to both luck and some surprising preventative measures that have helped stave off the worst so far. When the federal government slashed water accessibility to Lake Mead earlier this year in response to the ongoing drought, California escaped relatively unscathed, thanks to our longer-standing water rights agreements set forth a hundred years ago.
However, while water rights acquisitions from our great-grandparents’ era remain helpful to San Diego, it hinders those who were unlucky to follow in our footsteps.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, even the most forward-thinking settlers could never have realistically predicted the massive and ongoing swell of people coming to Southern California, much less the corresponding water use and availability. “Between 1900 and 2000, California’s population skyrocketed from fewer than 2 million people to 34 million,” reports the Public Policy Institute of California. Despite abundant natural resources, there’s still only so much to go around.
Water rights today were designed with a first dibs-meets-imperialism mentality. Once the land previously settled by Native Americans fell completely into white American control, anyone who was part of that initial wave of Western migration found themselves claiming water to establish control of the precious resource. The effects of allocating water based on power rather than need still ripples today. “We have 19th-century laws, 20th-century infrastructure, and we have 21st-century problems,” says Newsha Ajami to The Economist. Still, it hardly matters if you’re first in line for nothing.
It’s not all hopeless, though. “Southern Californians are using much less water than they did in the past — the average consumer uses 40% less water than three decades ago,” reports The New York Times. “The net result is that despite its more arid conditions, the south is well prepared for this drought.”
“Well prepared” might be a bit optimistic, but not incorrect. In August 2021, the city of San Diego finally launched the long-awaited, multimillion-dollar Pure Water project with the hopes of diversifying the city’s water sources as a protective measure against inevitable global warming and reduced access to an outsourced water supply. It’s one small step for San Diego that hopes to become one giant leap for the region.
So how does all of this relate to San Diego’s food and drink industry? In some ways, it goes to show that even the most sustainably-minded producers of today may still disproportionately benefit from long-standing imperialist greed of yesteryears. In more immediate (and less political) ways, it’s the decline or absence of certain crops that have outgrown their value due to cost. More and more, farms are letting fields fallow and produce rot rather than participate in an increasingly unwinnable game. Prices will rise and the previously priced $7 pint may hit double digits sooner than one might think. Producers will continue to question the value of “locally” grown ingredients when faced with rising costs.
The future farmers beverage producers count on to grow ingredients such grapes, barley, or apples may also be harder to find as time goes on and water keeps getting scarcer. You can’t squeeze blood from a stone any more than you can wish water to fall from the air. As desperate growers abandon their fields, dry crops provide even more tinder for wildfires—a continuous circle of destruction. Entire towns that depend on agriculture may not exist tomorrow. Climate change resettlement is likely to affect human movement in the generations to come, but ultimately, there is no escape from climate change.
“Because of heavy management, this is sustainable short-term, but things have to change over the course of the next few decades to make more water available in the face of climate change,” warns Tinker. “Multiple decades down the road, things will have to start changing as the increasing population would stress water supply in the best of circumstances... and climate-change trends absolutely are not the best of circumstances.”
Investments like Pure Water, even with federal and state financial support, will still mean increased prices for utility bills. And even if individual consumers continue to drastically cut back their personal use, it’s still a drop in the bucket compared to corporations’ shares. Realistically, taking shorter showers isn’t going to offset irrigated agriculture’s impact on the Colorado River, considering that makes up 70% of total water usage annually.
Consider this: if the local craft beer you’re drinking costs you $7, but costs a struggling farmer their livelihood, is it worth it? Is there any ethical way to exist while others suffer? And even if private water transfers become more commonplace, they’re still sold to the highest bidder—capitalism wins again. Can we ever do enough? Can we really do anything?
San Diegans are likely to feel the effects of water shortages later than others. But make no mistake—we will feel them. It can feel paralyzing to look at what’s going on in the world today. Hurricanes, wildfires, war, pestilence, misinformation, rollbacks of human rights: the list goes on. But when going head-to-head against Mother Nature, Mother Nature will always win. Let’s get on her side before it’s too late.