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California Is in Serious Trouble

california's water trouble

California. It’s a place like no other – known for its gorgeous weather, attractive beaches, majestic mountains, beautiful wildlife, famed celebrities, and the place where dreams come true.  

But the stark reality is that California’s climate is changing, and droughts and wildfires are becoming more frequent and severe. Not to mention that more and more people are being exposed to toxic drinking water each year.  

According to public compliance data compiled by the California State Water Resources Control Board, more than 300 public water systems in California serve unsafe drinking water, and nearly one million Californians are exposed to it each year.

California’s Drinking Water Problems

The water crisis is an issue statewide in California, but about half of all failing water systems are in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley.

The San Joaquin Valley is California’s largest agricultural region and an essential contributor to the nation’s food supply. 

However, a chronic decline in groundwater levels has caused drinking water wells to go dry in a number of the region’s communities. 

In 2013, people began to notice the wells on their properties starting to run dry amid California’s infamous six-year drought. Presently in 2019, the valley is ground zero for many of California’s most challenging water management difficulties—including, but not limited to:

  • Groundwater overdraft
  • Drinking water contamination
  • Declines in habitat and native species

The water crisis in California is finally drawing forth much-needed media attention. It is forcing politicians and world leaders to answer some of the biggest environmental questions, signaling just how serious the current situation is.

“California failing to meet federal water quality standards.”

Last month, The Trump administration warned California officials that the state is failing to meet federal water quality standards. The EPA also singled out San Francisco for unsafe drinking water, which is a larger problem in the Central Valley, where the agriculture industry has polluted some rural communities’ tap water.

Public Drinking Water Systems in California

The EPA particularly called out troubling stormwater management and water treatment efforts in San Francisco and named concerns with 202 public water systems in California, affecting the drinking water of about 800,000 people.

Public Drinking Water Systems in California

According to a decade-long U.S. Geological Survey study, nearly one-fifth of the raw groundwater used for public drinking water systems in California contains excessive levels of potentially toxic contaminants. 

Another concern in the study of 11,000 public supply wells statewide is the extent to which high levels of arsenic, uranium and other troubling trace elements are present. The findings also highlight potential concerns involving the more than 250,000 private wells where water quality is the responsibility of individual homeowners.

The survey gives public-policymakers a look at the degree to which agricultural irrigation, industrial pollutants and other uses of groundwater are adding difficulties for underground water reserves, which are now under heavy demand in California’s drought.

Farm irrigation draining into underground water aquifers has contributed to uranium showing up at unsafe levels in 7 percent of public water supplies in the farm-rich San Joaquin Valley. Uranium can raise the risk of kidney ailments and cancer if consumed long-term at high levels. 

Water Quality + Water Quantity

Water Quality Issues in California

For California’s water managers, the challenge right now is the drought. 

“Being able to sustain delivery of a safe water supply is the No. 1 concern, of course. But water quality goes hand in hand with water quantity,” said Johwatn Borkovich, an official with the State Water Resources Control Board, who helps oversee the groundwater monitoring program.

Water problems with clear culprits, such as oilfield injection into water aquifers, are comparatively more straightforward for regulators to handle. However, for broader patterns of contamination with no single offender, it’s up to the Legislature to decide whether or not there needs to be more attention paid to the results.

During droughts, low flows and extended heat have raised water temperatures and lowered oxygen levels in rivers and streams. These conditions significantly threaten already-vulnerable fish species and can cause harmful algal blooms. Low flows also increase salinity. 

Diminishing Water Supplies

Diminishing water supplies have wreaked havoc throughout the last decade. National Geographic has reported widely on the drought in California and on emerging water scarcity across the western United States. 

Studies indicate that a warmer climate, coupled with the lack of snow in the Cascades and Sierra Nevada mountains, has dramatically reduced snowmelt – a crucial provider of water to California and the agricultural belt in its Central Valley.

To help you fully grasp the seriousness of this issue, read our article on the 9 of the most critical things you need to know about the West Coast water crisis and what you can do about them.

Satellite surveys shows California’s groundwater has been vanishing at a shocking rate:

california running out of water

California’s Water Quality Challenges

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, ensuring sufficient and safe water supplies for homes, businesses, and the environment requires managing a variety of water quality challenges across the state. 

Roughly 400 small rural water systems and schools are incapable of providing safe drinking water. In some areas, nitrate is polluting local groundwater basins. Chemicals such as arsenic and chromium-6 are also a challenge. 

High levels of nitrate/nitrite in drinking water can cause methemoglobinemia or “blue baby syndrome,” that’s because they reduce the blood’s ability to carry oxygen.

The intensive use of groundwater has caused saltwater to intrude from the ocean into underground basins. Salinity in many streams and basins has increased urban water-treatment costs and reduced the productivity of farmland.

Unfortunately, treatment to remove contaminants is costly for small systems that don’t benefit economically. Solutions for at-risk communities statewide would require additional expenses of $30–$160 million annually, and this number is likely to grow.

Okay, so what’s the answer?

As we mentioned earlier, guaranteeing sufficient and safe water supplies for homes, businesses, and the environment requires managing a variety of water quality challenges across the state. 

There are plenty of innovative technologies that could help conserve water, though they tend to be quite costly and will take some time to get underway. 

Let’s break this down.

Mandatory cuts

While the governor has thankfully ordered cities and towns to cut their water use by 25 percent, there is still one drawback. It doesn’t address agriculture, which consumes four times as much water as urban areas do.

Water-recycling projects or desalination

California voters have approved a $7.5 billion water bond to fund new water recycling, desalination, and drought-preparedness projects. This is great news, but those will take time to get underway.

San Diego is building a desalination plant to make 50 million gallons a day of salty water usable, though it will cost $1 billion, use a large amount of energy, and only supply about 7 percent of the region’s water.

Groundwater pumping restrictions

The state legislature has approved restrictions on groundwater pumping from agriculture. But these won’t take effect for another 5 years and will then be phased in gradually between 2019-2040. Unfortunately, these are still being fought by many of California’s farming interests.

Consumer changes

Some have suggested that California would be better off if everyone stopped eating almonds (which are using a ton of the state’s water). Or perhaps we could eat less meat, which also requires a lot of water. It’s true, it’d be a massive boost for the planet if we all ate less meat, but unfortunately, neither of these things will entirely fix the intricate thicket of rules and water pricing in California that encourage inefficient water use.

Here’s how you can do your part!!

california's water crisis

Fortunately, there have been recent innovative technologies that could help conserve water, though they tend to be quite costly and will take some time to get underway. 

In the meantime, here are some water-saving best practices to make a part of your daily routine 

(They really do make A DIFFERENCE)

  • Before pouring water down the drain, think of another use for it. For example, you can use it to water your indoor plants or garden.
  • Repair any dripping faucets!
  • Choose appliances that are more energy and water-efficient.
  • Try purchasing a low-volume toilet that uses less than half the water of older models.
  • Try installing a toilet displacement device to cut down on the amount of water used to flush.
  • Replace your showerheads with ultra-low-flow versions
  • Check your well pump now and then. If you notice that the automatic pump turns on and off while water is not being used, then it could mean that you have a leak.
  • Plant native or drought-tolerant grasses, ground covers, shrubs, and trees.
  • Install irrigation devices that are the most water-efficient for each use.
  • Try mulch for your soil to retain moisture. Tip: Mulch also helps control weeds that fight with landscape plants for water.
  • Try your best not to purchase recreational water toys, especially ones that need a constant stream of water.
  • Don’t install ornamental water features (like a fountain) unless they use re-circulated water.
  • Try out rainwater harvesting where practical. You’ll just need to contact your local water provider for assistance.
  • You want to position sprinklers so that water lands on the lawn and shrubs and not on paved areas.
  • Monitor sprinkler systems and timing devices regularly to be sure they operate correctly.
  • Raise the lawnmower blade to at least three inches or its highest level. Fun tip: a higher cut encourages grass roots to grow deeper and holds soil moisture.
  • Only plant drought-resistant lawn seed.
  • Fertilizer increases the need for water. So only apply fertilizers that contain slow-release, water-insoluble forms of nitrogen and try not to over-fertilizing your lawn.
  • Always choose water-efficient irrigation systems such as drip irrigation for your trees, shrubs, and flowers.
  • Add a layer of mulch around trees and plants to reduce evaporation and keep the soil cool.
  • Invest in a weather-based irrigation controller. These devices are pretty cool at adjusting the watering time and frequency.
  • Install a water-saving pool filter.
  • Always cover pools and spas that are not in use to reduce evaporation of water.
What to Do During a Drought
  • Always monitor state and local restrictions on water supply use during a drought. If restricted, do not water your lawn, wash your car, or other non-essential purposes.
  • Avoid flushing the toilet unnecessarily. Get rid of tissues, insects, and other kinds of waste in the trash, not the toilet.
  • Try to avoid taking baths and instead take short showers.
  • Don’t ever let the water wastefully run while you’re doing your business in the bathroom.
  • Have a bucket or something similar in the shower to catch water to use for watering plants.
  • Use dishwashers only when they are fully loaded.
  • Hand wash dishes. You can do this by filling two containers—one with soapy water and the other with rinse water.
  • Wash vegetables in a pan filled with water rather than running water from the tap.
  • To avoid letting the tap run while you are waiting for water to cool, simply store drinking water in the refrigerator.
  • Try not to use running water to thaw meat. Defrost it overnight in the refrigerator or just use the defrost setting on your microwave oven.
  • Use the washing machine only when it’s fully loaded or set the water level for the size of your load.
  • Use a commercial car wash that you know who recycles water.
  • If you prefer to wash your own car, then try using a shut-off nozzle that can be adjusted down to a fine spray.
  • Avoid overwatering your lawn. Most times, lawns only need one inch of water per week.
  • Monitor soil moisture levels with a soil probe, spade or large screwdriver.
  • When you do water your lawn, do so early in the morning or the evening, when temperatures are cooler.
  • You’ll want to water in several short sessions rather than one long one so that you can better absorb moisture and avoid a runoff.
  • Make sure you avoid leaving sprinklers or hoses unattended.

In extreme drought, it’s recommended that you allow lawns to die in favor of preserving trees and large shrubs.

How to Protect Your Well Water

Well Water Quality Issues

Since it will be up to you to protect your home’s water, here are some tips that can help you protect your water supply:

  • Be mindful of activities near your water source.
  • Keep contaminates away from sinkholes and the well.
  • Ensure hazardous chemicals are kept out and away from septic systems.
  • You can slope the area around the well to drain surface runoff.
  • Install a well cap/sanitary seal to prevent entry into the well.
  • Keep your records updated about any well maintenance, like disinfection or sediment removal, that need chemicals in the well.
  • You can hire a certified well driller for any new well construction, modification, abandonment and closure.
  • Avoid using pesticides, fertilizers, etc. near your well.
  • Don’t throw waste in dry wells or abandoned wells.
  • Don’t cut off the well casing below the land surface.
  • Pump/inspect septic systems routinely.
  • Regularly inspect exposed parts of the well for issues like cracked, corroded/damaged well casing, broken or missing well cap, and settling and cracking of surface seals.

Clean Water Supply

Your health and the health of your family is reliant on clean, safe water. Even if you use well water as the water source in your home, by treating your water source at the point of entry, you’re ensuring all appliances and water sources are providing filtered, high-quality water.

A water filtration system removes different kinds of contaminants and impurities from your water supply. For more helpful insights and tips to help you improve the water quality in your home or community, check out our guides and product reviews about popular brands as well as DIY solutions for improving water quality.

Final Note

We hope this article helped you fully grasp the seriousness of the current situation in California.

We at iWater, can’t stress enough how much we need to be always educating our selves and others on the conservation of water and encouraging others in supporting clean water initiatives. 

With water troubles, comes a host of other scary and detrimental problems that affect not only our planet but our ability to survive on it. 

However, if we all made a collective effort – each one of us playing our part – we could help save the West Coast as well as other areas around the planet in a water crisis.

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