Will the West Coast Run out of Water?

west coast water issues

The West Coast has always symbolized a sense of dreams and aspirations. Miners who looked to make a fortune in the California gold rush and young actors and actresses aspiring to make it big in Hollywood. Then there’s also all that abundance of sun all year round and scenic landscape which can take anyone breath away. But, life along the West Coast may not be all that grand as it seems to be.

Record-breaking dry spells have sparked turmoil in the West Coast. Pretty much every state you can think of that’s on the western part of the U.S has been facing a water shortage of some kind. The Colorado River basin, a super vital water resource for 7 states, is the victim of a slower-burning catastrophe entering its 16th year. 

The Colorado River provides water supplies to Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and California and sustains 40 million people in those states. It also supports 15 percent of the nation’s food supply and fills two of the largest water reserves in the country.

Here at iWater, our readers often ask us: “how can we fix water quality issues in the West Coast?” It’s not an easy question to answer. The West Coast has been dealing with water problems for a long time. And like any prolonged crisis, the drought is bringing out a mix of positive and adverse reactions.

For instance, some individuals are consciously conserving water in their homes, even in little ways. The crisis has also inspired innovation in water conservation for restaurants, pools and lawns. On the other hand, others have been caught stealing water from their neighbors, and drought-shaming campaigns have multiplied online.

How bad is it?

Let’s put this in perspective for you:

In the late 1970s, California faced a major drought. At the time, fewer than 20 million people lived in the state. Today, nearly 40 million live there. In the year 2015, California state officials announced the first cutback to farmers’ water rights since 1977. Cities and towns were ordered to cut water use by as much as 36 percent. Despite this, some farmers ignored the rules, even challenging them in court. Presently, the drought shows no sign of letting up any time soon, and the state’s agricultural industry is suffering greatly.

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, have dramatically reduced snowmelt – a crucial provider of water to California and the agricultural belt in its Central Valley.

The water crisis on the West Coast is likely only going to get worse, and there is a lot of information to absorb. So, to help you fully grasp the seriousness of this issue, here are 9 of the most critical things you need to know about the West Coast water crisis, and what you can do about them.

1. The West Coast relies heavily on snowpack each winter

Sierra Nevada mountains snowpack

For dry places like the West Coast, mountains are a crucial source of water. These areas rely heavily on snowpack each winter to resupply water streams or lakes. Due to a lack of winter storms and record high temperatures, snowpack in California is at an all-time low. When the snowpack is scarce, the state’s hydropower supply is also at risk.

There are many things we can do to reduce the warming trajectory. Starting with reducing emissions of carbon dioxide. But steering this ship around is going to take time, even under the best scenarios.

2. An aquifer under the Central Valley is rapidly depleting

The gap between water supply and demand – predicted to reach 40% by 2030 – will not be filled by surface water resources, so aquifers are being exploited more and more for agriculture, power generation and daily use in fast-growing cities.

A large aquifer under the Central Valley is rapidly depleted to make up for shortfalls in the surface water supply. According to a 2011 study, the amount of water that the Central Valley Aquifer is losing each year is equivalent to the 29 million acre-feet of water found in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest surface reservoir on the Colorado River. 

3. California is not the only western state in trouble

Colorado River Basin

When we hear of extreme drought, California often comes to mind. However, Oregon and parts of Washington are having winter snowpacks far below the norm. The Colorado River Basin has been in a drought for more than a decade, and the river basin’s aquifers have been declining too. Water quality issues in the US spread into urban areas also. That’s because the land surfaces are covered by buildings and pavement, which do not allow rain and snowmelt to soak into the ground.

Droughts worsen many of the West Coast’s water problems and heighten awareness of several other issues. Issues like poor access to safe drinking water, the aquatic ecosystem crisis, and the unsustainable use of groundwater. Drought prevention, which really should be part of our everyday habits, mainly focuses on water conservation.

See more on water conservation later on in this article.

4. Groundwater reserves are running dry

1/3 of Earth’s largest groundwater basins are under threat because humans are draining so much water from them. Additionally, researchers say they lack accurate data about how much water remains in these dwindling reservoirs.

Imagine the groundwater was a bank account. In many areas, farmers are withdrawing money without knowing the balance and with no idea when the account will run dry. Groundwater extraction occurring in 21 of the 37 largest aquifers, globally exceeds the recharge rate.

5. Your well-water may not be well

well water west coast

For states in the western part of the US, well-water quality issues can vary greatly. Hawaii, for example, is a state with mostly soft water, even in private wells. If you reside in this state, you may be glad to know that you won’t have to deal with pesky hard minerals in your water. However, other potential issues and contaminants can impact the quality of your water supply, such as:

  • High nitrates
  • Pockets of arsenic
  • Hydrogen sulphide gas, which causes a rotten egg smell

Nitrate makes their way into well water through sources such as:

  • Agricultural activities 
  • Fertilizers
  • Leaking sewage lines
  • Improperly functioning septic systems
  • Industrial processes
  • Motor vehicles

If you think you have nitrate levels way above the guideline levels, then you’ll want to consider doing the following:

  • Install a drinking water treatment device that removes nitrate
  • Try alternative water sources like a point-of-use treatment device (NSF certified) for food and beverage preparation, hygiene, or washing dishes.
  • Relocate or drill a deeper well that has been tested or verified and deemed to be a safe supply.

Getting your well water tested for water contaminants is something many experts strongly suggest doing at least once every year. In many cases, a reverse osmosis system will significantly improve water taste and improve home drinking water quality, and for rural homeowners with their own well, RO water filter systems are often a necessity.

Many times, an R.O. is installed to improve water taste, but treating water with reverse osmosis or a water dispenser can also reduce the chance of more severe issues, such as lead contamination. To learn more about the benefits of having a filtration system, check out our reviews of the most popular water dispensers here.

6. Hard water exists along the West Coast too

Unlike Hawaii, most of California has hard water, and well water is even harder. For this reason, some people may opt to buy bottled water instead. However, more and more people are adapting to environmentally conscious trends and having to buy bottled water regularly may not be in the cards. In this case, water softeners present some unique benef