Sunday, May 10, 2015

California Drought: Fracking and Animal Farming Add to Water Woes

Farming operations that feed much of the nation consume 80 percent of California's dwindling water supplies. Consumers across America could help by cutting back on eating cheese burgers. 

By Samantha Bell

The drought in California is nothing new, sadly. For the past two years, California has experienced the worst drought on record since record keeping began in the 19th century, according to National Geographic. Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of “drought emergency” and celebrities like Lady Gaga have even taken to the small screen, making PSAs about the importance of conserving water.

Recently, the State Water Resources Control Board unanimously voted to extend and expand its emergency drought regulations, according to the Associated Press. As part of these regulations, restaurants have been told to withhold water unless customers ask - and restaurants are subject to $500 fines for violations. Given the extreme length and severity of the drought, some may wonder that when a faucet is turned on in the state of California dust does not come out instead of water.

While some estimates show that California would need 11 trillion gallons of water to end this period of drought, residents have been able to maintain supplies, thanks to underground stores of freshwater. According to Jay Famiglietti, a senior water cycle scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “It will take about 75 inches of precipitation or about three years of above-average rainfall and snowfall to make up the 11 trillion gallons of water deficit.”

In an average year, around 50 percent of the state’s water sources come from underground supplies, according to the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources. Unlike above ground water stores, such as lakes, streams or reservoirs, groundwater stores, such as aquifers, are located far under the surface of the earth and cannot be replenished once they are drained. This water has often existed in protective pockets below the surface for thousands of years, created as water slowly seeped down through the soil.

As the drought has progressed, people have drilled deeper into the ground to tap into these ancient water stores and new reports show that Californians have pumped so much water from these stores that they are currently drinking the same water dinosaurs once drank! California’s water needs have completely tapped freshwater supplies from recent centuries all the way through the ice age and into the prehistoric era.

Water Troubles

While marketing dinosaur water sounds genius, this is hardly a light-hearted situation. Once these freshwater aquifers are gone, they can never be replenished. Meaning, unless it starts raining in California soon, the state’s days of free-flowing water are  numbered.

Yet, despite distributing tickets for people who “waste” water by washing their cars or hydrating their gardens, California officials have done very little to address two major causes of water shortages in the state: agriculture and fracking.

As two of the major sources of industrial water usage, fracking and animal agriculture have hardly been given the criticism that they deserve for monopolizing precious water supplies.

Livestock Love Water

According to a report from the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources, around 80 percent of water in California is used for agriculture. While a percentage of this water goes to growing crops, the bulk is used in the animal agriculture industry, according to National Geographic. Not only do these animals consume “virtual” water in the form of the water used to grow their feed, but excess water is also needed to hydrate animals and keep factory farm facilities and slaughterhouses clean.

California is the country’s leading dairy producer, and a dairy farm can use up to 150 gallons of water per cow per day, solely to keep that cow’s stall clean. Added to the water needed for feed and hydrating the cows, it has been estimated that the average farm uses 3.4 million gallons of water a day, according to the EPA. To put this in perspective, the water needed to produce one gallon of milk is equivalent the amount used by an entire month’s worth of taking showers.

Meat production uses even more water. According to the Water Education Foundation, every pound of California beef requires 2,464 gallons of water to produce. In shower scale, that’s around six MONTHS worth of water.

So, while taking short showers is always a good practice, this action pales in comparison to simply eliminating consumption of animal products.

Fracking Fresh Water

Not only does fracking pose a threat to California’s precious freshwater supplies, but it also threatens overall water quality.

According to Environment America, the process of fracking requires hundreds of millions of gallons of freshwater, which gets injected into the ground mixed with toxic “fracking fluid” chemicals, to push ancient natural gas pockets to the surface.

According to Clean Water Action, California is located over a major region of shale, making it a prime target for natural gas and oil companies. On top of that, Southern California, an area that is already completely parched, has the largest stretches of shale. It is estimated that around two billion gallons of water are used for fracking every year in California.

Once this water has been mixed with fracking fluid and contaminated with heavy metals from the earth’s bedrock, it can never be recovered. The disposal method that natural gas companies use is to inject wastewater into underground waste wells or aquifers, which contain water that’s been deemed unsuitable for human consumption.

However, around seven percent of waste wells leak, compromising nearby watersheds, according to Environment America. They also found that nearly three billion gallons of wastewater have been accidentally injected into aquifers that contained potable water. In a one mile radius alone, a single contaminated aquifer comprised up to 40 different domestic water supply wells.

A Sustainable Solution for California – and Beyond

According to National Geographic, B. Lynn Ingram, a paleoclimatologist from University of California at Berkeley, predicts that California’s current period of drought – which she’s called a “megadrought”– could very well expand into the next 200 years. If this is the case, then California can’t afford to gamble away water supplies on these incredibly resource intensive industries.

These are major uncertainties that can have severe implications for millions of people. As climate change progresses, we are likely to see more extreme droughts like California’s across the world. Currently, Sao Paulo, Brazil is experiencing a similarly devastating drought and entire regions of Middle Eastern countryside have been reduced to deserts. It is becoming very clear that we cannot continue to take advantage of the world’s water if we expect it to sustain humanity into the future.

We can all play a part in helping to conserve water by reducing or entirely eliminating our consumption of meat and animal products. By skipping cheese and milk for an entire year you can save 50,033 gallons of water, according to National Geographic. If you were to cut out meat as well, you could save another 162,385 gallons annually. Can you imagine how much water that would save if everyone in the U.S. got on board?

We all have the power to make conscious choices, not only to help protect our own futures, but also the future of the planet.

Samantha Bell is a senior at Ramapo College of New Jersey. She will be graduating with a BA in Communication Arts: Journalism. After graduation, she will be teaching English as a second language to children in Thailand. 

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