Dwindling water supplies highlight the need for systemic change.

Our modern society was born in a period of relative climatic stability. Regional climate change did destroy various civilizations, but most of the planet remained stable enough for the various human populations to thrive.

A crucial product of that stability has been access to fresh water. That’s why our biggest cities grew by lakes and rivers, and in more recent years, why we’ve been able to expand in dry regions by tapping into vast deposits of underground water. We’ve known for some time that our consumption has far outstripped the ability of aquifers to replenish themselves, but it seems that we’ve reached a point at which some will never recover:

Under a best-case scenario where drought years are followed by consecutive wet years with above-average precipitation, the researchers found there is a high probability it would take six to eight years to fully recover overdrafted water, which occurs when more groundwater is pumped out than is supplied through all sources like precipitation, irrigation and runoff.

However, this best-case scenario where California has six to eight consecutive wet years is not likely because of the state’s increasingly hot and dry climate. Under a more likely, drier climate, there is less than a 20% chance of full overdraft recovery over a 20-year period following a drought.

The Central Valley produces about a quarter of the nation’s food and is home to around 6.5 million people. Using too much groundwater during and after droughts could soon push this natural resource beyond the point of recovery unless pumping restrictions are implemented. The study finds recovery times can be halved with modest caps on groundwater pumping in drought and post-drought years.

“This is really threatening,” said Sarfaraz Alam, a hydrologist at Stanford and lead study author. “There are many wells that people draw water from for drinking water. Since [groundwater is] always going down, at some point these wells will go dry and the people won’t have water.”

In ages past, the human populations in California would respond to this by collapsing. Many would die, many would migrate away from whatever had caused the wells to dry up, and some would stay. Those who stayed survived because they were able to adapt their community practices to the new conditions.

There are places that currently have plenty of water, but as the temperature rises, so does water consumption, and there’s no place on the planet that’s “safe” from the warming climate. Migrating will absolutely be part of how we cope with climate change (which is why it’s so important to end our nationalistic obsession with borders) but at the same time we will all be forced to confront the other two options: adapt or die.

The need for us to radically change how we use and dispose of water is almost as important as the need to stop our greenhouse gas emissions. That’s one reason I like the idea of moving food production indoors, where water can be more easily recycled, and temperatures can be controlled. It’s also why I think that the kinds of power generation we use should vary depending on regional and local conditions.

We’ve spent centuries behaving as though we were separate from nature, and many of us are consequently unused to adapting ourselves to the material conditions of our local ecosystem. It’s a thing we need to re-learn, and because I also think we absolutely need to retain the use of technology and science, it’s a thing we need to re-invent. I believe it’s possible to have a high-tech human society that can exist as a conscious part of the global ecosystem, and as stewards of it. I also believe that doing so will require us to let go of expectations about our lives that are rooted in a world that no longer exists because of the societies that gave us those expectations.

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  1. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    In California, we could also stop growing crops with an absurdly high water to food ratio. Water rights in California are all sorts of fucked up from what little I now, and they need a complete do-over.

  2. StevoR says

    In Australia we have big issues when it comes to the Murray Darling basin – the main river system inthe east of our nation where excessive irrigation from upstream including illegal structures resulting in water theft and political rorting has led to severe problems and dying rivers. See :


    Full 4 Corners episode here – 43 mins long.

    This article here too :


    Sadly the prediction of an ALP electoral victory was incorrect.

    Plus :


    Adelaide, my home city (or large town as we sometimes get described!) is at the downstream end of this river system so we miss out on the good water and get the full impact of the pollution and damage done by those upstream so you can imagine how I and many others here feel about this..

    Recent droughts and the current La Nina have helped improve things temporarily but I fear this reprieve will be short-lived.

  3. StevoR says

    Plus a couple more links here in cas ethfolks find them interesting / useful :


    On the ecological consequences.

    On the cultural consequences for our Indigenous Peoples :


    hearing from Barkandji Elder William ‘Badger’ Bates.

    Plus the latest predictions from Australia’s main scientific body :


  4. Katydid says

    Over the holiday week, I caught a special on some cable channel about the entire south-west and its water woes. The Colorado River has been sucked dry, Lake Meade is a damp spot in the desert, and people are already suffering. And yet the area is still welcoming incomers.

    Where I live, about 20 years ago everyone was flocking to Las Vegas because it was advertising itself as the perfect place to live. A decade ago, everyone was flocking to Phoenix…a place that gets 7 inches of rain a year. Obviously that’s not sustainable for human life, but people come and put in their swimming pools and grass that needs constant watering.

    As for California, I agree with everything you said.

  5. Who Cares says

    There are places that currently have plenty of water, but as the temperature rises, so does water consumption, and there’s no place on the planet that’s “safe” from the warming climate.

    Even for places that have/get plenty of water the change in precipitation patterns can result in shortages.
    The Netherlands for example has been (re)build to get as much water to the sea as fast as possible. Which worked (relatively) well with the weather patterns of the 20th century. These days they are trying to figure out how to do that while also being able to retain water for the summer so that they don’t have to institute/activate drought measures to prevent (too much) over drafting of the aquifers.

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