California is running out of water. So is the entire American Southwest, for that matter, but the crisis in California is in particularly dire straits. A number of farms in the state are already out of water, and officials estimate drinking water will run out in many communities in the next 60 to 100 days. This is Grapes of Wrath territory, and forecasts say it will only go on, and likely worsen, over the coming years.
What’s shocking to me is that California lawmakers, who monitor and regulate water use very strictly, have no idea how many gallons are leaving its aquifers in the form of bottled water. At least, not as far as I can find.
As of 2008 there were more than 100 water bottling operations in California. The State’s Department of Health requires them to report how much they are removing from groundwater sources, but this information is not made available to the public or to lawmakers in the state. A proposed 2008 law would have changed this, but it was vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger, who cited a state budget crisis that would only allow him to approve bills of the “highest priority.” One has to wonder how anything could be higher priority than access to drinking water.
The causes of the Southeast water crisis are pretty clear: Diminished snowfall in the Sierras and Rocky Mountains and brutally hot summers, both results of climate change driven by global warming, have in turn deprived rivers and aquifers of their source and then sucked them dry from evaporation. A few studies have tied the problem to population growth, but this is dubious. Water-saving technology has improved efficiency so that levels of water consumption in most parts of the Southwest are near 1955 levels, when the population of the area was a small fraction of what it is today.
Except, of course, that those consumption figures include water bottling only when it comes from municipal supplies. Water that is drawn directly from the ground is not measured, at least not in aggregate. In 2012, experts estimated Americans were drinking about 9.1 billion gallons of bottled water each year, or about 30 gallons per person per year. This is roughly 30 times bottled water consumption in the 1970s. Consider also that the bottling process consumes about 3 gallons of water for each gallon bottled. That’s more than 27 billion gallons a year to supply Americans with bottled water.
How much of that is coming from drought-ridden California? The State’s Department of Health knows. Unfortunately, they’re not telling anyone.