This is the second in a series of blog posts by the Sustainability Committee in the run-up to the 2014 Annual Meeting, describing sustainability issues and initiatives in the city of San Francisco. (The first blog post, regarding plastic bag and container laws, can be read here.)
Over the last six months, we have been hearing about the water shortage in the state of California, and this post will attempt to answer: what is the cause, and how will it affect us when we are in San Francisco? According to the California Department of Water Resources; “There are many ways that drought can be defined. Some ways can be quantified, such as meteorological drought (period of below normal precipitation) or hydrologic drought (period of below average runoff), others are more qualitative in nature (shortage of water for a particular purpose). There is no universal definition of when a drought begins or ends. Drought is a gradual phenomenon.” The website also explains that cyclical droughts have been common in California since records have been kept. Paleo-climate research has shown that in the more distant past, California has experienced much more severe droughts than those in the recent centuries.
So, this is a normal cycle, but there are two major differences that make this drought more worrisome. The first is that many more people and industries are dependent on the water supply than ever before (38,332,521 people at last count, according to the Census Bureau). This article from Energy & Environment Publishing explains “The state’s population has shot to 38 million people today, compared with 22 million during the last record-breaking drought in 1977. Meanwhile, the state’s farms increased their revenue to $45 billion from $9.6 billion over the same time period. The earlier figure is in that year’s dollars.” Secondly, the just-released 2014 National Climate Assessment (see ‘Water’) predicts that droughts can be expected to intensify in the 21st century.
The governor declared a state of emergency on January 17th. This asked all Californians to reduce water use by 20%, brought contingency plans into effect, made financial assistance available for those most affected, and created a task force. The most notable effects of the water shortage state-wide have been: a predicted 7% loss of farmland and a corresponding increase in prices (not just in California, but worldwide), especially for avocados, tomatoes, almonds, lettuce, cotton, rice, melons, and peppers; drastic lowering of water reservoirs; loss of wetland habitat (many salmon will have to be trucked to spawning grounds this year); lowering of groundwater quality; and increased chance of wildfires.
Locally, San Francisco has not been feeling the effects as much as southern and western portions of the state. Already, city residents have an excellent record of conserving water, and the public utilities commission continues to encourage water-saving through voluntary initiatives.
What I predict we will notice while we are there is a parched landscape viewed through the airplane windows or on sightseeing forays into the surrounding region, higher than usual prices on produce, and lower levels in the surrounding bodies of water. The worst case scenario would be a concurrent wildfire in the region that affects air quality, flight schedules and/or camping plans.
The good news is that The Hyatt Regency San Francisco (the conference hotel) has a list of green practices that includes water saving features such as low-flow showerheads and toilets, aerated faucets, towel/sheet reuse, and drip irrigation.