What If California Runs Out of Water?


It would be a great premise for a Hollywood apocalyptic disaster thriller. Imagine that after several years of devastating drought, California's supply of water gradually vanished. As the reservoirs went bone dry, in Los Angeles water would stop flowing from faucets, while in California's Central Valley, crops would wither as irrigation ceased.

To the north, in Silicon Valley, the clean rooms that produce computer chips would shut down. Eventually, as the populace grew implacably thirsty, civil order would break down, and dehydrated zombies would rampage through the streets, fighting for the last few remaining bottles of Arrowhead bottled spring water.

Does the saying that you need eight glasses of water a day actually hold water?

That movie might be fun to watch  at the multiplex in Peoria, but for Californians, the scenario is a bit too close to their actual dilemma. After several winters of low rainfall, the state is in the third year of a brutal drought that has some of the state's 12 major reservoirs dipping to less than 50 percent of their historic average water levels.

PHOTOS: Global Warming Right Before Your Eyes

To make matters worse, a just-released study by University of California-Irvine and NASA scientists shows that the Colorado River -- a source of water for California and six other states, in addition to parts of Mexico -- is becoming dangerously depleted as well.

A handful of small towns are already experiencing drinking water shortages, and 428,000 acres of irrigated farm fields -- about 5 percent of the total cropland -- has gone out of production in the Central Valley, Central Coast and Southern California due to the drought. On July 28, state officials were forced to impose a list of water conservation measures, such as banning residents from washing their cars in their driveways, and prohibiting the use of potable water in decorative fountains.

But the questions remain. If the drought continues, could California's water supply run out? And what really would happen if it did?

Totally Parched: 100 Percent of California in Drought

While the current extended drought is worrisome, water experts say that a California water apocalypse isn't yet imminent. Doug Parker, director of the California Institute for Water Resources at the University of California, says that the state typically experiences cyclical droughts lasting up to three years, so this one isn't all that unusual. And there's still enough more than enough water in the reservoirs to supply Californians until the winter.

"If we knew for sure it was going to rain a lot from November to March, we wouldn't have to worry," he explains.

But if the rain is again sparse and the drought continues, that's a different matter. Parker says that tree-ring analysis shows that centuries ago, before the European colonization of California, the state experienced much longer parched periods of 30 to 50 years. Back then, of course, California didn't have sprawling cities, industry and vast farm fields that needed water. Now, it does.

Recommended for you