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A warning: California to run out of water within 20 years, food production to collapse

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Natural drought is exacerbated by man-made drought and millions of lives hang in the balance.

There is nothing in the universe as important as water. Without it, nothing we know of can live. This cosmic understanding is appreciated in California's Central Valley where water remains in short supply and reserves continue to deplete. Worse, the Central Valley is only going to be the first place of many to collapse over the next 50 years.

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LOS ANGELES, CA (California Network) -- The most productive land in the world is collapsing under drought and regulation which is causing farmers to rely on groundwater to water their crops. Even worse, it is knocking millions of acres of farmland out of production. Nearly half of the fruits and vegetables grown in the U.S. comes from California's Central Valley.

The blame for this crisis is substantial, and there's plenty to go around. Farmers, government, environmentalists, lawyers, and Mother Nature are all to blame as people struggle over how to spend the precious resource of water. And the Central Valley is only going to be the first of many places around the globe to experience this crisis.


In California the two primary drivers of drought are nature and law. Drought seems to have gone from being a visitor to a longtime resident in the state. While El Nino years, such as in 2015-16 help, the state needs a certain volume of snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains to replenish state water reserves. In the summer, when this snow melts, it fills reservoirs, which fill rivers, which fill aqueducts and canals, and ultimately feeds farms.

Unfortunately, drought means less snow which results in less water available for everyone. 

After that, the law takes a cut of the state's water supply. Strangely, federal law mandates a substantial volume of the state's water supply be dumped into the Pacific Ocean. The law requires protection of the delta smelt (a minnow-like fish) in the San Joaquin Valley. It's a law that has pitted environmentalists against farmers and workers in the valley.

The law severely restricts the quantity of water that can be drawn off to feed farms, and the result is productive farmland must be left fellow. That leads to fewer jobs and all the problems that come from mass unemployment.

This is perhaps the most visible impact of these circumstances, but it isn't the worst. At the same time farmers are losing water allotments from the federal government to sustain a fish, something more sinister is developing beneath the feet of every Central Valley resident.

The San Joaquin Valley is sustained by the Central Valley Aquifer, a massive underground sea of freshwater, embedded in the rocks below. The San Joaquin Valley was once a massive inland sea. Over millions of years as the land arose, the seawater drained, but much of it also seeped deep into the earth. Those two-million year old water supplies are only refreshed by melt-water from the nearby Sierra Nevada range. Now they are suctioned to the surface by farmers and cities.

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Some of this water returns to the ground, beginning a journey of thousands of years back to the aquifer below. But a significant portion of this water simply evaporates on the surface because modern irrigation remains inefficient.

Now, the water table is dropping below many wells and drillers have done a booming business digging new ones. Several poor communities have gone without water for a few years, and rely on trucked supplies.

The Central Valley aquifer continues to deplete and will run dry around 2030, according to the latest research.

At the same time the Central Valley is running out of groundwater, other aquifers around the world are also in danger. At least 21 of the world's largest 37 aquifers are being depleted. These include India's Ganges Basin, aquifers in Southern Spain and Italy, and the massive Ogallala aquifer in the southern plains states.

The Central Valley will collapse first, then by 2070, all the others. About 1.6 billion people rely on these aquifers for food and water. By 2050, the planet's population will be around 10 billion. They will be more dependent than ever on these aquifers.

As water aquifers collapse, food production will stall and people will starve. The hungriest people will live in the poorest countries. Prices for food will spike and food will become one of the most expensive things for a family to buy.

For people living in poor regions, food will become impossible to grow or buy, leading to famine, disease and even war. 

We see this problem coming, so we can avoid it, if we're smart.

A balance must be struck between preserving nature and feeding people. At a certain point, the destruction of nature means the destruction of humanity, so we cannot exploit our natural resources beyond what nature can bear. At the same time, it is absurd to set aside everything so that people starve.

Irrigation methods must also be improved. Drip line irrigation can help prevent evaporation of water brought to the surface. Such systems are excellent for homes and small farms and gardens.

Industrial production methods also have to change. Instead of farming across sprawling estates, towering industrial farms are the design of the future. Indoor farms in which crops are grown under controlled conditions use less water and produce a fresh crop daily. Workers will move indoors which will improve their working conditions.

Industrial production of synthetic meat is also in the near future as the process of growing meat from cultured stem cells is perfected. Within the next generation or so, ranches and livestock will become a thing of the past for the first time in history. It takes about 1,800 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef on a ranch. An industrial facility will reduce this use to a tiny fraction.

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But ultimately, greed, pollution and over-consumption are unsustainable. Legal constraints that create artificial droughts must be recognized as absurdities, if not crimes against the people who need water to work and live.

These changes begin with awareness and better decision making. Water must be conserved at home, but also on the farm, on the ranch, and of all places, in the legislative and judicial chambers. And conservation of water does not mean it should be dumped into the sea. There is no point to conservation if it yields no benefit.

If we do not cooperate to make these changes, collapse is in our future along with famine, disease and conflict. The time to make the decision between these two outcomes is not tomorrow, but now.

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