California’s mega-drought leads some to rely on ‘water witchcraft’ for crops

ANAHEIM, California – On June 1, 2022, water restrictions officially began for many people in Southern California in an effort to mitigate the effects of a mega-drought. Overall, the past two decades in California have been recorded as the hottest and driest in the past 1,200 years. However, many people doubt that some of the most radical and strict new water restrictions can be effective.

Image credit: Richard Heim NCEI/NOAA – Drought Monitor [1] – Public domain

Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District hopes residents will reduce their water use by 30 percent or more, even as studies indicate water use will increase in 2022. Water Supply in Southern California is so low that Metropolitan has declared a water shortage emergency and advised that there is simply not enough water available to meet typical demands in some areas.

Where California Gets Its Water

More than 19 million people receive water from Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District. Of that water, nearly 25% comes from the already beleaguered and overworked Colorado River. About 45% comes from local sources, such as water treatment plants, groundwater and even desalination plants. The State Water Project supplies the last 30% of the water, that is until this year.

Because State Water Project resources have dwindled, California is on track to get at least a third of its total water needs from the Colorado River by 2022, at a time when farmers in other southwestern states leave the fields fallow because there is not enough water.

The State Water Project in California distributes water to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, as well as other districts and large tracts of agricultural land. In total, the State Water Project provides water to more than 27 million Californians and draws water from the diminishing snow layers of the Sierras via the Edmonton Pumphouse. During the winter of 2021-2022, snowpack in the Sierras was only 38% of normal.

The January to March 2022 period hit the record books, according to the National Weather Service, as the driest in 101 years of record keeping at three different recording stations in California. Although the winter began with promising precipitation, the dryness of late winter and early spring propelled California into its third year of drought.

The area that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) now classifies as D4 (exceptional drought) is growing rapidly. More than half of California is currently in D3, which is extreme drought. No part of California is not in drought conditions right now.

where does the water go

Governor Newsom has encouraged people to voluntarily reduce their water usage, and many officials have suggested residents take shorter showers and use recycled water to water their lawns.

Irrigation of garlic fields – Image credit: NASA Goddard Photo and video – CC BY 2.0

However, more than 80% of all water used in California is for agricultural use, such as agriculture, and industries use about 6%. The remaining 14% of all water used in California passes through the faucets, toilets and pipes of nearly 40 million residents. But even that 14% is misleading: about half of residential water use is for landscaping.

And while Southern California residents are more efficient than those in Northern California or the Central Valley, usage changes with income. For example, residents of the affluent Beverly Hills area use about 284 gallons per day, compared to residents of Compton, who use about 106 gallons per day. The Metropolitan Water District supplies water to both cities.

agricultural giant

California agriculture generates approximately $50 billion, or nearly 3% of the state’s GDP. Despite widespread droughts and dwindling water supplies, California produces more than two-thirds of the national supply of nuts, fruits, and one-third of all vegetables. It is the fourth largest wine producer in the world and the largest dairy producer in the United States. The United States is the world’s largest producer of almonds, grown in California.

witch for water

While many orchards, rice paddies and lettuce fields remain vibrant green year-round, not all farmers are able to tap deep enough into the water supply. As locating water becomes more difficult, some have searched for water witches.

Some water witches like Rob Thompson are in high demand as breeders and growers hope to find hidden water reservoirs. Thompson claims that his dowsing success rate is over 90% accurate.

Thompson described water magic as a kind of magnetism, saying, “It’s like the energy between two magnets when they pull you together.” Most water witches consider this practice a form of divination.

Winemakers also turn to water witches to help locate water deep beneath California vineyards. Marc Mondavi, co-owner of Charles Krug Winery, has dowsed for the Napa Valley community for years.

After working with another water witch for several years to hone her abilities, Mondavi found steady work helping producers locate water. Drilling wells costs thousands of dollars whether the drillers find water or not. Mondavi explains that the majority of growers in the area will first consult with a water witch to increase the chances of them drilling in the right spot.

The challenge of reaching people

Figuring out exactly how much water California currently consumes is a challenge. In 2015, the US Geological Society (USGS) estimated that California consumed 28,759 million gallons per day, or about 9% of the country’s total water consumption. The state with the highest water consumption per day is Texas, with 21,268 million gallons per day.

However, the staggering water usage figures and photos of baked and cracked reservoir banks have not reached as many people in the public as they once did. Many government and agency officials have expressed reservations about announcing and enforcing restriction warrants as in the past, citing concerns that people are fatigued with their warrants after several long years of COVID-19.

California State Senator Melissa Hurtado, a Democrat from Hanford, recently expressed concerns about the restrictions: “If we haven’t even passed the vaccine (COVID-19) mandate yet and the testing mandate , and now you’re going to ask people to reduce their water consumption? That you should take fewer showers and can’t change pools or anything? Yeah, no, that’s gonna make people really mad.

Many, including Senator Hurtado, are calling for fundamental changes in infrastructure and technology rather than asking residents to cut spending. But the problems are there now, with some communities already dealing with dry wells.

Mendocino’s wells dried up in 2021, forcing some restaurants to decide whether they could get enough water to stay open to the tourists the city depends on. There, people drew water from streams to flush toilets until the county and state subsidized water deliveries.

A vicious water cycle

California residents can report when wells run dry to a tracking system operated by the Department of Water Resources. There has been a 63% increase in reported dry wells over the past year. Over the past 30 days, the number of wells reported dry has increased by 26% over the previous 30 days as summer temperatures arrive. Many communities depend on bottled water deliveries while waiting for trucks loaded with water which will then be pumped into storage tanks.

The worsening well problem in many communities is the result of a rapid drop in the water table. A law passed in 2021 did little to protect groundwater and gave agencies until 2040 to mitigate the effects of overpumping groundwater. And as the drought worsens, the pumping continues. In fact, as farmers and growers continue to aggressively search for groundwater, parts of the San Joaquin Valley have subsided or collapsed more than two feet.

Prospects are dry

As California reaches the middle of 2022 and the third year of the mega-drought, many are also nervously watching for the fires.

Owens Valley by Ross Stone

The traditional fire season is a thing of the past, with year-round blazes causing widespread destruction and engulfing entire towns.

Some officials are re-examining proposals once considered highly controversial to create water storage reservoirs. But there are no plans to radically alter the current infrastructure or reassess the agricultural model that produces so much of the country’s food.

In Northern California, water witches are getting more calls than they can answer. In Southern California, people are mostly ignoring calls to limit watering to once a week, and some counties have imposed no restrictions. And central California gobbles up every drop it can find.

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