Since California has always been a magnet for immigrants, it shouldn't have surprised me that, over the years, so many of my closest relations—my sister, parents, ex-wife and son—migrated there from New York City, our home turf. Last September, the Golden State ensnared two more—my 24-year-old daughter and her new husband, an electrical construction journeyman.

If there's such a thing as geographic schadenfreude—in this case, the enjoyment of another state's troubles—I might view California's latest drought as payback for taking my family captive.


Except for the state's new emergency water limits and penalties—adopted in late April, when I was visiting—Californians don't seem too worried that they could one day be paying higher rates for water under tiered pricing plans or funding huge new investments in desalination and water reclamation projects. While toilet-to-tap treatment systems may not be needed everywhere in the state, it is a rich moment when a local mayor or water-utility executive quaffs a glass of treated water on camera to thwart the public "yecchh" factor.

In fact, better water management practices are all California needs to steer itself through the drought, and here's why: Even with 38.8 million people, the state is still growing; however, for many years, a higher population hasn't equaled higher water use. In fact, total use has declined since 1980, says the U.S. Geological Survey, with the average Californian using 181 gallons a day. Growers account for 80% of the state's water consumption—its almond trees are especially thirsty. The long drive along I-5 through California's Central Valley shows little evidence of a new Dust Bowl that growers warn will come from water restrictions and allocation cuts they blame on reckless, self-interested politicians.

No Worries?

Natural or man-made, the water crisis has an upside: After all the worries about the shallow to nonexistent Sierra Nevada snowpack and the collapsing Central Valley aquifers, the state now must adopt efficient, stringent water management practices that would never even be considered in wetter times.

"There is need for concern, preparation and prudence but little cause for panic, despite some locally urgent conditions," writes Jay Lund, director of the University of California, Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, and a professor of civil and environmental engineering, in a recent blog post. The volume of water-resource allocations will be about the same as or smaller than last year, he says, which means costly building projects aren't likely. Concerning future projects involving the reuse of treated wastewater, stormwater reclamation or desalination plants, such as the ones that supply 40% of Israel's water, Lund notes their high cost and says each has its own environmental drawbacks.

Experimental plans, such as importing Great Lakes water, towing icebergs or harvesting moisture from fog, also won't be needed. "Less extreme water-management activities should be adequate, less costly and better environmentally, even for much more extreme droughts than today's," he writes.

The Great Drought, however, should give birth to some new ideas. Starbucks, the trendy Seattle-based coffee chain, has 2,000 or so shops in California and, in the past, has boasted of its successful efforts to reduce water use by 30%. After a May 7 story in Mother Jones reported that the company uses a spring in a drought-stricken area of the state as a source of its own brand of bottled water, Starbucks announced that it would switch to a water source in Pennsylvania.Could Starbucks do more? Could it not set the pace by servicing all its needs with water treated at its own toilet-to-tap treatment plant?

During the long ride down I-5, I speculated on how Starbucks could satisfy California's thirst for conservation and innovation: a new "toilet-to-tap-to-frapp" concoction. To show that I take no pleasure in the environmental troubles raging around my faraway family, I'll buy everyone a free round of that drink once it's created. 

However, while it is true California has a water crisis, it is also true the state is not running out of water. The engineers behind the complicated water delivery system and freeway network that make the state's existence even possible understand it won't run dry. Not this year. Not next year.