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California’s Decaying Water Management Systems

Presidio Economics | Tuesday May 3rd, 2011 | 1 Comment

This post is part of a blogging series by economics students at the Presidio Graduate School’s MBA program. You can follow along here.

By: Julien Gervreau

Entropy is defined as a measure of the unavailable energy in a thermodynamic system and it is grouped into two categories: unavailable, or bound energy, and available, or free energy. Given that the Second Law of Thermodynamics states that all energy eventually moves inevitably toward becoming more bound and therefore less available to perform work, the process of entropy ensures that energy will always flow towards a greater degree of disorder and uselessness.

Although 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, freshwater resources make up only 3% of that total, and readily available freshwater resources account for even less, just 1%. Fresh water in the form of streams, rivers, aqueducts, ponds, lakes and reservoirs surrounds us here in northern California, and provides a false sense of abundance. While at first glance it may seem as though freshwater resources are plentiful, California is in the midst of an ongoing, and potentially catastrophic water shortage crisis that threatens agricultural, commercial, residential and industrial interests across the state.

Approximately 80% of the United States’ freshwater resources are devoted to farming, and California is no exception. Our state’s throughput of agricultural produce provides a safe and reliable source of food to people across the globe, including over half of U.S. fruits, nuts and vegetables, 80% of the world’s almonds, and 33% of the world’s canned tomatoes. Thus, a prolonged water supply shortage in California will likely cause a food supply shortage that will have international ramifications.

Water as it is used for agricultural purposes in California is stockpiled in lakes and reservoirs, and behind dams, with municipalities and individuals laying claim to access rights. Thus, California’s water management infrastructure is key to conveying and delivering water across the state. The labyrinth of pipes, pumps and aqueducts that carry water from the abundant north to the dry, but farmland and population-rich south has not been upgraded since the World War II era. This aging infrastructure exhibits a high degree of entropy and is incredibly unsustainable, as evidenced by the fact that nearly one in every six gallons of potable water in the U.S. leaks through our decaying water infrastructure, and back into the hydrological cycle, before it can be put to use.

Because water itself is subject to a high degree of entropy, both through evaporation and use, a great deal of energy goes into pumping, treating, conveying and storing freshwater resources. The implementation of water efficiency measures and management system upgrades can provide a sustainable solution to water resource issues not just from an availability perspective, but also on the energy side.

The Pacific Institute released a report in July 2009 entitled “Sustaining California Agriculture in an Uncertain Future” which identified potential agricultural water savings of up to six million acre-feet that can be realized through the expansion of the use of efficient irrigation technologies and management practices in farming operations across the state. The report envisions California as a world leader in sustainable production by the year 2050 and highlights a series of steps that farmers, state and federal legislators, and average citizens can take in achieving this reasonable goal. It will not only take the work of organizations like the Pacific Institute to help California develop sustainable solutions that mitigate our entropic water management systems, but a collective effort that involves awareness and action from interested stakeholder groups across the state. This includes all of us.
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Julien Gervreau is an MBA candidate at Presidio Graduate School where he is focusing on water management systems and renewable energy. He is a cofounder of the Presidio Water Club and also does freelance public outreach for communities developing water reuse systems. Follow him on Twitter @omatters.


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  • Mike Wade

    It’s easy to misjudge how farmers in California utilize their resources to grow food from which we all benefit. In an academic world, reports such as the one he cites by the Pacific Institute take on a life of their own without any grounding in what really happens on the farm. We encourage the writer to seek a broader base of information, including real irrigation experts in the California State University and University of California systems to see what progress has been made in irrigation efficiency and what more is really achievable. Through all of this discussion it is important to remember that our nation’s farms produce food that is safe, healthy and affordable and it would cost California families about $3,820 more per year to feed themselves if their food costs equaled those of 28 other high income countries around the world. The real question people should be asking is “What would my family have to give up to pay more at the grocery store?”

    Mike Wade
    California Farm Water Coalition