Every Californian Needs to Save 290,000 Gallons of Water to End the Drought

New satellite data show the state must find 11 trillion gallons of water to replace what has been lost since 2011.

(Photo: Tom Grubbe/Getty)

Dec 17, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Todd Woody is TakePart's editorial director, environment.

It’s one of those numbers that boggle the mind: 11 trillion.

That’s how many gallons of water California needs to recover from its three-year, record-breaking drought, according to new data collected by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) from satellite surveillance of groundwater supplies.

To put it on a more personal level, every one of California’s 38 million residents would need to cut his or her water use by about 100,000 gallons annually for the next three years to replenish what’s been lost from the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins since 2011.

The problem is, that’s more water than Californians consume every year. (Though the state’s biggest water hogs—the residents of the wealthy enclave of Rancho Santa Fe, near San Diego—use 213,300 gallons of water per person a year, according to California regulators.)

As rivers and reservoirs have dried up, California farmers have gone on a groundwater pumping frenzy, rapidly depleting subterranean supplies that took thousands of years to accumulate.

The map below shows the extent of the crisis.

(Photo: Courtesy JPL.Nasa.gov)

JPL scientists use a satellite program called Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) to measure tiny changes in an area’s gravitational pull to determine its groundwater capacity. The red areas on the map show where groundwater levels are falling. That dark red band running down the center of California’s Central Valley, the state’s agricultural heartland, is where the most water has been pumped.

The recent torrential rains that have lashed the California coast aren’t enough to erase the water deficit, according to scientists.

So how to make up for the shortfall?

“I think the No. 1 thing that we can do right now is to not stop conserving,” Jay Famiglietti, the scientist who led the GRACE team, wrote in an email. “It is really wonderful to actually get some rain, but, really, it’s going to take an above-average rainy season this year and probably a couple more in the next few years to really get us out of this hole that we’re in.”

Here’s another reason to keep those showers short and the car dirty: Data from NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory show that this year’s snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains—which supplies the state with much of its water—is half the previous estimates.

“The 2014 snowpack was one of the three lowest on record and the worst since 1977, when California’s population was half what it is now,” said Tom Painter, the principal investigator for Airborne Snow Observatory.

The video below shows just how much the snowpack has shrunk.