After four consecutive years of below-normal precipitation, California faces the most severe drought in 110 years. The Sierra Nevada’s snowpack is melting, farmland has to be fallowed, and lawn watering is banned, while politicians seek new ways to deal with the water shortage. Indeed, an unpleasant wake-up call for all, but also, a driver of green innovation and new ideas.

The entire state of California is experiencing severe drought conditions, with 67% of the landmass suffering from an extreme drought and 47% considered to be facing an exceptional drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center (May 7, 2015). The Sierra Nevada snowpack, which contains approximately a third of the state’s water reserves, has shrunk to a record low of 5% of its normal size, compared to 25% last year, and 42% in 2013. Reservoirs and aquifers are also extremely low.

The worsening of the drought situation fuels a heated debate across the Golden State. Who’s responsible? What can be done to prevent water shortage? And how is global warming having an impact?

CALIFORNIA WATER WAR

Some observers point out the fact that a new ‘water war’ has emerged between farmers and urban dwellers. The agricultural sector is responsible for around 80 percent of California’s water usage and according to agricultural expert with the Worldwatch Institute, Gary Gardner, the industry is an easy target for accusations. Gardner spoke at the recent launch of the State of the World 2015 report in Washington, D.C.

“What has happened in 2014 is that Californian farmers had one third less surface water than they were normally accustomed to. So farmers had to go to the aquifers, and we have a situation where farmers have been overpumping the aquifers for years. The result of that is that agriculture land now has to be fallowed“, Gardner said.

According to his estimates, 173,000 hectares of irrigated land – nearly 5% of total irrigated farmland – had to be fallowed in 2014 because of water shortage. “So California is actually producing less food, and the economic toll to this is estimated at $2.2 billion, including the loss of 17,000 jobs,” he said.

Citizen groups in San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities are blaming the farmers for the water shortage. In particular the cultivation of water intensive almond and pistachio trees ignites opposition. For example, it takes four litres of water to produce one almond. Swapping crops would increase food production while significantly reducing water usage.

However, farmer organisations are stressing that revenues from almonds and other crops are high and that for about 20 fruits and vegetables California is responsible for growing more than 70% of American production. However, urban voices argue that farmers only contribute to 2% of California’s economy and therefore water intensive farming should be scaled down.

GOVERNOR ORDERS MANDATORY WATER CUTS OF 25%

As Governor Jerry Brown of the Democrats is hesitant to add further pressure on the farming industry, he has mandated a 25% statewide reduction in urban water use, to be achieved by the end of 2015. The action falls short of direct household rationing but calls for water reductions by large green areas such as golf courses, campuses and cemeteries. “Today we are standing on dry grass where there should be five feet of snow,” the governor said back in early April. “This historic drought demands unprecedented action.”

The mandatory cutback comes a year after Brown’s call for voluntary conservation failed to meet its goals. Last week Brown’s action was followed by a proposed measure to fine water wasters up to $10,000 per violation. The proposal is scheduled to be voted on by the end of this month.

LARGE POTENTIAL FOR GREEN INNOVATION

Commenting on California’s drought challenges, a leading Danish water expert recently announced that there is much potential to achieve significant reductions in the state’s water use. “Saving water is the only solution for California. An average household in the US spends 400 litres of water per person per day, which is four times as much as the average person in Denmark,” said Søren Hvilshøj, International Water Director at the Danish engineering group Rambøll.

He believes that California can look to Europe for inspiration. “For example, water saving toilet flushes and bathroom mixers are standard in most European countries while rarely installed in the US,” Hvilshøj said.

In fact, the dry spell could boost a new wave of clean tech and green innovation. California has long been known for Silicon Valley, the heart of high-tech innovation, home to everyone from web giants Facebook and Google to the electrical car producer, Tesla. Could the same happen within the water and agriculture sectors?

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, startups in the water tech field have struggled for years to attract the level of investment and attention showered upon smartphones, social media, solar power and other high-tech areas. But California’s four-year drought may change that.

“We’re definitely getting a lot more inquiries,” said Robin Gilthorpe, CEO of WaterSmart Software to SFGate. “We’re cranking pretty hard on the sales side. This (drought) is a very unusual situation, and it turns out we have something that can be part of the solution.”

Nexus eWater is also experiencing an increasing demand for their systems that collect the “gray water” from a home’s showers and bathroom sinks, purifies it and sends it to the toilets and sprinklers. But it is not just water tech companies that are encountering new growth opportunities; other clean tech industries are also experiencing increased optimism.

Dick Swanson, founder of SunPower, a leading supplier of solar panels in the US, told Worldwatch Europe that the current drought can help creating a shift in thinking and a new conscience on climate change and the environment that has not been seen before.

“If you talk to most investors these days they are all about apps for smartphones. But clean tech can be part of that. It can for example be an app to monitor your refrigerator performance,” Swanson said. He believes that smart solutions are the way forward for the clean tech industry and he is optimistic that the demand for intelligent renewable energy systems will multiply in the future.

While the Californian drought might be shaky ground for citizens, farmers and politicians, it is also providing an unprecedented incentive for creativity and green tech innovation.