California drought has lessons for S.C.

Grace Lorraine shows Jenny Welch a 59-second video she shot last year of a nonstop cattle feedlot while driving along Interstate 5 in parched central California, between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Lorrraine and Welch are members of Charleston Veggies and Vegans and were at last week’s MUSC Earth Day Celebration.

The state of emergency coming out of California with its severe, four-year drought hasn’t stirred a lot of conversation in the Lowcountry or Palmetto State in recent weeks.

After all, we’ve been in the national spotlight in recent weeks over another major issue.

But the massive drought should be a wake-up call for the entire nation over how we as individuals, communities and states handle one of the most vital resources for health, life and even the almighty economy, on the planet: fresh water.

But does the average South Carolinian really care about what happens in California?

As Americans, we should care about disasters happening in other parts of the nation, particularly prolonged ones. Isn’t that part of patriotism? Isn’t that compassion? Images of dried up, or drying up, lakes and rivers, of the stark juxtaposition of green golf courses next to deserts, and of cracked earth should stir that.

If you don’t buy the patriotism and compassion argument, let me appeal to your grocery list. We should care about California because, until we can start producing more food locally and regionally (which this drought underscores the necessity for), the Golden State is the cornucopia, the true food basket, of the country.

According the Department of Agriculture, California ranks first, by far, in states that produce the most food. In 2011, it accounted for 11.6 percent of agricultural cash receipts with $43.5 billion dollars. Iowa was second with $29.8 billion. Only one state in the Southeast made the top 10: North Carolina in 10th place with $10.5 billion.

Between California and North Carolina, the “breadbasket” states of the Midwest make up the rest. What happens if a California-like drought hits there?

That scenario is possible, according to Kenneth Kunkel, senior scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites.

“If I look at the future, and I say, ‘What’s the biggest threat to food security in the future,’ at least from a Midwest perspective, it is more intense, major droughts,” said Kunkel, in a report on NBC News.

So what can we do not only to ease the burden of the water crisis in California and the potential future ones in the Midwest but to stem a similar scenario from happening here?

Say it can’t happen here? Humans have a tendency to have a short memory and, with all the rain of late, some of us may have forgotten that parts of the Palmetto State suffered a severe drought from 2010 to 2013. And we were headed into the early stages of drought late last fall when the rains of January pulled us out of it.

And think our rivers can’t suffer like those of California and the arid Southwest? Last week, American Rivers listed our beloved Edisto River, considered the “lifeblood” of Ashepoo, Combahee and South Edisto (ACE) Basin, as the fifth most endangered river in the nation because of excessive water withdrawals from large agricultural water users, currently exempt from laws governing water use in South Carolina.

Last week, I headed over to the Medical University of South Carolina Earth Day Celebration to see if the drought was registering with some of the attendees and to hear what they had to say.

Kim Counts Morganello, a local Clemson Extension water resources agent and co-coordinator of the Ashley Cooper Stormwater Education Consortium, says the California drought should serve as a catalyst for South Carolina to take proactive steps to avoid a crisis in the future, particularly as more people move to the Palmetto State and the Lowcountry.

Morganello says such steps should involve capturing and containing water runoff, via rain barrels and other collection systems, between storms and then using it for irrigation.

“A lot of times we can get six to eight inches of rain in one weekend and then don’t have another rain event for weeks,” says Morganello.

She points to other practices in Clemson Extension’s Carolina Yards program, including using drip irrigation, mulching, composting, creating rain gardens and building native vegetative buffers along shorelines, for protecting water resources.

She adds that adopting water conservation practices serves the health of the Lowcountry more than just for irrigation. It keeps waterways cleaner for recreational uses and seafood harvesting.

Even before California Gov. Jerry Brown announced plans to reduce water use by 25 percent earlier this month, I marveled at the produce still filling the shelves of local supermarkets from California and was even struck when I picked up a head of cauliflower to see a label stating it was “desert grown.” (I didn’t buy it.)

Maybe we could help California certainly by shifting our food purchases to local produce, particularly as spring farmers markets and community-supported agriculture shares make it more readily available in the area.

Grace Lorraine, who was among the people manning a table for Charleston Veggies & Vegans at the MUSC Earth Day, also underscored a water “hog” often ignored by the national media, which seemed to focus on the almond industry as an agricultural culprit in the California drought.

Lorraine says animal agriculture, especially raising cattle for beef and dairy products, uses more water than almonds and other plant crops (for human consumption). She adds that the film, “Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret,” and website provides an array of reputable resources demonstrating that fact.

“The amount of water used for animal agriculture blows me away,” says Lorraine, adding that adopting a vegan diet is a major step toward conserving water resources.

A 2012 study in the journal “Ecosystems” is among the latest studies underscoring the fact.

In a nutshell, the study says beef turns out to have an overall water footprint of roughly four million gallons per ton produced. By contrast, the water footprint for vegetables is 85,000 gallons per ton; and for starchy roots it’s about 102,200 gallons per ton.

However, one plant does play a role in California’s water consumption, according to Texas State professor and author James McWilliams, who spoke at the College of Charleston last year.

“Unfortunately, it’s a plant that’s not generally cultivated for humans: alfalfa,” says McWilliams, in an opinion piece in “The New York Times”on March 7, 2014. “Grown on over a million acres in California, alfalfa sucks up more water than any other crop in the state. And it has one primary destination: cattle.”

Alfafa hay, he adds, is an integral feed source for factory-farmed cows, especially those involved in dairy production, and, increasingly, California is sending more of it to China, as more Asians adopt an American-style, meat-based diet.

McWilliams says going vegetarian reduces that water footprint by almost 60 percent.

In the flood of stories and opinion pieces on the drought, among the obvious culprits in needless water consumption is bottled water. Some Californians are angry that companies such as Nestle weren’t included in water restrictions earlier this month.

While governments may be reluctant to take on big beverage companies, we all can save resources, especially money, as well as help keep plastics out of waterways by simply drinking tap water.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.