SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - It's hard to visualize a water crisis while driving the lush boulevards of Los Angeles, golfing Arizona's green fairways or watching dancing Las Vegas fountains leap more than 20 stories high. So look Down Under. A decade into its worst drought in a hundred years Australia is a lesson of what the American West could become.
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - It's hard to visualize a water crisis while driving the lush boulevards of Los Angeles, golfing Arizona's green fairways or watching dancing Las Vegas fountains leap more than 20 stories high.
So look Down Under. A decade into its worst drought in a hundred years Australia is a lesson of what the American West could become.
Bush fires are killing people and obliterating towns. Rice exports collapsed last year and the wheat crop was halved two years running. Water rationing is part of daily life.
"Think of that as California's future," said Heather Cooley of California water think tank the Pacific Institute.
Water raised leafy green Los Angeles from the desert and filled arid valleys with the nation's largest fruit and vegetable crop. Each time more water was needed, another megaproject was built, from dams of the major rivers to a canal stretching much of the length of the state.
But those methods are near their end. There is very little water left untapped and global warming, the gradual increase of temperature as carbon dioxide and other gases retain more of the sun's heat, has created new uncertainties.
Global warming pushes extremes. It prolongs drought while sometimes bringing deluges the parched earth cannot absorb. California Department of Water Resources Director Lester Snow says two things keep him up at night: drought and flood.
"It isn't that drought is the new norm," said Snow. "Climate change is bringing us higher highs and lower lows in terms of water supplies."
Take Los Angeles, which had its driest year in 2006-2007, with 3 inches (7.6 cms) of rain. Only two years earlier, more than 37 inches (94 cms) fell, barely missing the record.
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a drought emergency last month, and Los Angeles plans to ration water for the first time in 15 years. Courts are limiting the amount of water taken from into rivers to save decimated fish populations, which is cutting back even more to farms.
California farmers lost more than $300 million in 2008 and economic losses may accelerate to 10 times that this year as 95,000 people lose their jobs. Farmers will get zero water from the main federal supplier.
Nick Tatarakis sank his life savings into the fertile San Joaquin Valley but now thinks his business will die of thirst.
"Every year it seems like this water thing is getting rougher and rougher," he said. "I took everything I had saved over the last three or four years, put it into farming almonds, developed this orchard. Now it is coming into its fifth year and probably won't make it through this year."
SWINGING TEMPERATURES, PRICES
In the global economy, a little trouble goes a long way when supplies are tight, said University of Arkansas Ecological Engineering professor Marty Matlock.