Why Watering the Lawn Is Literally Moving Mountains in California

Why Watering the Lawn Is Literally Moving Mountains in California

Why you should care

That dry patch in the corner of your yard? Leave it. Plate tectonics and all of California will thank you. 

California has a drinking problem. And it could be Earth-shattering.

To be fair, it’s not just drinking water, but all H20 usage: watering plants, flushing toilets, irrigating farms — you name it. A dangerously severe drought has hit the entire state in what some say might be the worst ever. Farmers in this storied land of plenty could lose $1.7 billion this year. San Francisco has waged war and fines against residents who just won’t abide by watering bans.

But it’s not just the drought — it’s the severity. To find water, California, like many areas, uses aquifers and reservoirs (among other sources). Those bodies of water grow and shrink in a winter-to-summer cycle, and the water is used faster than it’s replaced. Winter rains fill them, but summer pumping parches them.

In the earthquake-prone area of Central California, that usage is moving mountains — and not in a good way. The cycle causes the Coast Ranges and the Sierra Nevada to rise and fall by the thickness of a dime every year, says a new study recently published in the journal Nature. In the past 150 years, that’s amounted to a mountain of change:

The ranges have risen and fallen across a span of

6 inches.

The mountains doing all this shifting lie near the notorious San Andreas Fault.

Scientists haven’t yet linked any quakes to the movement, and California is still bracing for the big one (when it happens, we’ll all know). But geologists from the University of California, Berkeley, and elsewhere who studied the moving mountains say that quakes have been triggered by less stress than this. Subtext: You probably don’t want mountains moving near a major fault like the San Andreas.

So, all you homeowners living under draconian water-use restrictions: Listen to your city hall. There’s a reason for the restrictions. And if merely conserving water isn’t enough to spur change, maybe the prospect of mountains moving might inspire more people to adapt — and to buy into more drastic and creative water-recycling efforts.

The professors say more study is needed. But when findings make the quake experts shaky, maybe we should all be a little nervous. And maybe that brown spot on your lawn that you decide not to water isn’t a homeowner’s eyesore but a sign that you’re doing your part to keep the very ground beneath your feet intact, right where it is.

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