Quenching California’s Thirst For Water

California drought

The past four years have been among the driest in California’s recorded history. (Photo credit: Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images)

The past four years have been among the driest in California’s recorded history. This January marked one of the driest months on record. In March, the Sierra Nevada snowpack, a key source of fresh water for the region, was at 5 percent of its historical average of 28.5 inches. The Sierra Nevada’s Tuolumne River Basin supplies water for the Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts and the Hetch Hetchy Regional Water System, which provides water to San Francisco and surrounding areas.

In January, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a State of Emergency and imposed strict conservation measures across the state due to severe drought conditions. In Executive Order B-29-15, Governor Brown requests included that:

  • the State Water Resources Control Board impose restrictions to achieve a statewide 25% reduction in potable urban water usage through February 28, 2016.
  • the Department of Water Resources lead a statewide initiative, in partnership with local agencies, to replace 50 million square feet of lawns and ornamental turf with drought-tolerant landscapes.
  • the Water Board impose restrictions to require that commercial, industrial, and institutional properties immediately implement water efficiency measures to reduce potable water usage in an amount consistent with the reduction targets.
  • the Water Board direct urban water suppliers to develop rate structures and other pricing mechanisms, including but not limited to surcharges, fees, and penalties, to maximize water conservation consistent with statewide water restrictions.

Under the State of Emergency, residents and businesses that waste the most water are subject to fines up to $10,000, a substantial increase from the previous daily maximum fine of $500.

Effect on Agriculture

The agricultural sector is one of the industries hardest hit by the drought. California is the top farm state in terms of annual value of agricultural products. The Central Valley, which stretches 450 miles from Bakersfield in the south to Redding in the north, produces the majority of the state’s agricultural crops. Because of a lack of water, farmers have had to lay fallow 500,000 acres of agricultural fields. The almond industry – a crop that uses nearly 10 percent of the state’s water resources – has seen significant losses as groves of almond trees are left unwatered.

According to a report by researchers at the University of California–Davis, farmers will spend $590 million over and above their typical costs to pump water from rapidly dropping water tables. According to an article in The Los Angeles Times, “Parts of the San Joaquin Valley are deflating like a tire with a slow leak as growers pull more and more water from the ground. The land subsidence is cracking irrigation canals, buckling roads, and permanently depleting storage space in the vast aquifer that underlies California’s heartland.” Much of the water used to irrigate crops in the Central Valley region comes from the Central Valley aquifer, which runs for 400 miles beneath the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. This underground aquifer is California’s largest reservoir of water. However, for the most part it is both unregulated and unmonitored – meaning that the 100,000-plus wells that penetrate deep beneath the valley floor can take as much water as necessary without penalties or thoughts to the future. Experts warn that continued unregulated water removal will accelerate the arrival of the day when there is no more water left to be taken, turning millions of acres of fertile fields to barren expanses of dust.

Effect on Wildlife, Fisheries, and Forests

California’s human population isn’t the only one at risk in the face of severe drought. The state’s wildlife, fisheries, and forests are also suffering. Wildlife-human interactions are on the rise as animals are forced to search further afield for food resources in their drought-stricken habitats. The most at-risk species are those that are adapted to live in specific locations and do not have the means to move beyond their habitats. Desert-living species that rely upon marshes or ephemeral ponds as their main sources of water are particularly at risk as these resources dry up as the drought continues.

Water diversion projects have wreaked havoc on fish habitat. Low water output from upstream dams have caused water temperatures to rise to inhospitable levels in their spawning grounds, resulting in the evacuation of entire hatchery operations.

Over the course of the drought, the U.S. Forest Service estimates that over 12.5 million trees have died in California. An aerial survey in April 2015 that covered 8,000,000 acres counted 990,000 acres of dead trees. Many still-living trees have been damaged by dehydration and are in danger of infestations from bark beetles, a pest species that preys upon (and ultimately kills) weakened trees. Drought conditions plus huge swathes of dead trees add up to make an extreme fire hazard. As of August 22, 2015, 4,743 wildfires have burned in California, covering 146,279 acres. During this same time period last year, 3,285 fires consumed 89,358 acres.

Are Drought Conditions Here to Stay?

According to research recently published in Geophysical Research Letters, the severe drought California is currently facing is due in part to human-caused global warming. The research, led by scientists at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, indicates that “anthropogenic [i.e., human-caused] warming is estimated to have accounted for 8–27% of the observed drought anomaly in 2012–2014 and 5–18% in 2014. Although natural variability dominates, anthropogenic warming has substantially increased the overall likelihood of extreme California droughts.”

In a collaboration by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Columbia University, and Cornell University, researchers reported in the journal Science Advances that climate change is expected to continue to exacerbate drought conditions throughout North America. According to the scientists, “in the Southwest and Central Plains of Western North America, climate change is expected to increase drought severity in the coming decades.” Their climate models project that there will be “significantly drier conditions in the later half of the 21st century compared to the 20th century and earlier paleoclimatic intervals.” In addition, their research indicates that “future drought risk will likely exceed even the driest centuries of the Medieval Climate Anomaly (1100–1300 CE) in both moderate and future [greenhouse gas] emissions scenarios, leading to unprecedented drought conditions during the last millennium.”

More to Explore
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Unprecedented 21st century drought risk in the American Southwest and Central Plains
California’s Drought Spurs Unexpected Effect: Eco-Friendly Development
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How the California Drought is Hurting Wildlife
The Drought’s Hidden Victim: California’s Native Fish
California Drought Is Made Worse by Global Warming, Scientists Say
Drought Kills 12 Million Trees in California’s Forests

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