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California’s latest drought is already here

A dry field and barn off of Highway 152 in California's Pacheco Pass. (Photo: Hank Shiffman, via Shutterstock)

As if the COVID-19 epidemic, economic malaise, disrupted schooling and wildfires weren’t enough, California now finds itself heading for a drought. A big drought.

In fact, the U.S. Drought Monitor says that 91 percent of the state is in a drought right now. 

Reservoir and groundwater levels are significantly below average, and despite recent storms, the snowpack was only 63 percent of average as of March 10. The state’s next snow survey — the critical indicator of spring runoff — at Echo Summit in the Sierra Nevada is unlikely to show improvements.

“We are now facing the reality that it will be a second dry year for California and that is having a significant impact on our water supply.” — Karla Nemeth.

The State Water Resources Control Board mailed early warning notices to some 40,000 water right holders, urging them to plan for potential shortages by reducing water use and adopting conservation measures. 

Climate change is making droughts – and, ironically, floods — more common in California and across the West.  In January, the Public Policy Institute of California declared:

“California’s climate is warming and becoming more variable. Rising temperatures are making droughts more intense, and dry years are occurring more frequently. At the same time, winter storms are becoming warmer— with less snow and more rain—leading to larger floods.” 

“We are now facing the reality that it will be a second dry year for California and that is having a significant impact on our water supply,” says Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth.

The department now expects to deliver 5 percent of requested supplies this year, down from the initial allocation of 10 percent announced in December.

Climate experts tell us that the rainy season is just about over, and whatever is still out there will likely be too small to make much difference.

“Virtually all the state remains in a precipitation deficit, with much of the state having received about half or less of average precipitation to date,” says Jeanine Jones, DWR Interstate Resources Manager.

The department now expects to deliver 5 percent of requested supplies this year, down from the initial allocation of 10 percent announced in December. 

Following a below-average 2020 water year, California’s major reservoirs are at 50 percent of capacity. Lake Oroville is currently at 53 percent of average. The Feather River watershed, which feeds into Lake Oroville, has seen significantly less precipitation this year than normal, and is headed for its second-driest year on record.

Water supply problems are not new in California, where the water is frequently in one place and the people are in another.

The U. S. Drought Monitor reports the most-impacted parts of California are parts of eastern Inyo and San Bernardino Counties, with what the Monitor describes as “exceptional drought.” Much of the Central Valley and the Southern California coast from San Luis Obispo County to Orange County are listed as in either “moderate” or “severe” drought.

How would the average California householder be affected if the apparently inevitable occurs?

The past may be prologue: On April 1, 2015, then-Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order enforcing state-wide mandatory reductions in urban potable water use by an average of 25 percent. 

Water supply problems are not new in California, where the water is frequently in one place and the people are in another.

Northern Californians argue that if they sent more water to the south, they would waste it, resulting in the Sacramento River being degraded.

The state has made strenuous attempts over the decades to connect the two, with the State Water Project (SWP)as the biggest and most expensive. The SWP, born in 1960, is a water storage and delivery system of reservoirs, aqueducts, power plants and pumping plants extending more than 700 miles — two-thirds the length of California. 

It was developed by the state Department of Water Resources, which brags that it  is the nation’s largest state-built, multi-purpose, user-financed water project. It supplies water to more than 27 million people in northern California, the Bay Area, the San Joaquin Valley, the Central Coast and southern California. SWP water also irrigates about 750,000 acres of farmland, mainly in the San Joaquin Valley. More than two-thirds of Californians receive some water from the SWP.

Northern Californians argue that if they sent more water to the south, they would waste it, resulting in the Sacramento River being degraded. However, Central Valley farmers and southern Californians still want more water, because they feel that their growing populations and agricultural needs require the water.

Demand for water by an expanding population means that California has witnessed water wars over its 170 years as a state.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration has come up with its ”Water Resilience Portfolio,” described as the administration’s blueprint for equipping California to cope with more extreme droughts and floods, rising temperatures, declining fish populations, over-reliance on groundwater and other challenges.

“The portfolio outlines 142 state actions to help build a climate-resilient water system in the face of climate change. The actions tie directly to Administration efforts to carry out recent laws regarding safe and affordable drinking water, groundwater sustainability and water-use efficiency,” the administration wrote. “They also elevate priorities to secure voluntary agreements in key watersheds to improve flows and conditions for fish, address air quality and habitat challenges around the Salton Sea and protect the long-term functionality of the State Water Project and other conveyance infrastructure.”

“Water is the lifeblood of our state, sustaining communities, wildlife and our economy,” Newsom noted in a statement accompanying release of the portfolio.

Demand for water by an expanding population means that California has witnessed water wars over its 170 years as a state. There is the struggle between environmentalists and fishermen on one side and farmers on the other over who gets how much water from the 738,000 acre Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

And in the early part of the 20th century, rapidly expanding Los Angeles managed to import huge amounts of water from the Owens Valley. From 1907 through 1913, engineer William Mulholland directed the building of the a 233-mile-long aqueduct from the Owens Valley to the San Fernando Valley 

After the aqueduct was completed San Fernando investors demanded so much water from the Owens Valley that it started to transform from “The Switzerland of California” into a desert.

No one knows for sure if he really said it, but Mark Twain is reputed to have remarked, “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.”


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