Following California’s water as another dry spell looms

An unlined segment of the Second Los Angeles Aqueduct south of Manzanar near U.S. Route 395. (Photo: Gann Matsuda)

What does a Central Valley almond farmer have in common with a San Diego homeowner? The answer is simple: Water. More specifically, the amount of water they need to sustain their respective lifestyles — which is a lot.

California, a state with a long, roller-coaster history of droughts and battles over water, faces yet another dry spell as the 2020s begin. At the end of last year, the looming drought had been largely washed away, more than 90 percent of the state was declared drought free. Then another dry spell, then some March rains.

But there was no dramatic “March miracle.” Three-fourths of California remained abnormally dry, and a small piece of California along the Oregon line was in a “severe drought,” according to a March 24 government report. This week, the depth of the Sierra snow pack, a crucial indicator of California’s water supply, was below normal.

Severe droughts happened simultaneously in the regions that supply water to Southern California almost six times per century on average.

Much of our  water comes from four delivery points. It may flow from nearby or from hundreds of miles away, crossing state borders, mountain ranges and deserts. Whether it’s used to grow those pink-blossomed almond trees or to keep a lawn in arid San Diego green, it’s important to understand where that water comes from and how it arrives at its destination.

The federal Central Valley Project (CVP), launched during the Great Depression, moves water from the Sacramento, San Joaquin and Trinity basins into the San Joaquin Valley and Bay Area, supplying water to roughly 3 million acres of farmland.

In 1960, construction began on the State Water Project (SWP), which uses some of the same facilities as the CVP, and channels water from rivers in Northern California to the Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley, central coast and Southern California, providing water to 27 million people and 750,000 acres of farmland.

The highly controversial Los Angeles aqueduct system, which was completed in stages starting in 1913, annually helps transfers hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water  from Owens River in the Eastern Sierra Nevada range to Los Angeles, effectively removing the farming capabilities of the nearby Owens Valley when the project first began. One acre-foot, about 326,000 gallons, is roughly the amount of water used by a family of four in a year.

The Colorado River Aqueduct, which provides about 1.2 million acre-feet of water per year to Southern California, takes water from the  Colorado River at Lake Havasu through a 242-mile long system. It began operations in 1939.

These systems do not represent all the state’s water sources.

Water from underground basins account for roughly 40% of all water used in California, a number that tends to increase during droughts.

Southern California is thirsty, a recent study noted, and providing arid Southern California with water has affected other areas, too.

“Severe droughts happened simultaneously in the regions that supply water to Southern California almost six times per century on average since the year 1500,” according to a recent report from a University of Arizona-led project studying droughts in California. Among other sources, the study used paleodata and examined tree rings from 1126 to 1906, and studied annual precipitation and stream flow from 1906 until today.

The fire season is spreading further into the fall and winter months.

The distinction between a “state-declared drought,” and “drought-like conditions,” is an important one, said Chris Orrock, a spokesman for the state Department of Water Resources.

“The state doesn’t declare a ‘drought,’ what we declare is a ‘drought emergency’ … asking people to take additional conservation measures during a drought emergency,… a drought is created by Mother Nature.” California has not enacted a drought emergency this year.

A March miracle” with unusually large amounts of rain statewide would be necessary to avoid worsening drought-like conditions, which, in turn leads to hot summer and a fall-time fire season.

The fire season is spreading further into the fall and winter months, said spokesman Scott MccLean of CalFire. “(The) rule of thumb was that you started seeing something in June, July, and by October, you’re done.”

“We’ve already responded to over 400 calls for wildfires,” he said,  “467 since January 1, 2020.” Luckily, these recent fires from the first three months of the year haven’t been as severe as past ones, but the trend of worsening wildfires in the 21st century is an obvious one.

Sacramento also had the warmest February on record, roughly 7.1 degrees above the average daily high according to the National Weather Service

The Thomas wildfire of 2017 in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties burned approximately 280,000 acres, a record that was unfortunately broken in July of 2018, during the Mendocino Complex wildfire, which burned more than 450,000 acres of land. Not long after, in November of that year, the infamous Camp wildfire, which devastated the town of Paradise, broke not an acreage record, but a fatality record, killing 86 people. The balance of water and fire isn’t just a mythological one but a real one too.

Sacramento barely avoided its first rainless February in recorded history on the last calendar day of the month. Ask anyone living downtown though, and they’d probably tell you that it didn’t rain once.

Sacramento also had the warmest February on record, roughly 7.1 degrees above the average daily high according to the National Weather Service. And then there’s the nearby Sierra snow pack,  which recorded only 47% of the March average at the Phillips Station.

Weather extremes are becoming the norm, stemming in part from climate change, experts say.

“Those wetter years are wetter, the drier years are drier, the colder years are warmer and the warmer years are warmer,” Orrock said.

Now for policy makers, the decisions are much more complex, but ultimately they may be more effective in solving our issues.

California’s Water Conservation Act of 2009 called for a 20% reduction in urban water usage by 2020.

“Following that bill, and in part due to the water use reduction efforts that occurred during the 2012-2016 statewide drought, this 20% reduction was achieved early,” according to Kasey Schimke, an assistant director at DWR.

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