Thursday, April 2, 2015

California Drought: The State Is Totally Screwed. To A Lesser Extent, You Are, Too.

California water managers on skis and snowshoes
stick a long metal pole into the snow
on April 1, 2012 in the Sierra Nevada mountains
to measure snow and its water content.  
Yesterday, California Gov Jerry Brown and Frank Gehrke strolled out onto a nice alpine meadow in the Sierra Nevada in front of a waiting scrum of reporters.  

Gehrke held a big tall aluminum pole. There was a black piece of tape or something about two feet up the pole. About five feet up the pole, there was another piece of tape, this one green.

That piece of black tape? That was how deep the snow was on this meadow around April 1, 1977, which used to be the record for the paltriest snow cover for that time of year in the meadow. That piece of green tape was how deep the snow usually is this time of year.

This illustrates why California is screwed. Their drought is in its fourth year. The state depends upon snow melt from the Sierra to feed reservoirs and much of the state's water needs.

Months of record winter warmth has melted what little snow has fallen in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Snow cover is just five percent of where it should be this time of year. It's like asking for a glass of water and only getting a medicine dropper full of liquid instead.

The same site as the photo above, but this photo was taken
yesterday. There is no snow to measure amid
California's worst drought in modern history.  
Governor Brown used the occasion in that alpine meadow to announce unprecedented water restrictions on Californias. Every city is going to have to use 25 percent less water than it usually does.

California state water managers are calling the situation scary.  

Craig Miller at KQED, the public media network for northern California, said more than 400,000 acres of farmland were fallow last year because of a lack of water. That figure could double this year.

Less farming means fewer agriculture-related jobs, too. Not only farmworkers, but suppliers of farm equipment. This will have a ripple effect across the nation as farm suppliers across the United States get fewer orders from California.

You're going to feel California's drought in your wallet and your taste buds, even if you live in a place with oodles of water.

As Mother Jones points out, nearly half of all of the United State's supply of fruits, vegetables and nuts come from California.

This includes 99 percent of all our almonds and walnuts, 98 percent of our pistachios, 95 percent of broccoli and 92 percent of strawberries.

Of course, not all farmland in California will stop producing. Irrigation will continue, crops will keep growing and being distributed nationwide, but definitely to a lesser extent than in that past.

That will squeeze supply. The basic laws of supply and demand mean if the supply goes down, prices go up. Your favorite walnut strawberry dessert is about to become unaffordable.

Some farmers will also resort to pumping out more and more groundwater to make up for lost irrigation allocations from state and local water managers.

As Eric Holthaus writes in Slate, this desperate effort to reach groundwater can result in sinking ground levels and a permanent reduction in water storage capacity even when and if the rains finally return to California.

New laws aimed at reducing overuse of groundwater won't be enforced until 2040, and should be imposed much sooner than that, writes Holthaus. 

In California, people are going to have to get used to watching every drop of water they use. I know that would be hard for me, in damp old Vermont, where winter snows and spring and summer rains have been consistently reliable, knock on wood. (Sometimes too reliable: We've had a huge increase in the number and severity of floods in recent years.)

For most people, letting their lawns go brown, or replacing lawns with plants that don't use much water is the easy part. But people will continually have to be mindful of the lengths of their showers, how often they wash their clothes, how often they flush the toilet.

Some communities will run out of water entirely, Craig quotes Mark Cowin, who heads California's Department of Water Resources.

It a bit of cruel irony, over the next week as we get into April, some rain and mountain snow might fall on the northern half of California. April is traditionally the start of California's dry season, which typically lasts until late autumn.

This rain and snow won't make much difference at all in the drought. California had hoped and waited as it looked like an El Nino weather pattern might take hold. El Ninos often dump heavy winter precipitation on California.

But El Nino never really got going, until now, as it seems to be finally taking shape. Too late. El Nino does not override California's summer dry season.

For the next several months, we're going to be treated to a constant stream of news stories about California towns without water, rising food prices, wildfires and pitched political battles over who gets to use how much water in California.

Any way you look at it, the situation is ugly. And it's going to get uglier.

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