Reviewing Impacts of Historic Drought Facing California and the West

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As much of the eastern U.S. was shivering through one of the region’s coldest and snowiest winters in years, a historic drought now in its third year plagues California’s usually lush Central Valley and other parts of the West…with implications down the road for all of us.

It’s been widely reported that California got some much-needed rain recently. For those suffering through recurring ice storms, sleet and ice, polar vortexes, and biblical floods, that news may come as a kind of insult. But California’s been getting its own share of misery, in the form of an epic drought now in its third year. Last year was the driest year on record in California.

By February 5, 63 percent of the state was withering under “extreme” drought conditions, reported USA Today. Towns have been running out of water, farmers and cattle ranchers are growing desperate, grape vines are dying, Sierra snowpack is a fraction of what it should be, and talk of desalination plants up and down the Golden State’s coast is growing.

“The bottom line is that this storm is not going to end California’s drought,” Nancy Vogel, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Water Resources, told the San Francisco Chronicle during the brunt of the recent Pacific storm.

The year began with summery weather in Southern California, dry and sunny. A New York Times story on February 1 captured the flipside of that balmy climate while the rest of the nation froze in the grip of an Arctic freeze:

“The punishing drought that has swept California is now threatening the state’s drinking water supply,” The Times reported. “With no sign of rain, 17 rural communities providing water to 40,000 people are in danger of running out within 60 to 120 days.”

B. Lynn Ingram, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at U.C. Berkeley, told The Times: “We are on track for having the worst drought in 500 years.”

KPCC, Southern California Public Radio, recounted past California droughts, from 1987 to 1992 and from 2007 to 2009, but added that mega-droughts can last anywhere from several decades to a century — even longer. “We haven’t seen that since the Middle Ages,” Lynn Ingram, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at UC Berkeley told the station. Between 900 AD and 1400 AD, such mega-droughts were common in the region that is now California.

Scientists don’t know just what causes these mega-droughts, and many forecast a rainier climate for California as the globe’s average temperature continues to rise. That rain, however, is expected to evaporate more quickly as temperatures rise, and in any case more rain and less snow means valuable Sierra snowpack will be greatly diminished.

Humans Carry On ‘Blithely’ … But Then…

In a political commentary on February 6, the Los Angeles Times’ David Horsey wrote that the ongoing drought in the West “is a reminder that civilized life is a paper-thin veneer that overlays the deep upheavals of nature. Humans carry on blithely, holding fast to the illusion that the natural world can be tamed and exploited with no unavoidable consequences. Then we get slammed by a hurricane, a flood, a tornado, a wildfire, a drought or a freezing polar vortex that lets us know how wrong we are.

“Yet, after each disaster, we forget again — which is the reason so few of us give any sustained attention to the climate change peril. It is similar to the way we think about death. We know it’s coming, but we would drive ourselves crazy if we thought about it all the time. As a result, we revert to living in the moment or counting on promises of heaven.

“With climate change, either we suspect it is too late to do anything about it or we just deny it is real. And even the vast majority of climate scientists who know it is a real phenomenon are quick with the caveat that no single weather event can be attributed to climate change with complete certainty. Nevertheless, now that extreme weather is hammering us with increasingly regularity, it is hard to argue that a profound shift is not underway.”

The connections between dry weather in the West and frigid wet weather in much of the rest of the U.S. were the subject  of a feature February 7 on “Living on Earth,” the weekly environmental news and information program distributed by Public Radio International.

“The drought situation in the West, in California, is linked with the very cold conditions in the East,” NOAA research meteorologist Martin Hoerling told the show’s host, Steve Curwood.

The weather pattern itself is not just a local pattern sitting off the west coast and affecting only California. As that high pressure has been anchored off the west coast, there’s low pressure around the Hudson Bay region that has been diving southward bringing very cold air into the northeast. So these patterns have been linked. In 1976 and 1977-78, those were very cold winters in the US, they still rank among the coldest winters on record. And again, that was a linkage between the cold in the US in those years and the drought in California. And here we are again, it’s a weather pattern that comes and goes from time to time, and we’re back to a situation we saw about 38 years ago.

Drought Impacts Varied but Widespread

The ongoing drought is hammering California in several distinct ways. One is that many small rural towns are simply running out of water. Lompico near Santa Cruz is one. Lake of the Woods, north of Los Angeles, is another.

Those kinds of dire emergencies are fairly scattered, but the drought’s effects on agriculture and cattle ranching are widespread, and price increases at supermarkets nationwide appear more and more likely.

“California’s great Central Valley aquifer and the rivers that feed it, already losing water in the changing climate, are now being drained because of the drought, leaving water levels at their lowest in nearly a decade,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported on February 8. “Water experts say many farmers who depend on the huge water source beneath the valley for irrigation will have to resort to pumping water from ever deeper levels at greater costs, even as they plant crops on fewer and fewer acres as more of their land is gobbled up for development.”

As President Obama was visiting Fresno to help promote legislation offering California $300 million in aid, a New York Times story conveyed just how desperate things have become for farmers in the state’s breadbasket, the Central Valley. With huge plots of farmland becoming idle, unemployment is growing. Unemployment rates in the region have skyrocketed to 45 percent during previous droughts — a figure many expect to see this year, The Times reported.

“It’s as worse as I’ve ever seen it, I’ll tell you that right now,” Bill Chandler, who runs a nearly 500-acre farm, growing raisin grapes, peaches and almonds, told The Times. “People would like to think a few storms will solve our problems, but that’s not even going to get us close,” he said.

Meanwhile, California ranchers have missed out on record-high U.S. beef prices because they’ve been forced to cut their herds as pastures wither and buying hay is unsustainable financially. “Neighbors and friends in our part of the state are selling most or all of their cows because they don’t have any other options,” rancher Kevin Kester in Central California told Bloomberg. “Unfortunately, there will be way too many of them that end up going out of business permanently.”

Ranchers in Nevada are facing similar stresses, Al Jazeera America reported February 8.

Mendocino County Wines, Joshua Trees, Salmon Facing Increased Risks

As farmers struggle, so too does California’s $22 billion wine industry. But not just from a shortage of water. Wildfires have blanketed vineyards in Mendocino County with clouds of smoke, Bloomberg reported February 10.

One might not think  a drought could also threaten desert plants, but the iconic Joshua Trees in Joshua Tree National Park are at risk too, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported February 2.  “Some computer models predict the Joshua tree could disappear from much of the Mojave Desert, as average temperatures rise and droughts grow longer and more frequent,” the Review-Journal reported.

Salmon also face trouble. “Central Valley river levels have dropped precipitously in the past months because of a record-breaking dry spell, destroying thousands of nests — or redds — containing fertilized Chinook salmon eggs laid by spawning fish last fall,” reported the East Bay Express in Oakland on February 12.

Endangered coho salmon along the Central Coast also are struggling, the Christian Science Monitor reported February 11. “The California Coast coho salmon relies on the small creeks and streams flowing into the ocean along the coast for its life cycle,” the Monitor reported. “With most of these outlets depleted and with sandbars growing at the river mouths because of lack of runoff from the snow packs in the mountains to the east, the tiny hatchlings cannot get to the ocean nor can the adults make their way back upstream to spawn.”

The recent storm certainly has helped with the state’s ski industry, but one storm won’t make a season. Reporting from Mt. Shasta near the Oregon border, CNN Money reported on February 7: “Many small ski resorts in Northern California, Oregon, and Idaho that typically open in December are still closed. It’s not only killing business on the slopes but also for the hotels, restaurants and bars that depend on tourists coming to town for winter activities.”

Meanwhile, the drought has created unique challenges in the Sierra, the Fresno Bee reported February 8:

“The empty basin at Kings Canyon (south of Yosemite) is more evidence that the drought is stomping all over a wounded mountain range, parched for water after three years of drought,” the Bee reported. “The Sierra has thousands of square miles of overgrown forests, a potentially catastrophic problem set in motion decades ago by an ill-informed government policy of snuffing all fires. The unnaturally thick forests are soaking in snow moisture from any new storms now, depriving reservoirs of runoff. Even with some good storms, the stage is set to fill the sky with wildfire smoke this summer.”

Less Water = Less Hydropower

It’s a simple equation. But California’s punishing drought is drying up the state’s ability to make electricity from water. “Few states rely on hydro as much as California, where water accounts for about 15 percent of the total power supply in a normal year,” reported the Sacramento Bee on February 4. “We are certainly concerned,” spokeswoman Stephanie McCorkle of the Independent System Operator, which runs the California transmission grid, told the Sacramento Bee. “We do not have a forecast for blackouts this summer as a result of the drought (but) it doesn’t mean we’re not keeping a close eye on it.”

California is much less dependent on hydropower today than it had been in past decades, in part because power generation from solar energy has increased, Robert Weisenmiller, chairman of the California Energy Commission, told the San Jose Mercury News on February 11. Pacific Gas & Electric, for example, has a much more diverse portfolio today. The utility gets 11 percent of its electricity from large hydropower; the rest comes from renewable sources like solar and wind, nuclear and natural gas.

Wider Economic Implications

Beyond a few bright spots, including the state’s more diverse energy portfolio and the mid-February rain and snow, the consequences of California’s ongoing drought are expected to ripple across the nation, Bloomberg reported February 6. The price of California produce will likely go up, and agricultural losses in the state could weaken the national economy. How the American West manages and distributes water must also change as the region struggles with a drier climate.

“We are at that point [where] the risks for the future are really significant,” Peter Gleick, president of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, a nonpartisan research organization, told Bloomberg. “We have to fundamentally change the way we manage water.”

“The drought is a stark reminder that California built the world’s 10th-largest economy, the nation’s top farming industry, and Silicon Valley, the epicenter of information technology, in a semi-arid environment that’s struggling to sustain the water needs of 38 million people,” the Bloomberg report said.

Kevin Starr, California state Librarian Emeritus, a University of Southern California historian, and the author of a multi-volume history of California titled Americans and the California Dream, summed up the difficult future California faces in a drier, warmer region:

“They invented California through water engineering — which is great as long as you have water to engineer,” he told Bloomberg. “The greater Palm Springs area has over 700,000 people in it and what did Mother Nature intend? Probably 7,000.”

More about California’s Ongoing Drought

The drought’s wider implications:

Feb. 10, Mother Jones

Water management challenges:

Feb. 1, Christian Science Monitor
Feb. 7, Al Jazeera
Feb. 9, Los Angeles Times
Feb. 11, KPCC Public Radio

Water desalination and examples from abroad:

Feb. 7, E&E Publishing (Israel’s desalination water surplus)
Feb. 7, Los Angeles Times
Feb. 10, Fast Company

Federal aid for California and Washington politics:

Feb. 9, Washington Post
Feb. 11, McClatchy
Feb. 12, San Francisco Chronicle
Feb. 12, San Jose Mercury News

Advance Looks at President Obama’s Planned February 14 Visit to California:

Feb. 9, Los Angeles Times
Feb. 10, Fresno Bee

Conflicts over fracking and depletion of water:

Feb. 5, San Francisco Chronicle
Feb. 5, The Independent
Feb. 6, The Guardian
Feb. 8, The Denver Post
Feb. 11, Reuters

This year’s El Niño forecast:

Feb. 7, Climate Central
Feb. 10, New Scientist
Feb. 11, USA Today

Drought in California — The New Norm:

Feb. 5, National Public Radio

Quotes

“The bottom line is that this storm is not going to end California’s drought. Statewide, we still have a long way to go to catch up.” — Nancy Vogel, spokeswoman for the state Department of Water Resources (San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 10)

“At least we are getting something versus nothing.” — Holly Osborne, National Weather Service meteorologist, on the February storm in Northern California. (ABC News/Associated Press, Feb. 8)

“We are on track for having the worst drought in 500 years.” — B. Lynn Ingram, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at U.C. Berkeley (New York Times, Feb. 1)

“I have experienced a really long career in this area, and my worry meter has never been this high. We are talking historical drought conditions, no supplies of water in many parts of the state. My industry’s job is to try to make sure that these kind of things never happen. And they are happening.” — Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, a statewide coalition. (The New York Times, Feb. 1)

“The whole state is in crisis mode … but there will be serious pockets of pain.” — Timothy Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies. (USA Today, Feb. 5)

“The combination of climate change, growth and groundwater depletion spells a train wreck.” — James Famiglietti a water resource expert and director of the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling at UC Irvine. (San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 8)

“I don’t want to jump to conclusions. There’s still 40 percent of the wet season left and we’re seeing some good signs of a change in the weather pattern. But it is pretty grim at this point.” — Maury Roos, California’s Chief Hydrologist (The Fresno Bee, Feb. 8)

“They invented California through water engineering — which is great as long as you have water to engineer. The greater Palm Springs area has over 700,000 people in it and what did Mother Nature intend? Probably 7,000.” — Kevin Starr, author of Americans and the Californian Dream (Bloomberg, Feb. 6)

“This is a real idling of land, and there is nothing positive about it. It’s not fallowing — that implies a choice. This is not like North Dakota, where we know it’s going to get better. We’re talking either spending huge sums on bringing water in or thousands of acres lost.” — Daniel A. Sumner, an agriculture economist and the director of the Agricultural Issues center at the University of California, Davis. (The New York Times, Feb. 14)

Photo credit: CalEPA.

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman is a freelance writer covering science and environmental topics. He has more than 20 years experience in the news business. (E-mail: bruce@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @brucelieberman1)
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One Response to Reviewing Impacts of Historic Drought Facing California and the West

  1. Peter Capen says:

    At the core of the problem of California’s deepening drought is that there is too much demand for a rapidly diminishing resource. The population of the state has not awakened to the reality that no amount of federal disaster aid is likely to make much of a difference in solving the state’s chronic water shortages, if the growth in population continues to exceeds it resource carrying capacity, and there is not a fundamental rethinking in how water is used, with priorities set on its use, such as not allowing any more golf courses, not devoting some 70% of available water to be used to grow food, much of which is not consumed locally, and an end to unrestricted development. Neither prayer for divine intervention nor a technological “silver bullet” is likely to solve California’s long-term water woes. Painful political, social, an economic choices are going to have to be made, and the longer the decisions are delayed, the more painful and costly they are likely to be, especially for the coming generations.

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