CCalifornia is on the brink of another prolonged drought, just a few years after one of the worst droughts in state history left poor, rural communities without well water, triggered major water restrictions in cities, forced farmers to leaving their fields idle, killed millions of people. trees and stoked devastating mega fires.
On Thursday, the unofficial end of California’s rainy season, officials Announced that snow accumulation in the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Cascades was approximately 40% below average levels. The state does not have enough snow and rain to replenish its groundwater supplies, feed its rivers and streams, or fill depleted reservoirs.
“It’s not just that we’re anticipating a dry year, it’s our second extremely dry year in a row,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles and the Nature Conservancy. California, along with much of the western US, is parched, Swain added, and should prepare for water outages and arid conditions that could trigger more destructive wildfires.
Just four years after the state’s last drought emergency, experts and advocates say the state is not ready to deal with what could be months and possibly years of drought to come. Heading into the summer, battles between cities, farms and environmentalists are escalating over how scarce supplies are rationed.
‘We are just not prepared’
In the San Joaquin Valley, California’s agricultural heartland, the latest drought never ended for some. There are still communities in rural Tulare County that get their water in trucks, houses with huge tanks parked out front. The groundwater reserves on which millions of households depend for drinking, cooking and bathing, in some cases, were never fully recovered.
But at the height of the state’s last great drought, which lasted from 2012 to 2016, things were even worse. When the residential wells dried up, “the high schools opened early so students could shower before class,” said Erick Orellana, a policy advocate at the nonprofit Community Water Center. Households lucky enough to get some water hosed neighbors whose supplies had run out, “so they could flush their toilets,” he said. Marginalized, Latino and Native communities were the hardest hit.
Going forward, “we are just not prepared to prevent that from happening again,” Orellana said.
The California Department of Water Resources has already announced major cuts to the reservoirs and aqueducts that supply farms and cities. The federal Office of Recovery, which distributes water to farms throughout the state’s Central Valley, said agricultural customers south of the California delta, which feeds the San Francisco Bay, will not receive water this year. And some localities, including Marin County, north of the San Francisco Bay, have asked residents to voluntarily reduce their water use.
“But our water system is already overloaded,” said Nicola Ulibarri, who researches water management at the University of California, Irvine. The state’s huge agricultural industry, which supplies what is equal to a quarter of America’s food supply, absorbs 80% of the state’s water resources. Much of the rest is pumped to cities and towns in the region. California is already drawing so much water from the state’s bay delta that endangered native fish species are in decline.
There just isn’t enough water for everyone, he added, “and that to me is a sign that we’re going to need the whole system to change.”
When rivers and reservoirs run dry, farmers resort to pumping more and more water out of the ground. During the last drought, they soaked up so much water that many farm workers and other San Joaquin Valley residents were left without water.
California has since passed its first law regulating groundwater use. As part of the new legislation, for the past two years, communities have been developing proposals to conserve reserves. But these plans have yet to be implemented, Ulibarri said, and especially after the coronavirus crisis, which drained state coffers, state politicians may not have the will or the resources to fund much-needed changes.
And even as officials review proposals for changes, large farmers have been able to push for more water rights. “In the meantime, there is no real lobbying for households that also need water,” said Camille Pannu, who runs the Water Justice Clinic at UC Davis School of Law. “And that’s how we end up with really stark racial inequalities when it comes to access to water.”
Forest fires and a changing climate
Political clashes over where limited water supplies should be allocated have already flared across the state. Environmentalists have warned they can sue the federal government to prevent it from redirecting water from the delta to farms at the expense of endangered salmon and olive trees. Agricultural lobbyists have been pressuring the state governor, Gavin Newsom, who is facing an impeachment campaign, to provide guarantee. And groups like the Community Water Center have been lobbying lawmakers to pass bills to protect access for underserved rural communities.
But as officials face tough decisions about how to allocate water, scientists warn that the drought will also bring more fierce and destructive fires across the West. Over the past decade, the drought in California contributed to the death of about 163 million trees, and dead vegetation has helped fuel some of the most destructive fires in the state’s history in recent years.
The current drought, and the previous one, are characterized not only by low rainfall, but also by warmer weather, UCLA’s Swain said. Not only drier but warmer conditions have prepared the landscape for more destructive fires. “Extreme and intense fires are the exclamation points at the end of prolonged droughts,” he said.
Last year, which saw the worst wildfire season on record in the state, left 31 people dead and burned more than 10,000 buildings. In regions devastated by recent mega-fires, the toxic aftermath of the flames has also contaminated limited supplies of drinking water.
“This year is likely to bring more major burns,” Swain said. “There really is no sign of relief on the horizon.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism