secretary, Tom Vilsack, to designate ….
secretary, Tom Vilsack, to designate most of California as a primary disaster area. Just two months later, 93% of the Southwest and California were in drought, with 38% of the region classified at the highest level.
The state’s previous drought lasted roughly seven long years, from December 2011 to March 2019, according to official estimates. But some scientists believe it never actually ended.
These researchers suggest that the West is gripped by an emerging 100 year “megadrought” that could last for decades. A 2020 study that looked at tree rings for historical climate clues concluded the region may be entering the worst prolonged period of drought encountered in more than 1,200 years and attributed roughly half of the effects to human-caused global heating.
Meanwhile, California has been getting warmer, and 2020 brought some of the highest temperatures ever recorded. In August of last year, Death Valley reached 130°F (54°C) and a month later, an area in Los Angeles County recorded a 121°F (49.4°C) day – the hottest in its history.
When we do not have the snowpack, it puts our water system under tremendous pressure. Heat changes the water cycle and creates a thirstier atmosphere that accelerates evaporation. That means there is less water available for communities, businesses, and ecosystems. It also means there will be less snow, which California relies on for roughly 30% of its water supply.
“The snowpack, in the context of the western US and specifically in California, is really critical for our water supply,” says Safeeq Khan, a professor at University of California, Merced, who researches the climate crisis and water sustainability. “The snowpack sits on the mountain and melts in the spring and early summer. That provides the buffer to overcome the extreme summer heat,” he explains.
But in recent years, even during wet winters, he says, the snowpack wasn’t as strong as it used to be. This year, even before the summer, it is already nearly gone. The melt has also produced less runoff than expected, meaning less trickled into streams, rivers, and reservoirs.
In the Sacramento area, Lake Orville is the linchpin of a system of reservoirs and aqueducts that helps provide drinking water, sustains endangered salmon, and irrigates a quarter of the nation’s crops. The lake is shrinking rapidly and is expected to reach a record low this summer. Over the Memorial Day weekend, houseboats were seen sitting on concrete blocks.
In nearby Folsom Lake, the usually very busy boat docks are sitting on dry land. Further North, campers at Shasta Lake are camping on the dry and dusty banks of the great lake.
The water is so low at Lake Mendocino that state officials had to reduce the amount of water flowing to Central Valley farmers But the effects of the drought go way beyond boat-goers and campers. The San Francisco Bay needs fresh water from the reservoirs to keep out the saltwater that harms freshwater fish and crops. And the state needs the water from the dams to produce hydroelectric power.
It is expected by late August that state officials will have to shut down the electrical station at the Lake which could again contribute to rolling electric blackouts across the state.
In addition, California is already in a state of emergency regarding the threat of a wildfire season worse than last year, which burned near 4 million acres.