CPSA Alert: Get ready, severe drought on
Just two years after California celebrated the end of its last devastating drought, the state is facing another one. Snowpack has dwindled, the state’s 1,500 reservoirs are 50% of their average levels, and federal and local agencies are issuing water restrictions.
Governor Gavin Newsom has declared a drought emergency in 41 of the state’s 58 counties. Meanwhile, temperatures are surging as the region braces for what is expected to be another record-breaking fire season, and scientists are sounding the alarm about the state’s readiness.
“What we are seeing right now is very severe, dry conditions and in some parts of the west, the lowest in-flows to reservoirs on record,” says Roger Pulwarty, a senior scientist in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) physical sciences laboratory, adding that, while the system is designed to withstand dry periods, “a lot of the slack in our system has already been used up.”
City by city, new local emergency water contingency plans are being implemented and residents are being asked to conserve water. The CPSA is monitoring these ordinances, but some are bound to start affecting new swimming pool construction, especially if the drought continues into next year. Another consequence is that prospective pool owners are being harassed by their neighbors. CPSA has produced doorhangers for pool contractors to use in neighborhoods where they are building pools. The door hangers inform the neighbors that swimming pools use half of the water that lawn and landscaping generally demands.
The current drought wasn’t expected to get this bad, and certainly not this quickly. Just two months ago, the Sierra Nevada snowpack was 70% of its average, and state officials were hunkering down for a difficult summer.
But in only a few weeks, amidst a spring time warmspell, most of the Sierra runoff either evaporated or was absorbed by dry soils. Officials said about 500,000 acre-feet of melted snow that was supposed to replenish the reservoirs failed to materialize. Later, they calculated the runoff figure at 685,000 acre-feet, or enough water to fill two-thirds of Folsom Lake.
Newsom and others blamed climate change for the catastrophic situation. But many environmentalists and policy experts aren’t completely buying that explanation. Critics, especially The California Water for Food & People Movement, claim the drought is manmade. They cite statistics that indicate the state has dumped enough water in the Pacific Ocean this year to provide the state residents with at least a year’s worth of water. In California, the saying goes, “whiskey is for drinking and water for fighting,” referring to the tensions between interests representing agriculture, fishing, environmental groups, and public drinking water requirements.
During the last drought, it took the state three years of drought conditions to get to the point where California Reservoirs are today. But 2021 seems to be turning out to be the driest year on record, especially in the Northern California region where the state depends on snow and reservoirs to provide sufficient water to serve the state through the hot months.
Drought is not unnatural for California. Its climate is predisposed to wet years interspersed among dry ones. But the climate crisis and rising temperatures are compounding these natural variations, turning cyclical changes into crises. Drought, as defined by the National Weather Service, isn’t a sudden onset of characteristics but rather a creeping trend. It’s classified after a period of time, when the prolonged lack of water in a system causes problems in a particular area, such as crop damages or supply issues. In California, dry conditions started to develop in May 2020, according to federal monitoring systems.
The effects really began to show in early spring 2020, when the annual winter rainy season failed to replenish the parched landscape and a hot summer baked even more moisture out of the environment. By March, conditions were dire enough for the US agriculture 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.