California's chief snow surveyor ventured into the Sierras this week to see how much water the state can expect from the spring melt—and he came back with very bad news. The devastating drought that the state's been dealing with the past few months will continue to devastate for the foreseeable future.
Dam it. No, seriously: proposals are now popping up in Congress to build more dams and redirect irrigation water—anything to quench the state's thirst. Others want to drill for water or even construct complex systems to collect rainwater. Unfortunately, there are no perfect solutions, save a rain storm of Biblical proportions.
So it's time to start talking seriously about the consequences. Last year was the driest year in California's recorded history, and, in January, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency. This never-ending drought is going to affect how Californians put food on the table, how many of us eat, and how everybody thinks about climate change. This is why you should care.
Frank Gehrke, chief of snow surveys for California's Department of Water Resources, was supposed to bring back good news. In a way, it couldn't have been much worse. The snow melt that many hoped would end California's drought didn't just come up short; it sort of set the state back even more.
This year, there are just eight inches of water tied up in Sierra Mountains' snow. That's only 29 percent of the normal amount of water and the lowest reading at this time of year since 1988. Since Sierra snow melt is a major source of water for California, this is very bad. Historically, snow levels don't increase after April 1, but the snow melt after that date makes up some 60 percent of California's reservoirs.
California can't depend on April showers, either. Southern California's been enjoying some much needed rain, but the recent string of downpours isn't going to be enough to fill the reservoirs. Meanwhile, rainfall in northern California is just 50 percent of the historical average, and water levels at the state's biggest dams are at about half capacity. That's all very bad news. How bad? This bad.
When there's a water shortage in a place like California, it sets off a chain reaction of pretty scary scenarios. It's not so much that people will get thirsty, though that becomes a concern down the line. It's that the Earth is always thirsty, and when you don't give it a drink, it gets upset.
First, farming starts to collapse. California is responsible for 15 percent of the country's produce and over 7 percent of its livestock. In 2012, all that added up to $44.7 billion worth of output and the largest agricultural labor market in the country. But when there's no water to irrigate the fields, things fall apart.
This year, 20 to 35 percent of the acreage used for crops like corn, cotton, and rice will remain unplanted. Farmers are already pulling up almond trees and leaving fields bare in an attempt to conserve the water supply, which runs through a few precious bottlenecks before making it to the Central Valley. That Sierra snowmelt mentioned above, for instance, is responsible for 8 million acres of farmland alone. So no matter what, food prices will go up for everyone this year.
There's also a wildfire problem—a big one. When land dries out, its plant life is obviously more susceptible to fires, and authorities are already worried that this will be one of the worst wildfire seasons they've ever seen. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is already starting to hire extra firefighters to help combat the inevitable blazes. This is the earliest they've ever started hiring for the wildfire season.
Again, the spring rain isn't enough. "Even with rain in March, our fire activity has remained 200 percent over average statewide," Chief Ken Pimlott, Cal Fire's director, told the press this week. "The rain has been great, but it has not been enough to make up for our dry winter and California's drought."
It's already started. So far this year, Cal Fire's fought over 800 wildfires that have charred nearly 2,300 acres. And the season hasn't even really started yet.
Everybody seems to have a different idea about how to save California from becoming a barren, blazing wasteland. But again, there's no magical solution—just lots of little solutions.
Chief among them is the plan to drill for water. While California typically depends on so-called surface water that's diverted from rivers and streams to irrigation networks, dry conditions mean they'll have to go a little bit deeper and tap into ground water reserves. Drilling wells is not without its negative consequences, though. Once you start drilling, the only way to keep getting more water after you've depleted supplies is to drill some more. Then, once you're drilling a lot, there's a greater risk that the water will become tainted by salt or chemicals. Nevertheless, drilling is helping.
As mentioned earlier, the proposals that have been floated in Congress only provide marginal relief as well. Some want to build more dams to boost the water levels in the state's half-full reservoirs. Others want to loosen restrictions that are in place to protect endangered species and flood scenic canyons. Gov. Brown is already working on transferring water to the places that need it the most, and he's also ordered the state government to reduce its water consumption.
What it seems to be coming down to is water rations. Some rationing programs are already being enforced by local governments, and authorities in some areas have made it a misdemeanor to water lawns. Inevitably, the answer for some communities is the classic put-a-bucket-outside-and-catch-rainwater approach.
Inevitably, the scariest thing about this year's drought is the possibility that next year will be worse. This is where folks get tangled up in the climate change debate. While many other factors are at play—California's population growth and the state's high water demands, namely—the weather is obviously a player here. Whether or not the drought has climate change to thank remains debatable. If climate change is playing a major role, then we can only expect things to get worse for the foreseeable future.
There is hope. Martin Hoerling, an expert on climate extremes for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, recently offered The New York Times some historical perspective:
This drought has many of the attributes of past historical droughts over the region — widespread lack of storms and rainfall that would normally enter the region from the Pacific with considerable frequency. …
The bottom line is that this type of drought has been observed before. And, to state the obvious, this drought has occurred principally due to a lack of rains, not principally due to warmer temperatures.
So at least there's that. Optimism for better years to come won't water our crops or put out the wildfires. But hey, at least—buried under the dry California dust—there is good news after all: Now is a great time to pan for gold.
All images via AP