The Crisis Over California’s Water: Let’s Stop Calling It a Drought

The following article appeared last August in the CounterPunch print edition, Volume 21, Number 7.

“Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.”
– Mark Twain

It doesn’t take long once you’ve left the greater Los Angeles area, away from all the lush lawns, water features, green parkways and manicured foliage to see that California is in the midsts of a real, and potentially deadly water crisis. Acres and acres of abandoned farms, dry lake beds, empty reservoirs—the water is simply no longer there and likely won’t ever be back.

What’s happening here in California is far more than a ‘severe drought’ as the media has dubbed the situation. The word ‘drought’ gives the impression that this is all short-lived, an inconvenience we have to deal with for a little while. But the lack of water isn’t temporary, it’s the new norm. California’s ecology as some 38 million residents know it is forever changing—and climate change is the culprit. At least that’s the prognosis a few well-respected climatologists have been saying for the last two decades, and their predictions have not only been accurate, they’ve been conservative in their estimates.

UC Santa Cruz Professor Lisa Sloan co-authored a 2004 report in which she and her colleague Jacob Sewall predicted the melting of the Arctic ice shelf would cause a decrease in precipitation in California and hence a severe drought. The Arctic melting, they claimed, would warp the offshore jet stream in the Pacific Ocean. Not only have their models proved correct, Prof. Sloan recently told Joe Romm of ThinkProgress she believes “the actual situation in the next few decades could be even more dire” than their study suggested.

As they anticipated ten years ago, the jet stream has indeed shifted, essentially pushing winter storms up north and out of California. As a result, snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas, which feeds water to most of Southern California and the agricultural operators of the Central Valley, have all but disappeared. Winters are drier and springs are no longer wet, which means when the warm summer months roll around there’s no water to be cultivated.

The Los Angeles basin is a region that has long relied on snowmelt from mountains hundreds of miles away to feed its insatiable appetite for development, but that resource is rapidly evaporating. It is, perhaps, a just irony for the water thieves of Southern California that their wells are finally running dry. Prudence and restraint in water usage will soon be forced upon those who value the extravagant over the practical. It’s the new way of the West as climate change’s many impacts come to fruition.

Not that you’d notice much of this new reality as you travel L.A.’s bustling streets. Pools in the San Fernando Valley remain full, while tanned Californians wash their prized vehicles in the streets and soak their green lawns in the evenings. A $500 fine can be handed out to residents who don’t abide by the outdoor watering restrictions now in place, but I’ve yet to see any water cops patrolling neighborhoods for water wasters. In fact, in Long Beach, where I live, water managers have actually admitted they aren’t planning to write any tickets. “We don’t really intend to issue any fines, at least right now,” said Matthew Veeh of the Long Beach Water Department.

Meanwhile up in Sacramento, Gov. Jerry Brown has called on all those living in the state to reduce their water use by 20 percent. That’s almost one percentage point for every California community that is at risk of running out of water by the end of the year. Gov. Brown’s efforts to conserve water have fallen on deaf ears. A report issued in July by state regulators shows a one percent increase in water consumption across the state over the past 12 months, with the biggest increase occurring in Southern California’s coastal communities.

“Not everybody in California understands how bad this drought is…and how bad it could be,” said State Water Resources Water Control Board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus when the report was first released.  “There are communities in danger of running out of water all over the state.”

Perhaps there is a reason why people don’t understand how bad the water crisis really is—they’re daily lives have yet to be impacted. Unless the winter and spring of 2015 bring drenching rains, California only has 12-18 months of reserves left. Even the most optimistic of forecasts show a rapid decline in water reserves in the state in the decades to come. To put it in perspective, California hasn’t seen this drastic of a decline in rainfall since the mid-1500s.

“This is a real emergency that requires a real emergency response,” argues Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “If Southern California does not step up and conserve its water, and if the drought continues on its epic course, there is nothing more that our water managers can do for us. Water availability in Southern California would be drastically reduced. With those reductions, we should expect skyrocketing water, food and energy prices, as well as the demise of agriculture.”

While it’s clear that the decline in the state’s water reserves will have a very real economic and day-to-day impact on Californians in the near future, it’s also having an inexorable and devastating effect on the environment.

***

The distinctive, twisted trees of Joshua Tree National Park are dying. The high desert is becoming even hotter and drier than normal, dropping nearly 2 inches from its average of just over 4.5 inches of annual rainfall. The result: younger Joshua trees, which grow at a snail’s pace of around 3 inches per year, are perishing before they reach a foot in height. Their vanishing is a strong indicator that the peculiar trees of the park will not be replenished once they grow old and die.

After analyzing national climate data The Desert Sun reported, “[In] places from Palm Springs to Tucson, [we] found that average monthly temperatures were 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit hotter during the past 20 years as compared to the average before 1960.”

This increase in temperatures and the decrease in yearly rainfall are transforming the landscape and vegetation of California. Sadly Joshua trees aren’t the only native plants having a rough time surviving the changing climate. Pinyon pines, junipers and other species are being killed by beetle infestations as winters become more mild. Writes Ian James in The Desert Sun, “Researchers have confirmed that many species of trees and shrubs are gradually moving uphill in the Santa Rosa Mountains, and in Death Valley, photographs taken decades apart have captured a stunning shift as the endangered dune grass has been vanishing, leaving bare wind rippled sand dunes.”

Plants aren’t the only living organisms being dealt a losing hand. “[California’s] Native fishes and the ecosystems that support them are incredibly vulnerable to drought,” Peter Moyle, a professor at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, noted at a drought summit in Sacramento last fall. “There are currently 37 species of fish on the endangered species list in California—and there is every sign that that number will increase.”

Of those species, some eighty percent won’t survive if the trend continues. Scientists have also attributed the decline in tricolored blackbirds to the drought, which are also imperiled by development and pesticide use.

Salmon runs, however, may be taking the brunt of the drought. According to to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, coho salmon may go extinct south of the Golden Gate straight in San Francisco if the rains don’t come quick. As environmental group Defenders of Wildlife notes, “All of the creeks between the Golden Gate and Monterey Bay are blocked by sandbars because of lack of rain, making it impossible for salmon to get to their native streams and breed. If critically endangered salmon do not get to their range to spawn this year, they could go extinct. This possible collapse of the salmon fishery is bad news for salmon fishermen and North Coast communities. California’s salmon industry is valued at $1.4 billion in economic activity annually and about half that much in economic activity and jobs in Oregon. The industry employs tens of thousands of people from Santa Barbara to northern Oregon.”

And it’s not just the salmon fisheries that may dry up, so too may the real economic backbone of California: agriculture.

***

If you purchased a bundle of fresh fruits or vegetables in the U.S. recently, there’s nearly a 50 percent chance they were grown in California. And while we’ve become accustomed to paying very little for such goods compared to other Western countries, that may soon change.

A study released in July by the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California reported the ag industry in California in the first six months of 2014 has lost $2.2 billion and nearly 4% of all farm jobs—some 17,000 workers. As we’re only three years into what many believe is just the beginning of the crisis, those numbers are sure to increase.

“California’s agricultural economy overall is doing remark- ably well, thanks mostly to groundwater reserves,” said Jay Lund, who co-authored the study and directs the Center for Watershed Sciences. “But we expect substantial local and regional economic and employment impacts. We need to treat that groundwater well so it will be there for future droughts.”

The pumping of groundwater, which is being treated as an endless and bountiful resource, may be making up for recent water loss, but for how long remains to be seen. California is the only state in the country that does not have a framework for groundwater management.

“We have to do a better job of managing groundwater basins to secure the future of agriculture in California,” said Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. “That’s why we’ve developed the California Water Action Plan and a proposal for local, sustainable groundwater management.” Currently Gov. Brown’s administration has allocated $618.7 million to fund the Water Action Plan for 2014-2015.

Nonetheless, without significant rainfall, groundwater will not be replenished, and the state’s agribusiness and the nation’s consumers will most certainly be hit with the consequences.

Rigid conservation and appropriate resource management may act as a bandaid for California’s water crisis, but if climate models remain accurate, the melting of Arctic ice will continue to have a severe impact on the Pacific jet stream, weakening winter storm activity in the state.

It’s a precarious situation, not only for millions of people and the nation’s largest state economy—but it could be the death knell for much of California’s remaining wildlife and iconic beauty as well.

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