California, the Golden State, is in danger of turning brown. Or, some climatologists worry, significantly browner.
Now in its third consecutive dry year, California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in January and warned in a speech that things might get worse for the state and its 38 million residents:
“Among all our uncertainties, weather is one of the most basic,” he said. “We can’t control it. We can only live with it, and now we have to live with a very serious drought of uncertain duration. We do not know how much our current problem derives from the build-up of heat-trapping gasses, but we can take this as a stark warning of things to come. It is imperative that we do everything possible to mitigate the effects of this drought.”
And in February, the crisis prompted President Barack Obama to visit Fresno in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, the so-called salad bowl of the United States.
Though heavy storms swept through the state at the end of March — drenching the lowlands with rain and dumping up to seven feet of new snow in the Sierra Nevada — state officials on April 1, considered the end of California’s wet season, said the snowpack had an estimated water content of just 32 percent.
Mountain reservoirs look like nearly empty bathtubs and federal and state officials have announced drastic cutbacks on how much water they will be able to deliver to California’s 80,500 farmers and ranchers, who use 80 percent of the state’s water to produce crops, livestock and dairy products worth nearly $45 billion in 2012.
That means many will turn to wells for water, but an estimated 500,000 acres of the state’s 8 million irrigated acres will be left fallow this year.
Meanwhile, residents who live in both rural and urban areas are being urged to cut back their water use, stop washing their vehicles as often, replace lawns with desert-like landscaping and replace washing machines and dishwashers with more efficient appliances.
One Resident’s Changes
Lisa Perlmutter, who lives in suburban San Diego with her husband and daughter, re-landscaped her relatively small lawn several years ago and replaced it with paving stones and drought-resistant plants watered with drip irrigation “because it seemed like the right thing to do for our region.”
She said she’d seen lovely examples of beautifully xeriscaped — landscaping that reduces the need for supplemental irrigation — yards that inspired her. “I was determined not to put in grass, but didn’t want to go with rocks and cactus,” she said. “I love the natural look of our garden much more than the manicured-lawn look. But that could just be my aesthetic.”
Like many Californians, Perlmutter said it is easy to forget that much of California has an arid climate. San Diego County, which has a population of 3.2 million people, gets an average of 12 inches of rain a year. Likewise, metropolitan Los Angeles — with 16.4 million residents — gets just 15 inches of precipitation annually. More than half of Southern California’s water comes from Sierra reservoirs or the Colorado River, but the remainder is pumped from aquifers — many of which are declining.
“With such little rain during the winter and the possibility of water shortages looming, we’ve become more conscious of our water usage,” she said. “The first thing I do is put a bucket in my shower and collect the water while it is warming up. I use that water for my plants. Our daughter Flora was initiated during our last drought to turn off the water in the shower while she is soaping up — and she has continued that habit ever since.”
Perlmutter said she has become more conscious about doing full loads of laundry and only running the dishwasher when it is full. She also bought a high-efficiency washer.
“And when we remodeled in 2010, we replaced all the shower fixtures with ones that meet state guidelines for water efficiency and installed all low-flow toilets,” she said. “I’ve also tried to convince my husband Mark to not rinse the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher, but have not been very successful on that point.”
Though the Perlmutters have done their part, they still worry about wildfires, even in normal rainfall years. In October of 2003, the Cedar Fire swept through parts of San Diego, destroyed more than 2,000 dwellings, killed 15 people and even burned homes in the Perlmutters’ Scripps Ranch neighborhood. Last year, the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park scorched more than 250,000 acres.
“I’ve always worried about fall fires,” said Perlmutter, who has lived in San Diego for nearly 15 years. “And I’m concerned the drought will make conditions more perilous. It may even expand the timeframe when wildfire danger is highest, so more months to worry.”
What Caused the Drought?
Most meteorologists blame the current drought on a persistent high pressure ridge that has shunted the storms that usually soak California in the winter northward to British Columbia and Alaska.
Daniel Swain, a Stanford University researcher and doctoral student in the Department of Environmental Earth System Science, dubbed this phenomenon the “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge” in his Weather West blog last year. The term stuck, garnering Swain a good deal of publicity, largely due to the alliteration and easy to remember name.
Catchy moniker aside, Swain said this “anomalous, extraordinary” ridge was anchored in the northeast Pacific for most of 2013 and the early part of 2014, resulting in much less precipitation than normal for well over a year. And that followed two other dry years.
“The good news is that it rained and snowed a bunch in late March,” he said. “But with the deficits from the previous 12 months, we’d need a tremendous amount of above-normal precipitation to even come close to making up that deficit. Hydrologically speaking, we’re now done with the rainy season here in California. The reservoirs are still way, way down, conditions are very dry, water deliveries to farmers will be extremely low and there’s a good chance the wildfire season will be bad.”
When Swain looks into his crystal ball — at least for next year — he sees weather conditions improving, if only because there is no precedent in the past six decades for the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge sticking around for another year.
Moreover, he said there are “signs that we’re trending toward a strong El Nino event,” which could mean even above-normal precipitation.
“We’ll have to wait and see, though,” he said. “But it’s fairly unlikely that we’d have a repeat of this winter. However, it’s way too early to get excited about the El Nino having any drought-busting potential.”
Climate scientists who look back thousands of years, however, warn that droughts of 10, 20 or even 100 years have occurred in California and the Southwest.
In 1580 — when Englishman Sir Francis Drake surveyed the West Coast — tree-ring studies of Sequoias in the Sierra show that next to no rainfall fell that winter, said B. Lynn Ingram, a paleoclimatologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Wide rings show years of growth and adequate rain, while narrow rings indicate dry years.
“Strings of dry years do happen periodically,” she said. “And 1580 was the single driest year in the past 500 years. It’s certainly not as dry as that now, fortunately. Some droughts, though, lasted more than a decade and occurred every 50 to 90 years. There were also wet cycles that lasted a couple of decades.”
She said the medieval period was exceptionally warm and arid in California and the Southwest. In the Four Corners region, two long droughts that lasted more than 100 years are associated with collapse of the Anasazi Indian civilization, she added, noting that the recently concluded 20th Century was around 15 percent wetter than the average for the past thousand years.
“So there is a chance we could be heading back into a naturally drier cycle,” she said. “And of course on top of that we have warming that is going to impact the region and make things drier. We’ve already seen some evidence of that having an impact with spring coming earlier, increased wildfires and a diminished snowpack.”
Ingram said Australia recently weathered a decade-long drought and managed by trimming water usage by 50 percent through massive recycling, building desalination plants, making agricultural irrigation more water efficient and other mandatory efforts.
“We haven’t reached that point yet, though I’ve heard of some cities that are paying homeowners a certain amount per square foot to remove their lawns,” she said. “I’m not sure how effective that will be overall. At the least, water utilities should have tiered rates starting with a certain price for enough water to meet basic needs and becoming more expensive so you’ll think about whether you want to use 50 to 70 percent of your water on lawns and outdoor landscaping.”
Ingram said she has considered xeriscaping her Bay Area lawn, but hasn’t been able to convince her husband to have the lawn replaced.
“He might do it if there were a financial incentive,” she said. “It can be expensive. But like with solar, we need to think long-term about this. And people do like having green lawns.”
Ingram acknowledged that the so-called “elephant in the room” is climate change and said numerous computer data show California becoming warmer and drier in decades to come, reducing the snowpack in the mountains.
“A lot of the West relies on snowpack melting in the spring for its water,” she said. “Warming will increase evaporation so the soils will be drier, even if the precipitation remains the same.”
Ingram said archaeological studies show that droughts led to hardship, malnutrition and struggles among Native Americans in California and the Southwest.
“We’re having some political conflicts over how to deal with the drought,” she said. “Back in the 80s, there was a controversial proposal to divert Sacramento River water around the California Delta for Southern California cities and San Joaquin Valley farms. It was opposed by environmentalists and defeated by voters. Now there is a proposal to build two tunnels under the Delta, which is stirring old animosities again.”
Richard Volpe, a U.S. Department of Agriculture economist at the Food Markets Bureau in Maryland, said concern over how California’s drought will affect food prices is well founded.
“It’s a major agricultural state, the largest producer overall in the country,” he said. In fact, it supplies the United States with more than 90 percent of its almonds, broccoli, celery, kiwis, lemons, nectarines, pistachios and plums, and is also the leading state in the water-intensive dairy business.
“So when there is a major event like a drought, there is concern about food supply. In California, the major worries are fruits and vegetables, dairy products and to a lesser extent, commodities like beef and eggs.”
Though the drought could cause those prices to increase nationally, it hasn’t happened yet, he said during an interview on the last day of March.
“From my perspective as a retail food specialist, what we’ve seen so far are normal, seasonal variations in fruits and veggies,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it won’t have an effect, or that it won’t drive our forecast up for the year. If growers can’t plant fields this spring or water vines and trees, the impact won’t show up until the fall.
“In my view, the bigger issue — taking the longer view— is the worry about farmers letting their acreage go fallow for fruit and nut trees, which could cause them to die. I’m especially concerned about alfalfa, which is the primary feeding source for dairy cows. If that acreage isn’t cared for, we’ll see production decrease and we’ll have a lingering impact next year or the year after that and we could be dealing with several years of accelerated food price inflation — especially if the drought persists.
“We’re not ready to make that call yet, but it certainly could happen if producers perceive increased risks and respond by reducing output or acreage. Every crop is different, but California farmers are no strangers to drought. And in the Midwest, agribusiness responded beautifully to drought in 2012 with their field crops. But we won’t know how severe the impact in California will be until the harvest happens and the year is done.”
Dave Heylen, spokesman for the California Grocers Association, concurred with Volpe and said that while prices for fruits — such as strawberries — and vegetables produced in California are going up some, consumers in the Golden State may not be affected this year because stores can buy from growers around the country.
“With the distribution system we have now, retailers can bring in produce that normally would come from here,” he said. “But those same retailers say that if the drought continues, it will probably have more effect on prices in 2015 rather than this year if they have to cut back what they grow. Needless to say, we need a lot more rain.”
Tim Chiala, a co-owner of George Chiala Farms in the Santa Clara Valley, was blunt in his assessment of the drought:
“This really stinks,” said Chiala, whose family raises jalapeno peppers, garlic, string beans, strawberries and other produce on 1,300 acres. “It makes me really nervous, but we’re better off than some guys because we have access to ground water, so we can pump what we need and don’t have to rely on the State Water Project for irrigation. I’ll be giving some of my water to a neighbor friend so his orchard’s trees won’t die.”
Chiala, who also serves as general manager of a company called Nature Quality, said he also buys produce from farmers in his region and has seen prices rise because of the drought. “It’s also increased the competition for land that has water and raised those prices, too, which is something people don’t think about right away.”
Though Chiala has weathered earlier dry spells, he said the current drought is more serious, “like sailing uncharted waters.”
“We really don’t know what is going to happen. We made our crop plans in November and had no water restrictions then. We knew something was going to happen, so we started looking at our wells to make sure they were in working order.
“And that’s a good thing because about three weeks ago (early March) we got a letter saying the State Water Project was cutting us down to zero percent. That was more than a little upsetting. If I didn’t have water to pump from wells, I would have lost thousands of dollars per acre. I had already transplanted from the nursery, I’d fertilized and had drip tape in the ground.
“The timing wasn’t good. So we are going back and forth about this with our water district board to say ‘Hey, if you are going to cut us off, let us finish our crop work.’ There has to be a better way to do this.”
Ground Water Worries
Chiala said his water table is in good shape, for the time being. However, Brian F. Thomas, a hydrologist at the University of California, Irvine, said aquifers in many parts of the state were already falling precipitously even before the latest drought struck.
“Aquifers are either recharged naturally by rain and snowfall as water filters down through the soil and eventually reaches the groundwater,” Thomas said. “Or, as a number of cities have done, it’s replenished using some sort of recharging system.”
But in a year with the snowpack at just a little over 30 percent, the natural recharge this year will be minimal, he said. “This year’s drought, unfortunately, will be an epic event, especially for those communities that were not allocated surface water and have to rely on groundwater,” he said. “And for areas that haven’t recharged the aquifer, it will be tough.”
As the population has more than doubled in California over the past 50 years, water tables have been drawn down. A recent U.S. Geological Survey analysis of groundwater data showed more than 60 percent of 3,400 wells reviewed around the state showed drops between 2000 and 2013. The average decline was more than 15 feet in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California had drops of more than 50 feet.
It’s far worse in some drier areas, Thomas said. In the Coachella Valley — a major producer of citrus fruit — he said the water table has fallen roughly 150 feet since 1964. And in Borrego Springs, which receives no surface water, the aquifer level has dropped nearly 200 feet since 1950.
Thomas said communities can continue to sink wells deeper, but that is expensive because of additional construction, pump and electricity costs. And at some point, he warned, the water quality comes into question.
“Then it’s not only an economic equation, but is the water even usable?” he asked rhetorically. “Generally, as you go deeper in an aquifer system, the water tends to be older and the longer it’s been in contact with the surrounding sediment or bedrock material, it can leach out material from this rock. For example, in Borrego Springs the lower aquifer tends to be very high in total dissolved solids. It almost becomes like a saltwater. It’s not quite at that level, but it’s more salty than the water in the upper part of the aquifer.”
Thomas said the solution to California’s water needs is sustainable management.
“That means including all stakeholders in the process, especially agriculture, when decisions are made about water resources,” he said. “First and foremost on the agenda is reducing demand. The big question is can conservation be increased and can urban, agricultural and industrial water use be trimmed?
“If farmers are going to give up water rights, they’ll have to be compensated,” he stated. “Cities can’t just take it. In California, there is a tendency to blame agriculture for using the most water, so ag needs to do something. I don’t think that’s the right viewpoint. Everyone is going to have to compromise.”
Thomas said he, like most scientists, is worried about what climate change portends.
“I dislike the word ‘grim,’ but I will say things are uncertain,” he said. “We don’t know exactly what is going to happen. But more than likely, it will get drier in Cal and the extremes will get more intense. Rains will get heavier and the droughts will get longer. So in terms of adaptive management, we can and must make changes. It’s just a question of when.”
At a time when the state’s rivers, trees and wildlife are under stress from lack of moisture, it might seem surprising that Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Doug Obegi is upbeat about the future of the Golden State.
But Obegi, an ardent environmentalist based in San Francisco, believes Californians can adapt to a changing climate. For starters, he said the state must protect the water it has, use it as efficiently as possible and find new ways to adapt homes, cities, farms and industry to a world where water is becoming scarcer.
“I think there’s a real cultural shift underway,” he said, noting that waterworks districts in Los Angeles County are offering up to $5,000 to convert lawns in a program called “Cash for Grass.”
“It’s become ‘cool’ to have drought-resistant landscaping that attracts native birds and butterflies because it shows you care about the environment. Inside their homes, people are using water-efficient appliances,” he said. “There are a lot of things all of us can do to get through not just this year, but other dry ones down the road.”
On the agricultural side, Obegi said changes are coming, too.
“But there are real challenges,” he said. “Farms use about 80 percent of the state’s water and a lot of it is relatively inexpensive. Because of our rules and water-rights system, you can have water districts right next to each other where one pays $7 per acre foot of water and growers get virtually as much as they want and the district next to them gets very little or no water and when they do, it can cost several hundred dollars or more per acre foot.
“So the economics are trickier. There are also cultural issues, because some folks feel the water is theirs, whether it comes from wells or rivers. But the good news is that we’ve seen improvements in agricultural water-use efficiency over the past 40 years. We’ve almost doubled the crop-per-drop and revenue-per-drop ratio, so ag is doing better with less water.”
“But it’s uneven, with some water districts investing a lot in efficiencies, while others haven’t,” he said, praising the South San Joaquin Irrigation District for raising its rates two years ago from $6 to $9 per acre foot to pay for a system that provides for concentrated watering around trees, vines and row crops. The water automatically shuts down when the ground reaches a predetermined level of moisture, and growers need to give a 24-hour notice to order water from their cell phones.
“Yet a lot of districts’ canals remain unlined with concrete, so a lot of water is wasted,” Obegi said. “Many continue to use flood irrigation rather than sprinklers, drip or micro-drip techniques that are far more precise in terms of putting water right on the plant where it needs it. Those are the kinds of tools that are the best investments for California, taking the lead from parts of the state that are already doing the best job weathering the drought.”
Obegi said some communities in the Bay Area and Southern California that invested in conservation, groundwater banks and diversified their water supplies should do well through 2014.
“But it’s still a very serious drought year, one of the driest on record,” he said. “And with a growing population and climate change already affecting us, we can’t sit still. We have to continue to invest in our water supplies.”
However, he said, that doesn’t mean building big new dams and reservoirs in the Sierra, diverting water from the Delta or overturning environmental protections for the state’s fish and wildlife.
“A lot of people are advocating for their short-term interests,” he said. “But taking more water from the Delta will further worsen conditions for native species and will hurt fishermen and Delta farmers. In a wet year, 30 percent of the water going into the Delta is diverted from going into the Bay. But in a dry year, it’s around 70 percent. That’s backwards. Scientists say once you divert more than 25 percent, freshwater fisheries suffer.”
Likewise, he said the push for building big new dams is misguided. “With 1,400 dams and reservoirs in the state — many of which are not anywhere near full — we already have plenty of storage,” he said. “They would destroy some Native American sacred sites and we just don’t have water to fill them.
“The challenge is to design a new system, given that our rivers and the bay/delta are already overtapped. How do we create a system that is better balanced while providing better protections for the environment while having more realistic allocations for farmers so that they don’t have to wait until the last minute to figure out if they’ll be getting water and how much?”
Obegi said the wisest investments would go toward improving how the state uses the water resources that are already available.
“That includes upgrading agricultural and urban water-use efficiencies by doing things like recycling our waste water. We still only treat a tiny fraction of the waste water that is produced. There are communities, including the one where I grew up in Orange County, where they now have the largest waste-water recycling plant in the country. It produces ultra-pure, potable water that is cheaper than water imported from the Delta.
“We think that’s the way to go. We’re confident that cultural shift is occurring. But we’ve got to get agriculture to come along, too.”