Behind the Headline: California’s Record Drought

Lake Oroville as it appeared in 2011 - before the drought -  and in 2014. (2011 image by Paul Hames, 2014 image by Justin Sullican, both for Getty Images)

Lake Oroville as it appeared in 2011 – before the drought – and in 2014. (2011 image by Paul Hames, 2014 image by Justin Sullican, both for Getty Images)

Today it rained on California’s Central Coast. In San Luis Obispo, I was holed up in a library while there was a heavy downpour at about 10:00 in the morning. To us Californians, any rain of any kind is an answer to prayer right now, as our state is currently suffering from what is being called the worst drought in recorded history.

Already, Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered the state’s first ever mandatory cuts to water usage with the aim of reducing California’s water usage by 25%. The measures he enacted include:

  • Replacing water-hungry grass lawns with more drought-tolerant landscaping options across California, through local government programs encouraging residents to make the switch-over.
  • Requiring cut-backs on water use at colleges and universities, golf courses, cemeteries, and public roads. The little decorative grassy bits in the concrete meridians of some roads? Those will not get any more water at all.
  • Creating a rebate program for people to trade in old appliances for new, more water-efficient models.
  • Restricting water usage at newly-built residential neighborhoods, such as requiring the use of drip irrigation systems, and cracking down on anyone living in established residential areas who are in violation of rules regarding sinks, toilets, and landscaping.
  • Providing assistance for families that need to relocate from areas that have run out of water completely, such as might happen if an area dependent on well-water runs dry.

Further details of how the plan will work are to be announced by the State Water Resources Control Board at some point this week. Already, there are criticisms of the current water conservation plan. This editorial suggests that instead of laying down the hammer on water use, the state could make it more expensive to use too much water with higher taxes. Still others say the restrictions don’t go far enough, arguing that the state’s 26 million acres of farmland should be forced to restrict their water use, too.

Why is this happening? How is it going to affect you? It’s time once again to go Behind the Headline.

So, is this California’s worst drought ever?

California Drought Map by the United States government

No.

This is the worst drought in California’s recorded history, and that’s an important caveat to keep in mind. Of all the indigenous civilizations that existed in California prior to European contact, none of them developed a system of writing, so the oldest historical records we have about the state were written by the Spanish in the 18th century.

Thanks to the hard work of archaeologists and paleontologists who have studied tree rings and other evidence, we now know that there have been far worse droughts in California’s history. They have learned that California has experienced a number of “megadroughts” that have lasted as long as 10-20 years. In 850 A.D., a drought began that lasted 240 years, and in 1140 A.D., another drought struck that lasted 180 years!

Even within recorded history, California has had worse droughts if all you are going by is annual rainfall. A 30-year drought, lasting roughly from 1910 to 1940, saw many years of very low rainfall, including the driest on record so far, 1924, when the entire state saw only 9.23 inches of precipitation.

What makes the current drought so bad isn’t the weather, it’s the people. When those ancient megadroughts hit the state, the only people in California were societies that survived on hunting and gathering. There were 2.3 million Californians in 1910, and there were 6.9 million in 1940. Today, there are nearly 39 million of us, according to the U.S. Census Bureau! That’s 12% of the entire population of the United States.

That’s 39 million people drawing on the same water supply, and that means when a drought hits, that water supply is depleted very quickly. Hence, we are seeing proposals for more desalinization plants that would extract drinkable water from the vast Pacific Ocean right off our coast. Desalinization is an expensive option, but if this drought lasts as long as some of the droughts in California’s history, it might end up as an option many coastal communities pursue.

So California just needs more rain?

Rain alone is not enough to break this drought. What California needs is SNOW.

You're... joking, right? Right?

You’re… joking, right? Right?

I know, California is known for year-round sunshine, beaches, and not having a true winter, but up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, feet of snow can accumulate. These mountains hold the national record for most snow in one month (390 inches, or 32.5 feet) and greatest snow depth recorded (451 inches, or 37.6 feet), as well as second-most snowfall in a single day (67 inches, or 5.6 feet). As winter turns to spring, all of that mountain snow will melt and feed the state’s rivers and lakes.

That’s why it’s so significant that California’s snowfall this year was only 6% of what we normally get. That is the biggest cause of the drought, and the biggest reason all of the state’s lakes and rivers are drying up.

Well, at least this is as bad as it gets, right?

I hate to be a pessimist, but this actually could get worse, at least according to this article from National Geographic. To quench California’s mighty thirst, the state is drawing more and more of its water from underground pockets of water called “aquifers” that emerge in gravelly and sandy soil. Aquifers close to the surface get replenished with runoff from lakes and streams, but the deeper you dig for water, the less likely that the water you pump going to be replaced. Some of the deepest aquifers can’t be refilled at all, so when that water runs out, it’s gone forever.

Yet, in response to the drought, groundwater from these aquifers now makes up 60% of the water Californians are consuming. There are almost no restrictions in California law on sucking up this water and selling it. Not only that, but as the water is used up, the ground above it sinks, since there is less mass supporting it. All of this has the potential to radically reshape California’s landscape, both in the figurative sense of people abandoning areas dependent on dried-up aquifers, and in the literal sense of sinking land.

I don’t live in California. Why should I care?

One word: Agriculture.

Tractor image by Thomas McSparron

Did you eat a salad today? Odds are pretty strong that the lettuce you ate came from California. The cheese on your pizza could easily have come from a California dairy. California olives, grapes, and citrus are eaten nationwide, and we produce 90% of all American wines. California is the second-largest rice-growing state in the U.S., and exports a third of its crop to Japan. Yes, you read that right, California supplies rice to Japan.

Agriculture is responsible for 80% of California’s water consumption. That means California’s water crisis could easily lead to higher prices on your groceries. As the water supply dwindles, it gets more expensive, and farmers have to raise their prices. Even worse, many farms will simply get so water-starved that they have to shut down, reducing the supply of many crops and making the remaining farms’ crops more expensive because global demand for food won’t have changed. Already, some California rice farms are closing. As the drought wears on, the price you pay at the grocery store for your food will get higher and higher.

What can I do about this?

If you live in California, you can visit this website with more than 100 tips and tricks to saving water. You can find even more tips here. The less water we all use, the longer the water supply we have will last us.

For those of you not in California, it couldn’t hurt to write your local representatives in Congress and ask what they plan to do about the water crisis. Even if all you do is keep us in your prayers, we would very much appreciate it.

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