At the Front Door - A column about climate change in our lives

The current drought is the worst in 1,200 years.  This current three-year dry spell is part of a much longer mega drought that started in 2000 and is linked to human-induced climate change. January to March of this year was the driest on record, and currently 95% of the state is experiencing severe to extreme drought conditions. 

Drought isn’t just about rain

Drought is more than a lack of rain, it is a much more complicated phenomena that stretches from the atmosphere to mountain tops, and from the topsoil deep into California’s aquifers. To be qualified as the worst in over a millennium gives an indication of how severe – and dangerous – the current drought it. 

At an Ethnic Media Services national briefing  (April 22) on the drought in California, scientists, public officials, engineers and climate experts weighed in on the drought’s impact, possible mitigation strategies, and insights from people on the front lines of California’s water crisis.

At the Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit (California Department of Water Resources), Manager  Sean de Guzman is responsible for  measuring the state’s snowpack. On April 1st of this year, when the snowpack is supposed to be at its highest, he wasn’t able to take all of his measurements – because in some places there was no snow. The current snowpack is at 39% of normal. 

This isn’t just a problem for skiers and outdoor enthusiasts. Melting snowpack provides a consistent and reliable water source for the majority of California’s population. Many farmers also depend on the yearly runoff from snowpack to provide water for irrigation. 

California’s droughts aren’t just drier, they are hotter. Temperature change caused by global warming isn’t uniform and parts of California (including the South Bay and parts of the Central Valley) are feeling the heat more than most. 

Some parts have already reached the 2 degrees Celsius cut-off cited by scientists.  The combination of both heat and lack of moisture is called ‘aridity’, which is known to “pull moisture from soil and plants, melt snow, and intensify heat waves.” Ultimately, this fosters a feedback loop where dry areas get hotter, and subsequently even drier,  because they lack moisture to cool things down.  The influence of aridity is often enough to offset temporary spates of moisture and perpetuate a drought over long periods of time. 

Previously, groundwater was an option in times of drought. However, the water table has been sinking for decades and hundreds of wells go dry each year as the water table fails to be replenished. 

The Cost of Drought

Drought is expensive socially, ecologically, and monetarily. In terms of dollars,  cost to the agriculture sector from 2014 to 2016 was $5.5 billion dollars, and about 130 million trees. The 2019 drought had a price tag of 1.7 billion in lost revenue and tens of thousands of jobs, mostly held by vulnerable and low-income workers. 

On average, California produces a quarter of the nation’s food supply but the growing cost of water and it’s lack of availability “have prompted many farmers to leave large tracts of land fallow.” Each year hundreds of thousands of acres in the California’s Central Valley are going unplanted, and the towns that used to support previously flourishing farms and communities are drying up with the soil.

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced an additional $22.87 million in drought-related aid as another dry year is forecast and not a single state reservoir at its average. However, this is just a stop gap. The ultimate cost of climate change in California may very well be the agriculture industry itself. 

Options for Mitigation, Resilience and Hope

Californian legislation and water management needs to catch up. Many of the assumptions underlying the existing systems, such as reliable rainfall and smaller populations, are outdated. Existing systems simply were not built to manage climate-change induced droughts that are longer, more severe, and more frequent. 

Long-term solutions need to be adopted, because a drier climate and water scarcity are going to be California’s new normal.  The region already shows a significant and enduring reduction in rainfall in the 21st century and a measurable temperature increase.

Developing a Water-Smart Culture

Dr. Rajendra Shende, former director of the United Nations Environment Program, offered a more global view on the California drought, and droughts in general. He noted that 4 billion people across the world, roughly 65% of the human population, face water scarcity at least one month a year (including most of the people in California). 

However, Dr. Shende was also a bearer of good news. He highlighted several countries across the world, particularly those in water stressed regions, that are learning to manage their water differently. For example, Oman now recycles 78% of its water. 

California is trying to catch up. There has been a three-fold increase in water recycling in the state, though that still equates to only 25%. Needless to say, California needs to do more.

A Steep Learning Curve

Environmental scientist, Karina Herrera from the Water Resource Control Board, described pattern of major legislative change following major droughts. We are beginning to feel the impacts, and notices the weakness, in this new legislation.

Mandatory reduction targets were set starting in 2014. Conservation laws (SB 606 and AB 1668) passed in 2018, established a new framework for urban wastewater management. Later this summer, new efficiency standards will be enacted to b reflect local conditions and past infrastructure investments. However, legislation alone is not enough. 

Governor Newsom called upon Californians to voluntarily reduce their water use by 15% last July. To date, Californians have managed less than half that. To complicate matters, those living in urban areas are often shielded from the most visible impacts of drought. Urban water use actually increased by 2.6% in January, the driest January on record. 

Californians are aware of the drought but, by and large, have yet to make long-term alterations to their behavior to be water smart.

Photo by Mier Chen on Unsplash

Erin Zimmerman

Erin Zimmerman is trained as a Climate Reality Leader in 2019 by the Climate Reality Project, but has been active in the environmental movement for over a decade. Erin holds a PhD in Political Science...