Current Drought

February 17, 2016
In spite of January giving us over 9 inches of rain locally, more than 81 percent of the state is still suffering from “severe, extreme, or exceptional drought.”

Last wineter’s snowpack levels of eight to nine percent of the average were the lowest ever recorded.[i] On March 15, 2015, the senior water scientist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech said that there’s only about a year’s worth of water supplies left in the state.

As of today, the statewide snowpack is at 91% of “normal” for this time of year, so things are looking up, but what happened to the wet February they were promising? And water flowing in Elder Creek is great, but as of the last week, its volume has averaged about 62% of the historic mean, with little rain in sight.

According to the climate model projections for the coming fifth assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, droughts of the length and severity of the 200-2004 drought will be commonplace through the end of the century unless human-induced carbon emissions are significantly reduced. Assuming business as usual, each of the next 80 years in the American West is expected to see less rainfall than the average of the five years of the drought that hit the region from 2000 to 2004.[ii]

Locally, that translates to a new average below 20 inches. Local records, spanning several decades, show the previous average to be between 25 and 35 inches.

In terms of severity and geographic extent, the 2000-2004 drought in the West exceeded such legendary events as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. While that drought saw intervening years of “normal” rainfall, the years of the turn-of-the-century drought were consecutive. More seriously still, long-term climate records from tree-ring chronologies show that this drought was the most severe event of its kind in the western United States in the past 800 years. Though there have been many extreme droughts over the last 1,200 years, only three other events have been of similar magnitude, all during periods of “megadroughts.”

Most frightening is that this extreme event could become the new normal: climate models point to a warmer planet, largely because of greenhouse gas emissions. Planetary warming, in turn, is expected to create drier conditions across western North America, because of the way global-wind and atmospheric-pressure patterns shift in response.[ii]

This current 2012-present drought is clearly more severe than the predicted new average, as our rainfall for 2013 was only 5.8 inches. This is a crisis, and such a crisis demands responsibility with water usage, as water is the ecological foundation of all life. We all need water. This website lays out many practices that most people can quickly adopt and make their new norm to match the new climate norm and the severe drought we are now experiencing.

Regionally, we are lucky to have AquAlliance fighting for sane water use policies. A recent letter from their executive director Barbara Vlamis is worth a read:

The Sacramento River watershed is home to significant agricultural production, treasured ecosystems, and a rich cultural history. Its mountain snow, rivers, streams, and wetlands provide much of the water that fills California’s aqueducts. Healthy aquifers are key components to the environmental and economic health of the Sacramento Valley where the Tuscan Aquifer lies beneath Butte, Colusa, Glenn, and Tehama counties. Farms, fish, and human populations alike rely on this invaluable resource. So far, it has maintained a measure of balance between natural recharge and well extractions.

However, with 2013 the driest year in California as far back as state records have been kept (1895), the Tuscan Aquifer is more threatened now as no other time in history…as is the health of the entire Sacramento Valley and foothills. Governor Brown declared a state of emergency on 1/17/14. In the declaration, emphasis is placed on water transfers:

4.The Department of Water Resources and the State Water Resources Control Board (Water Board) will expedite the processing of water transfers, as called for in Executive Order B-21-13. Voluntary water transfers from one water right holder to another enables water to flow where it is needed most.

5.The Water Board will immediately consider petitions requesting consolidation of the places of use of the State Water Project and Federal Central Valley Project, which would streamline water transfers and exchanges between water users within the areas of these two major water projects.

What follows in the declaration is language that will allow transfers without public knowledge or the ability to comment by exempting them from the California Environmental Quality Act; further decimate salmon population throughout their critical range in northern California; and remove protection for water quality (points 8 & 9).

A person might ask, why does the state need to throw out its laws during droughts when it is a well known fact that California will have very dry years and periods? The answer to that question is that it doesn’t have to. The state has known since 1960 that it would run out of water in 1981 without fulfilling the unrealistic and unsustainable vision started with the State Water Project.

This ‘shortage’ occurred because former governors Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown in his first term had the foresight to protect north coast rivers from the horrific consequences suffered by the diverted Trinity River by classifying them as Wild and Scenic rivers. Unfortunately, the political will to deal with the ‘shortage’ has been absent ever since. Three, multi-year planning efforts through the 1990s to the present (CalFed, the Delta Stewardship Council Plan, and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan) continue to avoid the hard decision: California must face its finite water supply and allocate it for the benefit of all public trust needs. At the heart of this reality is protecting the Sacramento Valley from the fate suffered by the San Joaquin and Owens Valleys from century-long groundwater overdrafting.

So where does that leave us today? Very vulnerable! If history is an indicator, water districts in the Sacramento Valley will sell water to desert agricultural operations in the southern San Joaquin Valley. With water in such short supply everywhere, groundwater will most assuredly be part of the transfers– exactly at a time when we should protect the groundwater for local communities and established orchards. South state desert ag was seeking at least 150,000 acre-feet last November (what the entire City of Chico would use in over 6 years), but that has probably increased after the very dry winter.

Aside from changing personal water-use habits, what can people do?

Call Glenn Colusa Irrigation District (934-8881), Butte Water District (846-3100), Tehama Colusa Canal Authority (934-2125) and Anderson Cottonwood Irrigation District in Shasta County (365-7329) and tell them NOT to sell water with ground water substitution! Also tell them you want to see an end to all new water-intensive practices such as commercial orchards until we have a decade that averages above normal precipitation.

Call any of the Tehama County Water Districts and give them the same message.

Spread the word. Talk to your neighbors, family, friends, and colleagues.

Write letters to the editor that say that during lean times you hold on to your surface and ground water and conserve, conserve, conserve! NO water transfers, especially those that involve ground water.

Support AquAlliance–the group that is ready, willing, and able to challenge actions in court.