Maybe the drought is the new normal

An aerial view of Folsom Lake taken on June 30, 2015.
An aerial view of Folsom Lake taken on June 30, 2015. apayne@sacbee.com

Reports of California’s demise are as predictable as they are exaggerated whenever the Golden State endures one of its regular disasters.

Earthquakes, fires, floods, the Great Recession and more strike, and we survive. But two reports on the drought last week ought to give us pause about how we use and misuse water, even as a third in the journal Geophysical Research Letters drives home the bad news about global warming, estimating that climate change has worsened California’s drought by up to 20 percent.

The Public Policy Institute of California raised the what-if possibility that the drought could persist. If so, more wells will run dry, leaving the low-income rural San Joaquin Valley dependent on emergency supplies.

Eighteen species of fish face extinction, including trout and salmon. Birds are threatened as Pacific Flyway wetlands wither. Wildfires are fiercer; some conifer forests could be lost forever. And even if a drenching El Niño comes to pass, the PPIC predicts a new, drier normal.

“The combination of low flows and high temperatures make this a ‘drought of the future’ – the type of drought California is increasingly likely to experience as the region’s climate warms,” the report says.

The State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project have curtailed deliveries. But although agriculture uses four times more water than cities, most farmers are faring well. Many have shifted to permanent crops such as almonds, and strong commodity prices have “bolstered the farm economy during the drought, even encouraging new [permanent] plantings,” the report says.

In most years, farmers pump a third of their water from the ground to irrigate those crops. This year, they will pull more than half of their water from aquifers. Not surprisingly, a Department of Water Resources-funded NASA satellite imaging study shows the Central Valley is sinking fast.

Eighteen species of fish face extinction. Birds are threatened as Pacific Flyway wetlands wither. Wildfires are fiercer.

A spot near Corcoran subsided 13 inches in eight months. A stretch near the California Aqueduct sank 8 inches in four months. A spot near Arbuckle in the Sacramento River Valley sank 5 inches, The Bee’s Dale Kasler wrote in a summary of the findings.

That pumping impacts the whole state. But that reality keeps being forgotten as the state’s new groundwater law creeps toward implementation.

When the regulations do kick in, for example, the city of Riverside will be exempt because of special provisions written into the legislation. The city has lots of water in aquifers and is suing the state to get out from under requirements that all Californians, Riverside included, curtail use.

In Folsom, officials anticipate construction of 10,200 new houses. The homes will meet strict water efficiency regulations, as will homes in all the other developments planned in the Sacramento region, but are they right, given our new normal? Don’t ask. Folsom has among the oldest water rights in the state.

Californians can’t wait years for the law to force cooperation. We must adapt. We will – it’s what we do – but we need to realize that nature gives no one a free pass.