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Water conservation efforts must expand in fifth year of drought

The California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program measured 58 inches of snow at Phillips on Tuesday, just 83 percent of the March 1 average. El Niño has so far failed to bring an end to four years of drought.
The California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program measured 58 inches of snow at Phillips on Tuesday, just 83 percent of the March 1 average. El Niño has so far failed to bring an end to four years of drought. Associated Press

A fifth year of California drought and continued water challenges now appear unavoidable, even with new storms on the horizon. Sadly, El Niño has so far failed to bring an end to four years of shortages. Some observers continue to hope that the remaining few weeks of winter will produce a “March Miracle.” Maybe. But the odds are increasingly against it.

Even worse, for the rest of winter to produce enough rain and snow to actually end the drought would mostly likely result in massive, damaging and unmanageable flooding – the other extreme from severe drought.

The drought has dried our wetlands, parched our soils, damaged fisheries, depleted our reservoirs, and hurt some farms and rural communities. According to the National Drought Mitigation Center, 99 percent of the state remains in drought, with nearly 40 percent in “exceptional drought” – the most extreme condition.

Even the moderate amounts of rain and snow we’ve received since October have done little to refill reservoirs, and there is no chance that the current levels of rain and snow will come close to recharging our dangerously overpumped groundwater, which have lost more than 8 trillion gallons (about 25 million acre feet) in the past four years.

The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, while greater than last year’s record lows, remains below average for this time of year. Worse, a dry and hot February rapidly melted the snow that has fallen. Current statewide snow water content is about 80 percent of normal – a figure that will grow with coming storms but is still below what is needed.

Four years of drought have also drained the state’s extensive storage of water in our reservoirs. The 12 largest reservoirs began the winter with a shortfall of more than 2.2 trillion gallons of water (7 million acre feet). Even with the rains this winter, the shortfall remains at nearly 1.8 trillion gallons (5.5 million acre feet), a modest but completely insufficient improvement. That deficit is as much water as Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s 19 million customers use in 2½ and a half years.

When it became clear the state was in a serious water crisis, Californians responded accordingly. Between June and December 2015, urban water users saved more than 330 billion gallons of water (1 million acre feet) – water that we’ve kept in our reservoirs to meet future needs. In February the State Water Board extended and revised emergency regulations to ensure urban water conservation efforts continue this year. Federal and state agencies have not announced final agricultural water deliveries, but there is zero chance that full allocations will be available, putting more strain on some farmers and farmworker communities.

What should we do? Conservation efforts must remain in place and even expand. Education about the need to save water must continue. New financial aid must be made available to rural communities without safe and reliable water and to farmers and cities seeking to modernize water systems. And we must accelerate investments in the treatment and reuse of wastewater, stormwater capture, and programs for improving urban and agriculture water-use efficiency.

Finally, the evidence continues to grow that climate changes are making California’s water problems worse. The last four years were, by far, the hottest on record, worsening evaporation from soils and reservoirs and increasing demand for water by crops and forests. Dramatic loss of Arctic ice may be altering how and when winter storms reach us. Higher sea-surface temperatures may have worsened El Niño without helping our water problems.

California will not dry up and blow away. Our economy has been robust and flexible in the face of drought. But if the drought continues, and even if it weakens, even greater efforts will be needed to ensure the most vulnerable communities and ecosystems are protected and that we invest in the infrastructure and institutions needed for a drier world and changed climate.

Dr. Peter Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank in Oakland.

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