Everything You Should Know About the Drought cover

Everything You Should Know About the Drought

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Experts say water scarcity and a culture of conservation will be the new normal—and research and technology can help us evolve and prepare.





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Everything You Should Know About the Drought

Our Drought History

Drought is a regular, natural occurrence in California.

Based on tree ring records for the last 1,300 years, scientists know that two mega-droughts much longer and more severe than the current one occurred in what is now the American West between 800 and 1300 A.D. Within the past century, measurements of temperature and rainfall show that drought conditions have waxed and waned in concert with heat indexes.

Major droughts have occurred in 1928 to 1935, 1976 to 1983, and 1987 to 1993. Each of these droughts caused the state to implement new water conservation measures and build new infrastructure to improve water supply. Since 2000 wet and dry periods have alternated, with the most recent dry period previous to the current drought lasting from 2007 to 2009.

Phillips Station

Phillips Station

From left, Frank Gehrke (DWR Chief of Snow Surveys), Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr., and Mark Cowin (DWR Director) address the media during a snow survey at Phillips Station on April 1, 2015. The black tag on the pole is where the snow was in the drought year of 1977, the yellow tag is where the snow was last year, and the green tag is where the snow is on an average year.

Measurements in Phillips began in 1942, and today is the first time there is zero snow for an April 1 measurement. Below-normal precipitation, combined with unusually warm weather, has produced meager snowfall during the traditional wet season.

Pacific Decadal Oscillation

Pacific Decadal Oscillation

Climate conditions in California are tied to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), a large pattern of sea surface temperature that switches between two modes. In one mode, sea surface temperatures in a vast area of the tropical Pacific are unusually warm, surrounded by a horseshoe-shaped mass of cooler water. In the other mode, the pattern is reversed.

Los Angeles Rainfall

Los Angeles Rainfall

In the warm or positive phase, California sees increased rainfall. When it’s cool, or a negative PDO, it’s dry in California. Sea surface temperatures drive the jet stream patterns in the Northern Hemisphere, delivering or depriving precipitation. During the cool phase, the PDO redirects storms approaching the West Coast north to Alaska and Canada, then down into the Midwest and Northeast, leaving the Southwest warm and dry. In the winter of 2014-15 this phenomenon was dubbed the “polar vortex.”

Current Conditions

Current Conditions

Climatologists theorize that an El Niño can initiate the PDO switch, giving some hope for an end to the current drought as El Niño conditions have developed in the Pacific Ocean.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center currently predicts a greater than 90 percent chance that El Niño will continue through the Northern Hemisphere in winter 2015 and 2016 and around an 80 percent chance it will last into early spring 2016.

Photo courtesy the Department of Water Resources

Our Water Supply

The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) is the state’s agency for managing its water supply and infrastructure.

This includes the State Water Project, a system that delivers water throughout the state to two-thirds of the population. The hub of California’s water system is the network of channels within the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Water being conveyed to Northern and Southern California via the State Water Project, Central Valley Project, and other systems goes through the Delta.

Normally, Southern California gets about half of its water from local supplies, mostly groundwater, and about half from imported supplies, including water from Northern California, the State Water Project, and the Colorado River. However, in recent years the balance has shifted.

Our Water Supply (Cont.)

Due to the drought, less water is being imported, and some experts believe those imported sources are not sustainable in the long term.

With less imported water, people are turning to groundwater pumped from wells. Pumping groundwater faster than it can be naturally replenished can have several negative impacts. In some areas it is causing land to sink, damaging infrastructure like roads and bridges.

In 2014 Governor Jerry Brown signed California’s first legislation regulating groundwater extraction, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The legislation will take a while to roll out, with agencies tasked with developing management plans within five to seven years and implementation under way by 2040.

Urgent Message

Urgent Message

The Caltrans digital sign on Interstate 80 East in Dixon reminds Californians to help save water during the serious drought on September 11, 2014.

Photographer: Florence Low

California Department of Water Resources

Water Users

In California, water use is divided into three main categories: agricultural, environmental, and urban (urban use includes both industrial and residential water use).

Water allocated to the environment maintains water levels in rivers and streams to protect ecosystems and endangered species and to preserve tourism and recreation sites. When water allocated to the environment is removed from the equation, the breakdown of human use of water is about 80 percent to agriculture and 20 percent to urban users.

Water Users (Cont.)

This ratio has become the subject of some controversy during the drought.

Much of the water conservation measures discussed in the media and promoted by water agencies have been aimed at urban users, but some argue that they should not be targeted for cutbacks when farmers use the vast majority of water in the state.

Others counter that agricultural water use is justified, given that California produces about half of the fruits, vegetables, and nuts grown in the United States and is the nation’s leading agricultural exporter and producer of dairy products.

Conflict

Conflict

Another characterization of the struggle over water during the drought is “fish vs. farmer,” pitting agricultural users against the water held from diversion by the state for the benefit of the environment.

An irrigation ditch runs dry nearby Grizzly Island Road in Suisun City, CA, on September 18, 2014.

Photographer: Florence Low

California Department of Water Resources

Water Users (Cont.)

The Delta smelt is a small species of fish found only in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

It has a low reproductive rate and a one-year lifespan, making it vulnerable to changes to its habitat. These fish rely on flowing rivers to migrate upstream to spawn in spring and to return downstream in the fall. Low water levels due to the drought have brought the Delta smelt close to extinction, putting pressure on government policymakers to ensure that not too much water is diverted from the Delta.

The smelt is an important food source for other species and therefore a building block for the health of the ecosystem. It is not the only species affected by drought—its absence signals the potential collapse of the Delta ecosystem, scientists say.

Current Drought

The current drought, now in its fourth year, is more intense than previous recent droughts because of the compounding influences of climate change and California’s growing human population.

An estimated 38.8 million people live in California today, more than double the population of 1960. The growing demand for energy and water, plus growth in the agriculture sector, has created a much higher demand for water in California.

The impacts of climate change related to the drought have been evidenced in a few major ways. Warmer temperatures mean that precipitation falls as rain instead of snow in the winter, washing out to sea, rather than being stored as snow in the mountains for a slow release as it melts later in the year.

Lake Oroville

Lake Oroville

Comparison aerial views showing Lake Oroville full of water (top image) shot July 20, 2011 by Paul Hames/DWR Photography and low water level (bottom image) shot September 5, 2014 by Kelly Grow/DWR Photography. Views show The Enterprise Bridge (Lumpkin Road) on the South Fork.

Photographer: Paul Hames and Kelly Grow

California Department of Water Resources

Current Drought (Cont.)

The snowpack in California's mountains usually provides 30 percent of our drinking water during summer and fall.

Last year was the driest year on record in California in terms of precipitation. This past winter and spring the snowpack level was one of the three lowest on record. In addition, average temperature recorded this past winter was the warmest on record, surpassing that last record set in 1934 during another punishing drought. Climate change also alters weather patterns, affecting trade winds and the jet stream, which govern the arrival of storms.

When California became the thirty-first state in 1850, there was little oversight of water use as miners and farmers began diverting water from rivers and streams and drilling wells for their operations. Today some agricultural users hold water rights dating back to before 1914, when the state established its water rights system.

Current Drought (Cont.)

Some growers received less than a tenth of their full water allotment from the state in recent years, prompting lawsuits, the idling of farmland, and farmers pumping more groundwater if it’s available.

On top of diminishing imported water, in May the State Water Board announced curtailment orders for farmers, including those holding senior water rights usually off-limits to regulators, and junior rights holders were ordered to stop diverting water from rivers. Many growers in the state now have little or no access to their normal water sources.

California’s Central Valley, the epicenter of the state’s agriculture industry, has been hit particularly hard by the drought. Some towns have run out of water for both farms and residents, impacting entire regional economies. In Porterville, California, private wells have dried up and residents are relying on bottled water and water delivered in tanks by state and county officials.

Lake Shasta

Lake Shasta

Aerial view of Lake Shasta with low water. Shot – 1/16/14

Photographer: Paul Hames

California Department of Water Resources

Research and Monitoring

In a partnership that began in early 2014, NASA is working with DWR to use data collected by satellites to monitor the drought and factors that intensify the drought’s impacts.

The agencies will use remote sensing to track snowpack, idled farmland, sinking land, and weather impacting water resources.

Using the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite to measure Earth’s gravity, surface height, and changing shape, NASA scientists determined that water in the San Joaquin and Sacramento River basins was 11 trillion gallons below normal in December 2014 and decreasing rapidly. About two-thirds of the loss is due to depletion of groundwater beneath California's Central Valley. About six or seven years of heavy rain are needed to refill groundwater basins and reservoirs and recover from the current drought, according to scientists.

Research and Monitoring (Cont.)

NASA is also testing technology to provide near real-time crop water requirements to growers via web and mobile platforms.

In 2012 and 2013 results showed sustained yields for crops tested in trials in Salinas, California, grown with up to a 33 percent reduction in water.

California’s academic institutions are playing an important role, connecting researchers across the state and across disciplines (including science, law, business, technology, and policy) and delivering new findings to policymakers to guide their decisions. The University of California, Los Angeles, created its Water Resources Working Group in 2011 to address water sustainability.

The group tracks water supplies in Los Angeles and is working to develop ways for the region to become less dependent on imported water.

Sierra Nevada January 18, 2013

Sierra Nevada January 18, 2013

NASA images courtesy LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC.

Sierra Nevada January 18, 2014

Sierra Nevada January 18, 2014

NASA images courtesy LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC.

Research and Monitoring (Cont.)

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, are working with DWR to develop advance drought prediction methods based on an algorithm that takes into account both historical statistics and models based on the physics of the land, ocean, and atmosphere. Working with NASA to use satellite datasets, these researchers are also applying measurements of relative humidity and water vapor in the atmosphere to predict droughts earlier and monitor droughts in progress.

California State Capitol

California State Capitol

Grass dies on the grounds of the California State Capitol – 5/27/14

Photographer: John Chacon

California Department of Water Resources

Government Response

DWR, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and State Water Resources Control Board have formed a Real-Time Drought Operations Management Team to conserve and store water during the drought.

Primary concerns include providing enough water to communities for drinking water, sanitation, and firefighting, as well as ensuring adequate flow to prevent saltwater intrusion into the Delta, which supplies freshwater for human and agricultural use. The team can adjust timing and volume of water deliveries from various sources to react to drought impacts.

Federal Response

Federal Response

At the federal level, various agencies are providing emergency loans to farmers, funding conservation efforts on impacted lands, and providing grants to communities experiencing water shortages, among other measures.

Secret Service agents stand by as President Barack Obama delivers a statement about the severe drought in California, after touring the farm of Joe and Maria Del Bosque in Los Banos, Calif., Feb. 14, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Government Response (Cont.)

Governor Brown has taken several steps to respond to the drought.

In January he declared a State of Emergency and directed state officials to take all necessary actions to prepare for drought conditions. In March the governor signed legislation providing $1 billion in emergency relief and infrastructure improvements.

In April for the first time in the state’s history the governor issued mandatory 25 percent water-use reductions for urban users. To comply with the restrictions the State Water Board calculated a percentage reduction requirement for the top 400 water agencies in California that began in June.

Potential Solutions

While the drought situation in California

is certainly very serious, the technology and science are available to begin implementing solutions to ease drought pressures, increase water conservation, and better prepare the state for ongoing water scarcity.

Governor Brown has spoken in support of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to slow climate change, containing and capturing stormwater runoff, recycling water, and implementing his proposed Bay Delta

Conservation Plan currently under review. This $25 billion project involves construction of two tunnels to convey water to Southern California and reconstruction of levees in the Delta vulnerable to extreme events.

Groundwater Replenishment System

Groundwater Replenishment System

Crystal-Clear, Purified Water From the Groundwater Replenishment System

Photo Credit: Mark Greening, OCWD

Potential Solutions (Cont.)

Locally, reducing or eliminating lawns is one step both commercial and residential properties can take to conserve water.

The California Water Commission passed an ordinance in July mandating that any new residential yards and commercial landscaping installed after December 1, 2015, must limit lawn space and use efficient sprinklers. The ordinance also bans turf in street medians and parkways.

Golf courses, cemeteries, parks, road medians, and other places with large lawns may cut back or seek alternatives, especially in particularly hot and dry areas that need more water to support turf. Installing landscapes that require less water and fertilizer to thrive in our climate will also reduce the amount of pollution that enters groundwater.

Cleaning up groundwater basins and keeping them clean by monitoring industry, farming, or other processes that could create pollution will help provide additional future sources of drinking water.

Potential Solutions (Cont.)

Local water agencies have also begun to identify the biggest water consumers in their jurisdiction and work with them to reduce their usage.

In Santa Cruz, facing its second year of heavy restrictions on water use, users who exceed rations of about 60 gallons per person per day are fined by the water department. However, the fine is forgiven if the users attend the department’s Water School, which educates people on where their water comes from, the impacts of the drought, and how to find leaks and reuse water at home.

Potential Solutions (Cont.)

Another option is higher water prices for those who consume the most.

Some research shows that social pressure is more effective at getting people to conserve than financial incentives or higher fees. However, funds collected through a tiered pricing system could protect low-income residents and be put toward infrastructure improvement projects

In Long Beach, Glendale, Burbank, and other cities, water overusers are identified using smart water meters. These devices collect statistics on water usage throughout the day and upload them wirelessly to the web, allowing the water department to identify those violating water restrictions and residents to track their usage and find ways to conserve.

Reverse Osmosis

Reverse Osmosis

Water-use technology is also available in the agricultural sector, such as soil moisture sensors, groundwater sensors, and irrigation system leak detectors. State and local governments as well as universities can help farmers learn about these new resources and how to implement them to reduce water usage. Researchers are also working with farmers to identify crops that will perform the best on their land with water conservation in mind or identify land that has become too salty to grow crops without flood irrigation.

Reverse Osmosis Trains of the Groundwater Replenishment System

Photo Credit: Steve Crise

Courtesy of American Water Works Association (AWWA)

Potential Solutions (Cont.)

One of the biggest hurdles the state faces in terms of managing water as a common resource is the sheer number of water service providers.

The State Water Resources Control Board estimates 3,000 water service providers, 1,100 wastewater entities, 600 irrigation districts, and 140 reclamation districts operating in California, as reported by the Los Angeles Times. Smaller agencies have faced barriers to sharing information and changing management practices as conditions change.

Modern water agencies need to be able to invest in updated infrastructure, recycle and reuse water, and capture more stormwater. Consolidating smaller agencies or providing additional resources at the state level could address some of these shortfalls.

Potential Solutions (Cont.)

In the future many water agencies in California may begin using recycled water as drinking water.

The Orange County Water District (OCWD) was an early adopter of recycling wastewater, allowing the district to replenish their underground aquifer and provide pure drinking water to 2.4 million residents at a cost that’s 30 percent cheaper than importing water.

Many people are averse to the idea of “toilet to tap,” as it’s been dubbed, but after an extensive purification process, what was once sewage comes out as distilled water, which officials say is purer than any other source of water that enters the groundwater basin. Water that enters groundwater basins from rivers sometimes contains pollutions such as agricultural runoff, fertilizers, garbage, or untreated wastewater.

The Future

Ultimately, developing a permanent culture of water conservation in California will require the public to adopt conservation practices at home, urge reforms of industrial and commercial water-use limits, and vote for officials and measures to further conservation statewide.

Developing a culture of water conservation among the general public will help contribute to changing attitudes at all levels, including among policymakers who will create legislation governing water use. Drought will always be a factor of life in California, but if climate change, population growth, and economic growth trends continue, water sustainability will be an issue of increasing importance.

Thank You

This article was written with the assistance of Amir AghaKouchak, assistant professor, Center for Hydrology and Remote Sensing, University of California, Irvine; Madelyn Glickfield, assistant director for Outreach and Strategic Initiatives and director, Institute of Environment and Sustainability Water Resources Group, University of California, Los Angeles; William Patzert, climatologist, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory; and Kevin Wattier, former general manager, Long Beach Water Department.