The California Drought

by Sue Taggart

This past winter has seen some dramatic and record-breaking weather—artic chills and record snowfalls on the east coast and drought conditions on the west coast. The unprecedented drought is extensive, reaching from north to south across parts of 11 counties including, southeast Santa Cruz, far southern Santa Clara, San Benito, Merced, western Fresno, eastern Monterey, eastern San Luis Obispo, western Kern, western Madera, Kings and southwest Tulare.

January is typically the wettest months of the year and it has turned out to be the driest in history in many California cities including:

San Francisco: This was the first January in recorded history with less than a quarter inch of rain. Through Jan. 30, the city had just one-hundredth of an inch of rain.

Los Angeles: No measurable rain fell in Los Angeles during January for only the fifth time since 1878.

Redding, Sacramento, Stockton: All recorded their third driest January.

The most recent snowstorms and downpours early April are just too little too late.

This ongoing drought in California is posing huge problems for farmers in the Central Valley where half of the country’s fruits and vegetables are grown. Because of the lack of water, they’ve had to let thousands of acres of farmland go fallow instead of planting new crops. The San Joaquin Valley is in danger of becoming a dust bowl unless immediate action is taken to change policies that put the needs of fish above the livelihood of people.

There was a time not long ago when much of civilized society considered each drop of river water that reached the ocean a wasted resource. In an effort to be more environmentally conscious, the benefits of the outflow to fish, wildlife and the ocean ecosystem has set off an ongoing tug-of-war between fishermen and farmers in California that has reached a critical stage this year as the state struggles through a drought. In most years, there is plenty of rainfall to keep everyone happy, with water being held in the state water department’s two biggest reservoirs behind Shasta and Oroville dams.

What has now become clear amid the fallow cropland and rationing is that there is not enough water storage in California to sustain all the competing interests. The dilemma has again put a spotlight on the precious water that gets away.

If we take a look at what’s needed, an acre-foot (the amount needed to cover an acre of land with a foot of water) is enough to supply an average household for a year. In an average year, rain and snowmelt in California generate about 71 million acre-feet of water, some of which is captured in reservoirs or groundwater basins. About 32% of this is used for agriculture and 10% for urban areas. A further 35% of the total is reserved by law to help river ecosystems, wetlands and fisheries and to maintain a healthy flow of water in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The remainder flows out into the ocean—capturing this would seem to offer a solution to maintaining a larger supply of water.  While everybody agrees that something must be done, it seems that nobody in California can agree on what that is.

The question is whether the state should spend billions of dollars capturing the water behind dams and distributing it through new pipelines or spend a little less money by maximizing usage through conservation. And so the debate continues.

Meanwhile, all consumers know one thing for certain, that there will be a hike in food prices!

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