Californians face 'new reality' of water scarcity

Living with long-term drought could become the "new reality" for California, experts said after Gov. Jerry Brown (D) on Friday officially declared the state's record-shattering water shortage.

Water managers, farmers and fishermen are girding themselves for water scarcities in the months ahead. Some fear not only that the drought's effects will be more pronounced than previous dry spells, but that the populous state might be forced to adjust to less precipitation on an ongoing basis.

The drought should be seen as a catalyst for making needed changes to how California handles its water, some experts argued.

"One of our messages is, this kind of drought and the way it's happening is really our new reality," said Lester Snow, who was director of California's Department of Water Resources in former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's (R) administration and now is executive director of the California Water Foundation, which advocates for sustainable water management. "It's more of the way water is going to occur in California."

The drought's effects could be widespread, those who deal with water said. The state's population has shot to 38 million people today, compared with 22 million during the last record-breaking drought in 1977. Meanwhile, the state's farms increased their revenue to $45 billion from $9.6 billion over the same time period. The earlier figure is in that year's dollars.


"The consequences of this drought will be magnified on the human and economic scale compared to our worst drought in modern times" in 1977, said Jason Peltier, deputy general manager of the Westlands Water District, which supplies irrigation water to about 600,000 acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley.

California's water issues are a function of its meteorological conditions, hydrologic patterns and population concentrations. But the effects of the drought could stretch far beyond the state's borders.

Brown's emergency declaration opens the state to federal aid and orders the hiring of more firefighters to combat dry conditions, even as the drought has spread into Oregon and Washington (ClimateWire, Jan. 10). The Golden State's specialty crops, meanwhile, account for more than half the nation's fruits, vegetables and nuts in addition to nearly $7 billion of exports worldwide, according to California Department of Food and Agriculture data.

In the Central Valley, hundreds of thousands of acres of land used to grow cotton, tomatoes, vegetables and other crops might be left fallow as farmers run out of affordable water. Some will use what supplies they have to protect investments in crops growing on trees and vines.

Overall, there might be 600,000 to 700,000 acres in the state's San Joaquin Valley that aren't planted this year if the situation doesn't improve with more rainfall, according to Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation, which represents about 74,000 farmers and ranchers.

That region is a popular place for growing lettuce, tomatoes, onions, garlic, wheat and cotton, he said.

The drought declaration comes as farmers are deciding what crops to plant that will be harvested in summer and fall. Most farmers will wait as long as they can, Kranz said, while watching precipitation forecasts.

"Those are going to potentially be affected by reduced water allocations," Kranz said.

Officials from one key agricultural district in the Central Valley said they expected 200,000 acres -- a third of their acreage -- to lie dormant. Farmers would sacrifice lower-value annual crops like cotton and tomatoes in order to preserve almonds, grapes and other profitable plants that grow on vines and trees, Peltier said.

"The first crops to go, they'll all be row crops of one sort or another."

A sort of Catch-22 situation has evolved as water has become scarcer, he said. Restrictions on deliveries of water from the Central Valley, which costs about $150 per acre-foot, force farmers to buy water on the open market at up to $600 per acre-foot, he said. To make the economics work, they have to plant more valuable crops.

"Knowing market water is always going to be more expensive than project water, our farmers have coped with that economic reality by planting crops with higher returns," he said. "They have to be able to buy more expensive water because the project is broken."

The drought declaration could make U.S. Department of Agriculture help available to farmers. USDA already has declared 27 California counties a drought disaster area, Kranz said. That means farmers in those counties, as well as in bordering counties, are eligible to apply for low-interest emergency loans.

People face fines for washing cars

Most of the state's 38 million residents are still being spared the worst effects of the drought. Brown's emergency drought proclamation last week urged people to voluntarily curb their water use by 20 percent. He warned that mandatory restrictions could follow.

"We're facing perhaps the worst drought that California has ever seen since records began being kept about 100 years ago," he said. "As the weeks go by, we'll recalibrate, and certainly we're holding out the possibility of mandatory conservation" (E&ENews PM, Jan. 17).

The drought will play out differently in different parts of the state, said Newsha Ajami, director of urban water policy for Water in the West at Stanford University. Local agencies might set new rules on water conservation, like those limiting watering of lawns and car washing.

Sacramento officials last week ordered customers to cut their water use 20 percent, ahead of Brown's call for voluntary reductions. Folsom Lake Reservoir, on the American River, is currently at 17 percent capacity, a third of what it contains under average conditions for this time of year. If it drops much further, Sacramento might be unable to divert water upstream of the Folsom Dam.

The city is stepping up enforcement of its existing conservation rules, which include restrictions on watering lawns by time of day and day of the week. People can be fined up to $1,000 for repeat violations, such as washing their cars on the wrong day. Officials hope to shave 84 gallons off an average family's usage of 417 gallons per day.

Major Southern California metropolises, in contrast, have been trumpeting their savings through conservation and storage projects.

"Los Angeles has prepared for this drought," the city's municipal utility, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, said in a statement. "Today, Angelenos use less water per capita than residents of any major U.S. city with a population over 1 million."

The city offers rebates for water-efficient appliances, as well as a "Cash for Grass" rebate -- raised last April from $1.50 to $2 per square foot -- for people who replace their grass lawns with native plants, mulch or other dry landscaping.

San Diego responded to Brown's call for a 20 percent cut by reassuring its residents that no restrictions would be needed, noting that the governor's declaration was "primarily to assist Northern and Central California."

"While the call for the successful conservation efforts that have become a way of life in our city still stands, the water supply situation in San Diego is currently stable," the city said in a news release.

Southern California's resilience is the result of experience gained in past droughts, one observer pointed out. In 1999, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a cooperative of agencies that supplies 19 million people, finished building a reservoir that nearly doubled the region's surface storage capacity. It is currently at 72 percent capacity.

"Southern California made some significant investments in diversifying their water supplies, and that's what we need to see more cities and agricultural districts do," said Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council's water program. "We're on track to be drier than the '76-'77 drought this year, yet Southern California has ample water reserves. With any luck, they're going to be able to weather this drought. That's a pretty remarkable testament to those prior investments."

The region also receives water from both the Sacramento-San Joaquin and Colorado river systems, which insulates it somewhat from drought.

"The likelihood you get a drought on both of them is lower than the likelihood you get a drought on one of them," Obegi said.

Fixes for an uncertain future

Brown had to declare the latest drought because "this is sort of a slow-moving disaster coming," said Ajami of Stanford. Last year also was a very dry year, she said. And the drought could go on for several years.

"For us, it's a harbinger of what our future is going to be like, and we need to start responding to it," said Snow, with the California Water Foundation.

As the climate changes, California is losing snowpack, with more precipitation coming as rain. There needs to be better planning to store water in wetter years so it's available for future droughts, he said.

Snow believes it's impractical to build more large dams. Instead, he said, there needs to be a portfolio of solutions, including recycling of wastewater. There also could be groundwater recharge, in which water during wet years through various methods is moved into groundwater. Cities could also change how they deal with stormwater, by capturing, storing and treating it instead of letting it run off. And there could be improved efficiencies in agriculture, he said.

Kranz also advocated California's boosting its water storage capabilities as part of an "all of the above approach" like the one Snow described. He noted that in November 2012, there were heavy rains, but to comply with environmental regulations, "a lot of water ended up going out to ocean."

Federal rules sometimes require pumping curtailments to protect delta smelt and salmon. Storage would have allowed more to stay in the state, Kranz said. Storage also is needed to prevent flooding, he said, as more precipitation falls as rain and not snow.

Storage would add flexibility, he said, adding, "You can only squeeze so much out of every drop of water before you need more drops."

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