Mired Again in Drought, Experts Say California Is Better Prepared to Survive

Conditions already mirror the state’s recent historic drought, but officials believe California can withstand the latest dry spell without environmental and agricultural disasters.

Devoid of spring runoff, federally operated Folsom Lake outside of Sacramento is just 37% full. (Courthouse News photo / Nick Cahill)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Toxic algae blooms. Exposed, barren shorelines. Racing to prevent salmon die-offs. Sinking farmland. Dry wells. Unseasonable wildfires. 

Drought has returned to California and the American West.

Following the fourth-driest winter on record and just a few years after declaring victory over the last drought, California is once again prepping for a summer of water insecurity. Conditions already mirror the last drought, but experts and water managers contend the state is better equipped this time around.      

The Parched West

The ever-potent pattern of low precipitation and high temperatures is once again to blame for California’s latest predicament.  

Over the last two years the state routinely missed out on the powerful winter storms known as atmospheric rivers, watching helplessly as they shoved north to Oregon and Washington state. The quick-hitting storms douse Northern California and the Sierra Nevada mountains with fire hoses of water and snow, and the strength and numerosity of the winter events are key factors in determining how much water is available for cities and farmers.

According to federal data, April 2019 to March 2021 ranked as the state’s fourth driest two-year period on record, mirroring the worst years of the last drought. Temperatures have also soared, including last summer’s brutal heatwave which shattered daily records and forced utilities to cut power to nearly a million homes and businesses.

The consecutive disappointing rainy seasons have water mangers on edge, as the state’s most critical reservoirs have been deprived of their usual spring fill-up.  

Months ahead of schedule, California’s entire snowpack has nearly melted — yet the runoff hasn’t produced a corresponding rise in lake levels. As a result, each of the largest Northern California reservoirs are emptying quickly, including Shasta Lake which sits at 58% of its historical average and Lake Oroville at 51%.

Experts pin the lack of runoff on increased evaporation on warm temperatures and bone-dry soils functioning as a sponge, sopping the precious snowmelt before it reaches manmade lakes.

Grant Davis, general manager of Sonoma Water, says the drought conditions have arrived at a breakneck pace and are adding new strain on water districts.

“That’s the problem; it’s come on faster and it’s more dramatic, more pronounced,” Davis said of conditions in Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino counties.  

The mounting water woes have prompted a wide array of groups to call on Governor Gavin Newsom to declare a statewide drought emergency. Farmers, conservationists, Democrats and Republicans across the Golden State are pressing Newsom to issue a declaration as former Governor Jerry Brown did during last decade’s historic drought.

Mindful of the political ramifications a statewide declaration could bring as he’s facing a recall election later this year, Newsom has only declared drought in two northern counties thus far.

Folsom Lake beachgoers traverse desert landscapes to find water. Designed to protect the Sacramento Valley from flooding when the Sierra sheds its coat of winter snow, Folsom Lake is this year a visual reminder of the drought plaguing California given the lack of rain and snow two years running. (Courthouse News photo / Nick Cahill)

Then & now

From a barren meadow near Lake Tahoe in spring of 2015, then-Governor Brown alerted the world to the dire straits the nation’s most populous state was in.

Offering up one of the most dramatic moments of his fourth term, Brown revealed the Sierra Nevada snowpack had plummeted to 5% of its historic average and ordered 40 million residents to quickly cut their household water use.

“Today we are standing on dry grass where there should be five feet of snow,” Brown said while issuing the state’s first-ever mandatory water restrictions which required cities to slash use by at least 25%.

Between 2012-2016 — the driest four-year period on record — the state experienced one water crisis after another.

In the Central Valley, thousands of wells went dry and left scores of towns filled with farmworkers without drinking water. Meanwhile, NASA satellites revealed farmers were slurping up groundwater so rapidly the ground was sinking.  The agricultural industry lost billions and combined to fallow over 500,000 acres of farmland. 

The drought also featured consecutive years of crushing losses to Chinook salmon, most notably in 2014 when over 90% of juveniles perished due to mismanagement of the Sacramento River. The drought also took a toll on California forests, as an estimated 100 million trees died due to lack of water and drought-induced beetle infestations.

Now, experts are particularly concerned that Northern California — home to the most critical reservoirs — is suffering more than the southern parts of the state.   

“This time the drought has hit really hard the normally water-rich regions of the state,” said Alvar Escriva-Bou, researcher at Public Policy Institute of California Water Policy Center. “The Sacramento Valley being dry is really bad and has statewide implications.”

In a recent PPIC presentation, Escriva-Bou outlined the importance of the Sacramento Valley to the state’s complicated water system.

Not only does the watershed supply many cities in the San Francisco Bay Area down to Southern California, it serves farmers statewide and is critical to the health of the largest estuary on the West Coast, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. While the northernmost reservoirs are in awful shape, Escriva-Bou says the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California lakes have not yet reached low points measured in 2014.

Farmers and fish take a hit

Drought conditions are already having a significant financial impact, as western farmers have been told to expect meager water deliveries — and in some cases not a drop — this growing season.  

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation last month told farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Basin, which covers parts of Oregon and Northern California, to plan for less than 10% of the average amount of federally subsidized water made available annually.

California’s massive agricultural industry is being cut off as well, as on Wednesday the bureau notified farmers north of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta their allocations are on hold until further notice.

In both instances, the feds said supplies were being prioritized for endangered suckerfish and salmon species unable to survive the sizzling river water temperatures expected this summer. 

More fortunate farmers will be able to make up the difference by pumping groundwater in the coming months, but not all can afford digging new wells. Some won’t be as lucky as major aquifers haven’t recharged since the last drought.

No lifeguards needed this summer at Beals Point, a popular Folsom Lake beach. (Courthouse News photo / Nick Cahill)

The historically low and warm rivers have additionally prompted conservation officials to take great steps to keep the state’s iconic salmon populations alive.

Over the next month the California Department of Fish and Wildlife will transport over 16 million juvenile salmon from riverside hatcheries hundreds of miles to the San Francisco Bay. In total, it will take nearly 150 truck loads to bypass dangerous, soupy stretches of river and give salmon a fighting chance.

The department says it’s learned from past droughts and is more prepared than ever to keep the state’s fragile ecosystems strong.

“CDFW is utilizing lessons learned from the past 15 or more years of salmon releases and the last drought to maximize release success,” said Jason Julienne, North Central Region Hatchery supervisor, in a statement. “Trucking young salmon to downstream release sites has proven to be one of the best ways to increase survival to the ocean during dry conditions.”

Drought-charged wildfires loom

An obvious testament to the bust that was California’s winter, federal park rangers earlier this week made a startling discovery in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

While conducting surveys in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, rangers found a smoldering giant sequoia in an area that burned in last year’s Castle Fire. Though the fire was officially contained last December, the rangers’ discovery proves at least one of the majestic trees was able to burn for months thanks to below-average snowfall.   

Each summer brings the potential for wildfires. But this year the state is further on edge due to the drought and the devastating 2020 fire season.   

The lack of spring rain and corresponding high temperatures have already dried out grasses and soils, leaving the state’s most fire-prone areas ripe to burn months earlier than usual. California’s fire season traditionally runs from May to October, but the window has opened wider in recent years.

In 2020, a record-breaking season in which over 4.3 million acres burned, firefighters were still battling major blazes through the holidays. The Golden State has seen three of its top four most destructive wildfire seasons in the last five years.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection estimates wildfire season has grown by 75 days across the Sierra due to climate change. The current year is off to a quick start as nearly 1,800 fires have already started compared to 1,065 at this point in 2020.  

State and local officials agree California faces another potentially calamitous stretch of fires.

“We’ve had fires that are unprecedented for this time of year,” said Davis. “What would have been wet grasses are now dry, so we are preparing for a very long and difficult season.”  

Next steps

As Newsom mulls whether to declare a statewide emergency, regulators and water districts are hopeful the state will avoid the catastrophes of last decade as the drought continues.

During a recent drought panel hosted by the PPIC, Escriva-Bou outlined the various measures and infrastructure improvements made over the last several years. He noted urban water usage is down over 15% compared to the start of the last drought and that more advanced data is available to help districts and regulators make conservation decisions.  

As for agriculture, Escriva-Bou said the federal government and state are already helping to coordinate water trading as well as offering millions in financial assistance to farmers that have had surface water deliveries halted.

Disappearing shorelines at Folsom Lake, the state’s 9th largest reservoir. (Courthouse News photo / Nick Cahill)

Regulators are also promising a more proactive drought approach, particularly when it comes to ensuring rural communities have access to the most basic human right.

Laurel Firestone, who was appointed to the State Water Resources Control Board in 2019, says the water board is working to identify farming communities most at risk of seeing their drinking wells go dry and work with them on backup plans. Unlike the last drought, Firestone hopes water tankers and bottled water won’t be necessary to sustain neighborhoods in places like Tulare and Fresno counties.  

“State officials are continuing to monitor conditions really closely so that we can and will act swiftly and effectively when necessary,” Firestone said. “We’re much better prepared.”

Continuing to prepare is key as California’s drought is only in its second year. The last one lasted five and others have gone six years.

Now armed with more information and a more proactive mindset, Escriva-Bou predicts the state will avoid the severest impacts.     

“We saw last time that California was slow to respond,” he said. “Looking at what has happened between the past drought and this drought, we are more optimistic.”

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