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What to know about drought in California


As the weather warms, coronavirus cases continue to decline, and vaccinated Californians happily plan their “girlish summers,” I regret to inform you that the Golden State’s next big disaster is already upon us.

Although, depending on who you ask, this one could be going on for decades.

Yes, I am referring to the drought that is affecting much of the state.

It’s a problem scientists expect to worsen this year, especially because drought conditions in tinder are likely to lead to another devastating – if not long – season of wildfires. But experts say the outlook is not all bad.

Nonetheless, the drought situation in California is something we’ll likely be talking about a lot in the coming months. Here is what you need to know.

How serious is the water shortage?

It’s not good. To put it simply: California relies on wet years to replenish its water supply during dry years. And while 2019 was a flood year, the past two years have been dry.

Last year in particular was not just dry, however. “It also set all-time records for the hottest summer, and our forests caught fire,” said Jeffrey Mount, senior researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center. “It was a freckle.”

The heat worsens the effects of drought. During each dry year, more water evaporates into the atmosphere. Plants pump more water from the soil to survive.

This dry soil requires earlier and more intensive irrigation, where the vast majority of California’s water goes, Mount said. (About 80 percent of the water used by businesses and homes in the state is for agricultural irrigation.) “It’s very disruptive,” he said.

And then there’s the issue of the Oroville Dam, where damage was discovered in 2017 that could have resulted in catastrophic flooding, effectively reducing the capacity of what Mount has described as the state’s most important reservoir.

“We entered with one hand tied behind our back,” he said.

All of this combined means California is the water equivalent of three years in a dry cycle, even though we’re only in the second dry year, Mount said. And it is almost certain that we will not get more rain this season.

What happens when there is so little water?

The same thing happens when a precious resource becomes scarce: there is a scramble to use it.

With state reservoirs depleted, farmers were forced to turn to groundwater, Mount said. The problem is that, until recently, the state’s groundwater supplies were unregulated, so they didn’t have the opportunity to recharge.

“We have been using groundwater unsustainably for over a century,” he told me. “This had a cascade of unintended and unwanted consequences: the drying up of community wells, the subsidence of land several feet, the drying up of springs and wetlands.”

Native plants and animals, especially fish, are in trouble. And groundwater supply and quality problems end up disproportionately affecting the poorest rural communities – which are home to many agricultural workers.

Why has Governor Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency in only part of the state? And why are some pushing him to declare one statewide?

Earlier this month, the governor declared a drought emergency in the Russian River watershed, where he said drought conditions were most severe.

Marty Ralph, director of the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told me that an atmospheric storm caused by a river in January helped avoid some of the drier conditions in the Central Valley.

“The drought is less severe than it would have been from this storm alone,” Ralph said.

Things could change, however, as dry conditions continue across the state until the summer, the governor said.

Some – particularly in the state’s agricultural hub, the San Joaquin Valley – have prompted Newsom to declare a statewide drought emergency, as this would relax some regulations, potentially giving desperate farmers access. more water.

But Ellen Hanak, director of the institute’s Water Policy Center, said the official emergency could cut both ways, relaxing some rules and tightening others for ecological reasons.

The bottom line, she said, is that a drought emergency declaration “doesn’t create water”.

Is there any good news?

The outlook is not completely gloomy, experts said. And we can thank the drought that ravaged the state from 2012 to 2016 for that.

“The fact that we had a major drought not long ago is kind of an advantage,” Hanak told me. “Last time around, they had to dust off a playbook from the late 1970s on some of the issues they were facing.”

Urban water agencies have become much better at reducing water use for things like landscaping irrigation and have perfected their systems for measures like water recycling – this which means most Californians probably won’t be asked to stop flushing the toilet. Remember how many expansive California lawns were replaced with native plants or hard landscapes in the middle of the year? These lawns, experts say, never come back.

Ralph, of the Scripps Institution, said research into the effectiveness of so-called “forecast-informed tank operations” had also shown promise.

This basically means controlling the levels of large reservoirs based in part on weather forecasts, which have long been considered too unreliable. The team that Ralph worked with in all states, local and federal agencies found it to be viable in the Russian River area. Without forecast-based reservoir management, things could be even worse now. Now they are trying it in other tanks.

For more:

Disneyland reopens today – a major symbolic milestone in a state where life has been restricted for over a year.

Here’s everything you need to know to go to Disneyland now, from my colleague Tariro Mzezewa, who covers travel.

California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. PT on weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: Have you been forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read each edition online here.

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from UC Berkeley, and has reported statewide, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles – but she always wants to see more. Follow here or on Twitter.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from UC Berkeley.

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