Sunday, April 5, 2015

1797. The Many Droughts of California

By Jeff Wheelwright, The New York Times, April 3, 2015
In California fracking used 70 million gallons of water in 2014

MORRO BAY, Calif. — CALIFORNIA has only two seasons, rainy and dry. In March, when the rains stop — assuming they have begun — we must forget about precipitation for at least six months. The rainfall determines our mood for the summer and fall. Where I live, on the Central Coast, 17 inches of rain per winter has been the long-term average. Beating that number — we last did it five years ago — feels like winning the lottery. Lately, the average has been well under 10.

The difference between a good rain year in California and a bad one depends on the number of storms blowing in from the Pacific. One or two storms a winter is bad; four to six, good. Even in wet, happy years, when we shrug off floods and mudslides, rain is intermittent. Storms soak the valleys and snow blankets the mountains for a day or two, but then follows a week or two of sun. During the dry times, where we find ourselves now, the long series of sunny days becomes a little scary. As of Wednesday, the water content of the snowpack in the Sierra range was lower than at any time since 1950. Relentless pumping of groundwater is causing farmland to sink in the Central Valley.

As the drought enters its fourth year, the voluntary tightening of water use has failed to meet its goals. So this week Gov. Jerry Brown instituted mandatory restrictions. Cities and towns will have to cut their consumption by 25 percent, compared with 2013.

But the state is so big and diverse that a dozen different droughts are in effect. Northern Californians, blessed with racing rivers, have relatively little to worry about, while around the megalopolis of Los Angeles, the water sources are remote and aqueducts are lifelines. Desert dwellers near Arizona and Nevada hardly perceive drought, while coastal residents like me take false comfort from the ocean and standby desalination plants.

Yet all across the state, skirmishes over a shrinking resource are taking place. Having watched my neighbor wash his truck when he’s not supposed to, now I’ll be justified in turning him in. More of us will report violators to the city authorities — though perhaps without giving our names. If the drought continues, California’s easygoing social compact may crack and wither, too.

Although aqueducts crisscross the state, half of Californians draw water from local reservoirs and groundwater. Two communities facing each other across Morro Bay — my town and the younger, more ragged community of Los Osos — have adopted different approaches. About 20 years ago, we in Morro Bay paid for a pipeline to tap into what’s called state water. That makes us dependent on someone else’s allocations, but in a drought we are in better shape than Los Osos, which relies solely on groundwater. Under strain from overpumping, Los Osos aquifers are threatened by chemical pollution and saltwater intrusion from the ocean. Morro Bay has municipal wells as backup, and a desalination plant to filter brackish groundwater. We try not to be smug.

About 30 miles inland, the city of Paso Robles is surrounded by ranches and vineyards. This picturesque, rolling country is a favorite of wine-tasting tourists. Unfortunately, the local reservoirs are below capacity and groundwater pumping has lowered the water table so that ranchers and landowners are finding that their wells are drying up. Vineyard owners, who are relative newcomers, not only take the bulk of the groundwater but also can afford deeper wells, so as to take more. Class warfare is beginning. Even forming a committee to review the problem has been divisive.

The conflict looming the largest in the state is the one between urban and agricultural interests, but that mother of all battles, upheaving the economy, will not be fought unless the drought lasts several more years. Years ago when water rights in California were assigned, the cities and their industries were not as muscular and thirsty as they are today.

The surface water for the big farms and dairy operations in the Central Valley is first transported from mountain reservoirs to the delta region, where the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers meet the fingers of San Francisco’s East Bay. The delta also provides the water that town and city dwellers drink.

Here is the home of the delta smelt, a 2-inch-long fish that has been caught up in water battles for a generation. By court order, the endangered smelt is entitled to a certain amount of river water, ahead of downstream users. Farmers in the Central Valley have blamed the smelt for cutting their allotments — and that’s during the good years. Residential supplies haven’t been affected by the smelt, so far as we’ve noticed.

Since the drought started, the fish has had fewer and fewer defenders. Recently, it might have done the state a favor by becoming what one biologist termed “functionally extinct,” because of an increasingly saline environment. If society writes off the smelt, who will inherit its portion of the water? Probate for the fish could be rancorous — a dry run, so to speak, for a much greater struggle to come. Perhaps we Californians have taken our bountiful natural resources too much for granted. Let’s hope that nature doesn’t settle the score.

Jeff Wheelwright, a contributing editor at Discover magazine, is the author of “The Wandering Gene and The Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA.”

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