From 2014 until the beginning of 2017 California suffered through a major drought. It was a hot topic in the news, and NWNL conducted five Spotlight Expeditions to document and bring attention to that drought and its significance. But what exactly is a drought? What causes droughts? What are the effects of droughts? What does a drought look like?
Boat launch, Kinbasket Lake Reservoir, BC, Canada. 2007
Kinbasket Lake Reservoir, BC, Canada. 2007
Basicplanet.com defines a drought as a “lengthy period of time, stretching months or even years in which time land has a decrease in water supply.” Droughts usually occur when rain doesn’t fall often enough during prolonged periods of warmer temperatures, causing high pressure winds and and reduced water content.
Aerial of dry river bed, Skeleton Coast National Park, Namibia. 2006
El Molo Swamp in Mau Forest during Kenya drought of 2009
Human activity can also be the cause of drought. Deforestation, farming, excess irrigation and erosion can lead to drought. Climate change also creates drought. Rises in average global temperatures greatly effect the possibility of drought, by reducing water content in the air.
Rio Hondo River, a tributary of Los Angeles River, California. 2015
Dried up succulent in the Santa Ynez Valley, California. 2014
There are many more affects of drought than most people realize. The most obvious affect is the shortage of water. Because of this, crops and animals will die. Droughts lead to malnutrition, dehydration and deadly famines. Wildfires and dust storms are much more probable and common effects. Industries that rely on water are forced to cutback, thus forcing people into unemployment. Wars have occurred due to droughts.
Signs posted during the California Drought, 2014 – 2016.
Stanislaus National Forest at the Yosemite N.P. entryway. Trees are dying by the thousands here due to the nexus of drought, high temperatures, fires, and pine bark beetle infestation.
By Christina Belasco, NWNL Project Manager
When Americans hear the word “drought” these days, they may instantly envision a scene of a heat-scorched, fire-ridden California. Of course this is for good reason – the California drought is entering its sixth year, and shows no sign of stopping in the southern part of the state.
NWNL has just completed its 5th CA Drought Spotlight expedition, covering 1,300 miles from the headwaters within Yosemite and Kings Canyon N.P to the Central Valley to coastal estuaries. It is clear that water consumption patterns and habits must change. NWNL witnessed the devastation of the Rey Fire, Loma Fire, Rim Fire and others that have heavily impacted California’s forests.
NWNL also witnessed homes in East Porterville that still do not have access to running water for the 3rd year straight due to groundwater depletion and lack of piping.
Here is a “bathtub ring” typically found in California reservoirs, showing significant drops in water levels due to drought and overuse.
Another stark example of a region filled with drought woes is Northeastern China, where climate change is causing extreme desertification, despite some governmental efforts to reduce the trend. Villages are being pushed out, and have been for decades now, as the desert continues to creep eastward at a rate of 1,300 square miles per year.
Such examples of extreme drought worsened by climate change seem like an unbelievable scenario, things that happen in far off places, other worlds. Many Americans on the East Coast could never imagine this happening in their own backyard.
Usually a healthy, flowing river, the Kaweah River in Tulare County, CA is now a dried-up riverbed.
However, green trees and rain aren’t sure signs that water supply is plentiful. In fact most people don’t treat their water as if it is a finite resource, which it is. The truth is that the effects of climate change are everywhere. They are happening here right now.
Besides just reducing personal water usage, NJ citizens are pressuring Governor Christie to act and pass legislation for the Water Supply Master Plan. This master plan includes recommendations for balancing the amount of used water with the amount of replenished water. This would ensure that there will be enough water for the private sector, agriculture, residents and the environment.
Websites like njwatersavers.rutgers.edu are advocating for water awareness and sustainability across the state, and have information on how to directly help.
NWNL urges East Coast citizens to think of the impacts of drought before it comes barreling towards them at full speed. Acting preventatively, and taking a can-do approach to climate change, are some of the best ways we can work together to change our unsustainable habits and save the planet for future generations.
Mention of water usage in Las Vegas prompts most people to roll their eyes in exasperation. I saw this last week during a lecture on mega-droughts presented to an audience of environmentalists. Few realized that, rather than being the “ugly sister” of wise water consumption, Las Vegas – even with all casinos, glitz and fountains galore – is Cinderella’s fairy godmother waving a wand of solutions for arid communities.
This still-growing Nevada city is coping better than California with drought conditions, despite differences in the sources of their water supplies. Las Vegas draws from Lake Mead, the Colorado River reservoir dammed by Hoover Dam and known for the recreation it affords. California’s water users depend on aqueduct delivery of surface water (including the Colorado River) and groundwater reserves. But, nevertheless, their droughts elicit the same fears of the economic consequences of not having enough water.
Californians – and all those never thought of Las Vegas as being an environmental trendsetter – would do well to take heed of what’s happening in Las Vegas. The Economist Magazine (August 8, 2015, p 23-24) neatly summarized the ways southern Nevada has preemptively and quite successfully addressed water availability issues.
Las Vegas has banned front lawns. Now xeri-scaping with cactus, yucca plants and interesting desert rocks has become fashionable.
Las Vegas golf courses are now watered sparingly by “brown water.” New dramatic views of desert scenery offer intriguing contrasts beyond the greens.
Facing the reality of desert resources, Las Vegas now treats and recycles water used in homes, pools and fountains back to Lake Mead. Furthermore, if homeowners use more than their allotted amounts of water (per a tiered scale), they are charged at higher rates. Yet California’s arcane regulations discourage and in some places dis-allows scaled water-pricing incentives so as to reduce water consumption.
Perhaps Las Vegas is ahead of California because the Colorado River Basin is entering its 16th year of drought and California is only in its 5th year of record-breaking drought. Things aren’t always what we think. Solutions can come from surprising sources.
El Nino, despite its attendant floods and mudslides, may replenish California’s surface water resources; but geology teaches us it will be many years or decades before its groundwater resources will be restored. Additionally, history teaches us that El Nino is often followed by that drought-maker, La Nina. So – as fairy tales teach us – the frog may become a prince and the casino’s scullery maid may become stewardship’s “Belle of the Ball.” California, look towards Las Vegas!
For another comparison of states’ differing management of groundwater and Colorado River water, read this blog post by Meg Wilcox (of Ceres) for National Geographic (Sept 25, 2015)on Arizona’s tight water management of large-scale vegetable farms versus that of California. Wilcox quotes one Arizona farmer as saying: “We track water like we do financial statements.”
Blog Post by Alison M. Jones, Director of No Water No Life.
Almost 5 years of drought, now combined with recent rainfall-induced flooding, has weakened California’s levees. Culprits are soil cracking that allows water seepage, soil-strength reduction, land subsidence and erosion, all of which NWNL observed on its California Spotlight expeditions in 2014 and 2015. Fifty-five percent of California’s levee systems are now in danger of failing in the event of a flood or an earthquake. If the levees fail, water quality could be compromised for over 23 million people.
Levees are sand and clay earthen embankments which regulate water levels and protect dry land from floods. More research, risk science, community education and stakeholder collaboration are crucial to improving levee resilience.
Will there be enough water for these Greater Sandhill Cranes when they return to the San Francisco Bay Delta this fall?
With the state’s snowpack down to 5% of average, the lowest ever recorded, Governor Brown has mandated a 25% water use reduction. This is the first time an involuntary water reduction mandate has been imposed. Although the means to meet this mandate has been left up to the local water districts, Brown’s executive directive includes some public assistance to replace 50 million square feet of lawns statewide with drought tolerant planting as well as reducing water use on golf courses, cemeteries and large institutions. There will also be a short-term rebate program to “provide monetary incentives for the replacement of inefficient household devices.”
It is important to note the inclusion of concerns for “degraded habitat for many fish and wildlife species, increase wildfire risk, and the threat of saltwater contamination to fresh water supplies in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta” in his declaration. The Fresno Bee reported today that 50.2% of water use in California is by the environment, 40.9% by agriculture and 8.9% by residents and businesses. Although the 25% reduction is directed only at residential and business uses, water that goes to agriculture will now be closely monitored and evaluated for future plan making. This is an important step.
Everyone needs to use water wisely so that we may have enough water to drink, enough water for wildlife and their habitat, as well as enough to grow our food. The farmers in the Central Valley have already been hit hard with spartan allocations for the year. Produce prices will inevitably rise due to the higher cost of water, and the effect of the California drought will be felt across the country. It all comes down to the availability of water. Let’s all conserve. There is no more water, and what we have we are using up.
* Posted from San Francisco by Barbara Folger, NWNL Project Coordinator.
The phone rang. That snowy Saturday I was editing photos of Ethiopia’s Omo River. “Alison, you must cover California’s drought for No Water No Life®. It’s beyond regional. US and Asian markets depend on that produce.” I envisioned photographs of a three-year drought: monotones of white salt on sand.
Within 24 hours however, I connected California’s plight with our project’s case-study watersheds. Management solutions for California could help other watersheds. So, escaping an
unusually wet East Coast winter, I packed cameras and
sunglasses to document an arid valley 3,000 miles away. I didn’t expect to enjoy it.
On the plane, I read The Mountains of California written by John Muir 120 years ago. “Every glacier in the world is smaller than it once was. All the world is growing warmer….”1
What would he say today? Surface area of Sierra Nevada glaciers
is 55% less,2 and development still increases along rivers below. Rivers? Oh, actually, the Central Valley now has fewer rivers and more canals.
Cox Road Canal, Grayson CA
End of Delta-Mendota Canal
Goose Lake Canal, Angiola CA
California Aqueduct, Vernalis CA
Then unexpectedly, with expedition advice from American Rivers, my story grew beyond the desolation of drought to include hope. Droughts come and go in California. They may get worse.
But there are mitigating solutions. Restoration of streams,
riparian zones and wetlands matter as much as reduced
As American pelicans paddled through Mendota Pool, I read that wetlands hold 10 to 1,000 times the living matter in nearby dry land. At dusk, a great-horned owl hunted above as I framed reflections in San Luis NWR. What a relief from miles of empty concrete canals! I thanked the sedge grasses rubbing my ankles for absorbing pollutants from nearby crop fields, hog farms and dairy-cattle pens.
An insect hatch sounded like rain on my windshield. I wished for higher levees to better view Pacific Flyway waterfowl in the bottomlands. Someday I hope to see Aleutian crackling geese and the tule elk now protected in San Joaquin NWR.
In 2006 Jared Diamond, Paul Ehrlich, Sandra Postel, Peter Raven, Edward O. Wilson et al. told the Supreme Court: “More than a source of water and fish, the nation’s rivers, lakes, and wetlands store flood waters and reduce economic devastation due to flooding. They recharge groundwater, filter pollutants, and purify drinking water. And they provide the habitats that sustain a diversity of species, which themselves perform important ecological functions.”3
Despite such support, more than 90% of California’s historic riparian and wetlands habitats are gone (U.S. Fish and Wildlife). Today, the San Joaquin’s riparian habitat is scant. But these traces of willows, shrubs and grasses support the highest diversity of wildlife in the Central Valley. Wood ducks, river otters, warblers, eagles, spawning salmon and formerly California bear follow these wooded highways for safety, food and spawning.
The drought brought me here. I saw trickles lead to less water, not more. Nature seems turned inside out. Yet American Rivers, other stewards, scientists, stakeholders and policymakers are working together to address needs ofnatural and human communities. Just as John Muir wrote in 1885 about accumulating snowflakes in the Sierra, grassroots efforts can affect policy: “Come, we are feeble; let us help one another. We are many, and together we will be strong. Marching in close, deep ranks, let us … set the landscapes free.”4
1 Muir, John. The Mountains of California. New York: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1985, Page 15. (Originally published: New York: Century, 1894.)