Care to Join the Debate–Is California Doomed?

Some would say that parts of California were doomed already with predictions that the Pacific Ocean would swallow it or turn it into offshore islands. It would appear that this isn’t going to happen. However, Los Angeles and San Francisco will one day be adjacent to one another!

The headlines recently are of a different nature.

California has about one year of water left. Will you ration now?

Jay Famiglietti a senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech and a professor of Earth system science at UC Irvine wrote that headline in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times.

As our “wet” season draws to a close, it is clear that the paltry rain and snowfall have done almost nothing to alleviate epic drought conditions. January was the driest in California since record-keeping began in 1895. Groundwater and snowpack levels are at all-time lows. We’re not just up a creek without a paddle in California, we’re losing the creek too.

Statewide, we’ve been dropping more than 12 million acre-feet of total water yearly since 2011. Roughly two-thirds of these losses are attributable to groundwater pumping for agricultural irrigation in the Central Valley. Farmers have little choice but to pump more groundwater during droughts, especially when their surface water allocations have been slashed 80% to 100%. But these pumping rates are excessive and unsustainable. Wells are running dry. In some areas of the Central Valley, the land is sinking by one foot or more per year.

As difficult as it may be to face, the simple fact is that California is running out of water — and the problem started before our current drought. NASA data reveal that total water storage in California has been in steady decline since at least 2002, when satellite-based monitoring began, although groundwater depletion has been going on since the early 20th century.

This series of satellite images reflects the huge loss of groundwater in California. (UC Irvine, NASA)

There are many issues in California compounding this problem. One of them is that water rights given out by the state are five times the amount of water available.

According to a new study, the water rights given out by California amount to five times the amount of surface water the state’s ecosystem can actually provide.

The analysis, published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Research Letters, found that water rights issued since 1914 add up to 370 million acre-feet of water annually, while the surface water that actually flows through the state adds up to just 70 million acre-feet in a good year for precipitation. An acre-foot of water is roughly enough to supply two households for one year, and 300 million acre-feet of water is enough to fill Lake Tahoe two-and-a-half times over. The study arrived at its numbers by crunching public data from the State Water Resources Control Board, the state agency that administers the water rights.

Another problem is that California has allowed oil companies to inject chemical-laden wastewater into drinkable water sources underground.

The San Francisco Chronicle has a bombshell story showing that California regulators gave oil companies permission to inject chemical-laden wastewater into drinkable water sources underground.

The revelation comes as California enters another month of its epic, four-year drought, which has left some communities pumping out so much groundwater that the land is literally sinking. The state saw almost no rain in January, normally the wettest month of the year.

Of course the lack a snow pack and rain is the most obvious component of the problem. The latest report (3/3/15) from the California Department of Water Resources state:

Today’s manual survey by the Department of Water Resources (DWR) at the Phillips snow course in the mountains 90 miles east of Sacramento found 0.9 inches of water content in the snow, just 5 percent of the March 3 historical average for that site. Electronic readings by the Department of Water Resources (DWR) today indicate the water content of the northern Sierra snowpack is 4.4 inches, 16 percent of average for the date. The central and southern Sierra readings were 5.5 inches (20 percent of average) and 5 inches (22 percent) respectively.

This picture was taken earlier in the year. It was in a National Geographic article about this subject.

But the Golden State is in a league all its own. A virtually rain-free January comes after the state had the third driest “water year” (which ends September 30) on record. Today, nearly 40 percent of the state is enduring an “exceptional” drought—the U.S. Drought Monitor’s most extreme rating.

Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program, conducts the second snow survey of the season at Echo Summit. The survey showed the snowpack to be 12 percent of normal for this site at this time of year. PHOTOGRAPH BY RICH PEDRONCELLI, AP

Another unknown component at this time will be our fire season. If the season is like the last few years it will be an enormous drain on our water resources. So far it doesn’t look good. This year is already well above previous years in acres burned.

The state’s Water Resources Control Board has just issued new restrictions state wide.

Water regulators in California voted on Tuesday to outlaw watering the lawn within 48 hours of a rainstorm, the latest effort to spur Californians to conserve as the state enters its fourth year of drought.

Facing a dramatic slowdown in voluntary conservation efforts by property owners, the state Water Resources Control Board also tightened conservation rules in other ways, prohibiting water from being served in restaurants unless customers request it, and forbidding lawn-watering more than twice a week.

Early last year Governor Brown issued, A PROCLAMATION OF A CONTINUED STATE OF EMERGENCY, urging all California residents and businesses to reduce their water usage by 20%. How are we doing? Is it enough?

According to new data released earlier this week, Californians cut water use 8.8 percent statewide at homes and businesses in January compared with January 2013, the baseline year used by state water officials.

That’s a far cry from the 20 percent conservation target that Gov. Jerry Brown asked state residents to hit last year. And it’s a significant drop-off from the 22 percent drop that Californians recorded in December compared with December 2013.

The North Coast region came closest to Brown’s goal with a 17.2 percent reduction in January 2015 compared with January 2013. In Humboldt County, the McKinleyville Community Services District reigned as the top conserver at an 14.3 percent year-to-year reduction with and 11.7 percent cut by Humboldt County Community Services District followed closely by Arcata at an 11.5 percent cut.

So what can we expect from all this new regulation? How about the water police?

City of Sacramento water conservation official Steven Upton walks back to his truck after delivering a citation to a home where sprinklers are running on a mandatory ‘no watering’ day, in this August 15, 2014 file photo taken in Sacramento, California. Credit–REUTERS/MAX WHITTAKER/FILES

He heard the scofflaws before he saw their lush green lawns amid the otherwise parched turf. The buzz of a sprinkler system gave them away on a day that the city, desperate to save water amid California’s ongoing drought, had forbidden watering.

“If I can get a good picture – if there’s a lot of water – I’ll cite them,” he said.

Speaking about Sacramento how can big corporations get away with draining ground water while the little homeowner gets a citation?

The city of Sacramento is in the fourth year of a record drought – yet the Nestlé Corporation continues to bottle city water to sell back to the public at a big profit, local activists charge.

The Nestlé Water Bottling Plant in Sacramento is the target of a major press conference on Tuesday, March 17, by a water coalition that claims the company is draining up to 80 million gallons of water a year from Sacramento aquifers during the drought.

California’s farmers are screwed which means food prices will continue to rise and unemployment in the farming industry will go up.

Federal officials warned last week that for a second consecutive year irrigation projects were likely to allocate zero water to Central Valley farmers without senior water rights.

“This is an absolutely devastating shock,” said Ryan Jacobsen, executive director for the Fresno County farm bureau. “Unless things change dramatically in the next six weeks, we expect 2015 to be much worse than last year.”

Crisis is apparent as you drive through the valley. Many fields are fallow – some idled last year, others more recently. The earth is baked hard. Preliminary estimates suggest Fresno may have recorded its warmest-ever February, prolonging what has been dubbed the “time without winter”. Roadside signs warn of the consequences. “No water = no food.” “Food grows where water flows.”

Baked earth at Clarence Freitas’ farm, outside Fresno. Photograph: Rory Carroll/the Guardian

Water is getting to be worth more than gold. Water theft is getting to be common.

Madden is not alone. Water theft has become increasingly common in California as the state suffers through its worst drought on record. There’s no reliable tracking of just how much water has gone missing. But reports of theft rose dramatically in the past year. Officials say a black market set up to peddle water is thriving as wells run dry. And law enforcement is scrambling to respond.

Mendocino County has made catching water thieves a top priority. The sheriff’s office set up a water-theft hotline and investigates every tip. It also puts out patrols to sniff out suspicious activity.

In August, a sheriff’s deputy there followed a trail of water droplets up a dirt road where he discovered a truck outfitted with a water tank. A confession came quickly. The driver had siphoned water from a nearby canal and planned to sell it to the highest bidder.

Let me ask you if sewage is the answer? The link provides a good rundown on California’s water problems. It seems this idea is catching on.

Acknowledging California’s parched new reality, the city of San Diego has embraced a once-toxic idea: turning sewer water into drinking water.

The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to advance a $2.5billion plan to recycle wastewater, the latest example of how California cities are looking for new supplies amid a severe drought.

Each of the nine council members effusively praised the effort before the vote as a way to make San Diego less dependent on imported water and insulated from drought.

‘We’re at the end of the pipeline,’ said Councilman Scott Sherman. ‘We have a real problem getting water down here.’

Or will desalination be the future.

Will California — like Israel, Saudi Arabia and other arid coastal regions of the world — finally turn to the ocean to quench its thirst? Or will the project finally prove that drinking Pacific seawater is too pricey, too environmentally harmful and too impractical for the Golden State?

“Everybody is watching Carlsbad to see what’s going to happen,” said Peter MacLaggan, vice president of Poseidon Water, the Boston firm building the plant.

“I think it will be a growing trend along the coast,” he said. “The ocean is the one source of water that’s truly drought-proof. And it will always be there.”

To supporters, the Carlsbad Desalination Plant is a historic engineering marvel. And it is a survivor, having endured six years of government permitting, from the Carlsbad City Council to the California Coastal Commission. Supporters won 14 lawsuits and appeals by environmentalists before finally breaking ground in December 2012.

“They went through seven or eight years of hell to get here,” said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies. “But they stuck it out. They got it done. If it succeeds, it will encourage others to try. And if it fails, it will have a chilling effect.”

To critics, the plant is a costly mistake that will use huge amounts of energy and harm fish and other marine life when it sucks in seawater using the intakes from the aging Encina Power Plant next door.

“This is going to be the pig that will try for years to find the right shade of lipstick,” said Marco Gonzalez, an Encinitas attorney who sued on behalf of the Surfrider Foundation and other environmental groups to try to stop construction. “This project will show that the water is just too expensive.”

So is California doomed. Only time will tell but it’s getting hot in California and the trend is up.

Also, as climatologist Peter Gleick noted on twitter, “California’s February temperatures blast[ed] through 120-year record. 8 degrees F above 20th [Century] avg.” As this NOAA data shows, last month the Golden State averaged a full 1°F higher than the second-warmest February on record:

Photo by NOAA












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