California's State Water Resources Control Board unanimously voted to enforce unprecedented water conservation mandates in mid-March, as the state approaches its fourth year of drought and ground in areas like the San Joaquin Valley is literally sinking as over-pumping drains the supporting groundwater beneath.
One of the Worst Droughts in California History
As of March 19, the National Drought Mitigation Center categorized approximately 40 percent of the state as an "exceptional drought" zone- the highest level of intensity on the scale. That is up from roughly 22 percent this time last year. Just 16 percent of the entire state is unaffected by drought, with over 37 million people affected.
Lack of water directly damages California's energy supply as well, since the state is significantly reliant on hydropower (which supplies between 14 and 19 percent of California's power). In response, the state has turned to using more natural gas, bringing higher utility bills and increased levels of damaging greenhouse gas emissions.
For more information on the drought's impact on hydropower, see this study from the Oakland-based think tank, the Pacific Institute.
Water Supplies are Nearly Depleted
One component of the drought is the massive amount of irrigation that comprises the backbone of the agriculture industry in places like San Joaquin valley. For decades, growers have been pumping out more than nature could put back, and the effects are showing in the estimated 125 million acre-feet depletion of Central Valley groundwater reserves, roughly 20 million of which occurred in the last decade.
Another component is decreased snowpack from the Sierra Nevada's, on which California is usually reliant during dry summer months. The March measurement was just 0.9 inches of water content in the snow, which is a mere five percent of the historical average this time of year. As Governor Brown cited in a release announcing his $1 billion emergency drought package, water content in other areas of the snowpack are also historically low.
New Water Restrictions
Water Resource Control Board regulations enacted last year already prohibited spraying down sidewalks, driveways and patios, watering lawns to the point of runoff, washing cars without a shutoff nozzle, and using drinking water in ornamental fountains.
New restrictions include prohibiting restaurants and bars from serving water, unless by request, requiring hotels and motels to offer guests the option to forgo daily linen laundering, and restrictions of outdoor watering to two days a week, to name just a few.
Since last February, the state has pledged over $870 million in drought relief funds, and the governor has enacted mitigation regulations, ranging from authorizing a Drought Task Force in 2013, to creating a comprehensive Water Action Plan in 2014,which the governor has supplemented with legislation requiring local, sustainable groundwater management and supporting a water bond that won the approval of voters at the polls.
A Long Term Answer Solution is Necessary
Sinking ground levels are resulting in damage to infrastructure, as irrigation canals crack, roads buckle, and wells run dry and have to be replaced by deeper and more expensive wells. Deeper water, while it exists, is much more difficult and expensive to reach. As groundwater reserves are depleted, and the earth shrinks around the empty space, decreasing California's capacity to store more groundwater in the future.
While California will not literally run out of groundwater any time soon, it is on the path to run out of affordable and environmentally responsible groundwater resources. According to the U.S. Geographical Survey, "As drought persists, longer-term impacts can emerge, such as groundwater level declines, land subsidence, seawater intrusion, and damage to ecosystems. Unlike the immediate impacts of drought, however, long-term impacts can be harder to see, but more costly to manage in the future." The California Energy Commission said that the effects on hydropower, and the costs of replacing it with natural gas and renewable energy supplies cannot be immediately known. While renewable energy does not release the harmful greenhouse gas that natural gas does, it is still more expensive.
California is home to 12 percent of the country's population, and accounts for 13 percent of the nation's GDP (as of 2011). It also is the nation's main producer of almonds, broccoli, strawberries, tomatoes and other assorted agricultural products. As the nonprofit news organization Mother Jones reported, much of the state's agriculture is concentrated in the areas hit hardest by the drought- which could mean increased prices at the grocery store for Americans across the country, and decreased national GDP, as California's agricultural exports go down.
Environmentally, the drought is wreaking both short- and long-term havoc. In the short-term, decreased surface water impairs navigation, recreation and hydropower production. It damages or destroys altogether habitats for a range of species. Long-term, increased reliance on natural gas will raise greenhouse gas emissions that California has aimed to reduce when it adopted legislation in 2006 requiring a 15 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
The drought further damages critical infrastructure such as canals and roads, as land sinks due to groundwater depletion. That depletion is irreparably shrinking California's water storage capacity, rendering the state's ability to both rebound from this drought, and prove resilient to future ones, crippled.
Kathleen Bishop, Public Policy Intern
Warwick Group Consultants, LLC