What to Learn from the California Drought? - The Years Project

What to Learn from the California Drought?

By Michelle Nijhuis

As the reservoir contracts, tree stumps from logging for the Shasta Dam in 1945 are exposed. Photo: Peter Essick, National Geographic Creative.

There’ll Be Another

On a mild April morning in 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown stood in a mountain meadow before a scrum of reporters. The state was well into its fourth year of deep drought, and the outlook was grim: State officials had just announced that the amount of water contained in the Sierra Nevada’s spring snowpack was five percent of normal, the lowest in more than 75 years of annual measurements. The meadow where the governor stood, usually covered with five or six feet of snow until late spring, was bare and dry, and he wore a light windbreaker as he addressed the crowd.

“It’s a different world,” he said. “We have to act differently.”

Governor Brown announced that under a new set of mandatory restrictions, California cities and towns would have to reduce their use of drinkable water by 25 percent. Though aspects of the rules were controversial — they didn’t apply to agriculture, which accounts for 80 percent of the state’s water use — they were widely recognized as a necessary step. The extended drought had left the state with only one year’s supply of water in its reservoirs, and many Central Valley farmers had already let their fields fallow. After a relentlessly warm and sunny winter throughout the state, public concern was turning into panic. William Shatner of Star Trek fame had even created a Kickstarter campaign in the vain hope of funding an implausible water pipeline from Seattle to Los Angeles.

Under the tough new state restrictions, homeowners tore up thirsty turf and replaced it with drought-tolerant shrubs; much of the greenery in cemeteries, golf courses and median strips was allowed to brown in the summer sun. Local water agencies raised rates, offered rebates for more efficient appliances, and required new developments to install thrifty irrigation systems. Shorter showers became chic. Within a few months, most California cities and towns had met or even beaten the water-use reduction goals: by late summer, urban water consumption was about 30 percent lower than it had been during the same months in 2013.

The following winter, the rain and snow returned. By the spring of 2016, the dry Sierra meadow where Governor Brown had stood was once again covered with snow. The state’s reservoirs were still dangerously low, and many scientists warned that the drought was not yet over. The relatively wet winter, however, convinced much of the public that the crisis had eased. Political pressure to loosen the water restrictions increased. In May 2016, little more than a year after announcing the mandatory cuts in urban water use, the governor suspended them.

But his initial observation was right: It is a different world — and it’s not likely to return to normal anytime soon.

Lake Marina, Folsom, California. Photo: Peter Essick, National Geographic Creative.
Lake Marina, Folsom, California. Photo: Peter Essick, National Geographic Creative.

As climate change warms the planet, it will increase precipitation in some areas and decrease it in others. In general, it’s expected to make wet areas wetter and dry areas drier. Regardless of what happens to precipitation in California, though, rising average temperatures mean that the Sierra snowpack — which provides a third of the state’s water supply — is likely to keep shrinking in size and melting earlier in the spring, creating a chronic and worsening water shortage. As Don Cheadle and Tom Friedman document in their reports for Years of Living Dangerously, the costs to humans and other species are mounting — and not just in California.

In eastern and southern Africa, some 50 million people, most of them in rural areas, are facing food shortages due to two years of deep drought and repeated crop failures. As Friedman found during his reporting, the interlocking effects of drought, war, and poverty are pushing millions of young Africans north toward Europe, where new struggles await.

In India, a second season of below-average monsoon rains combined with a record heat wave left at least 330 million people — a quarter of the population — without enough water to meet their daily needs this year. Because of the low rainfall, the country’s hydropower dams generated less electricity, even as farmers used more electricity to pump groundwater to their fields; the combination of shrinking supply and booming demand led to chronic blackouts throughout the country. Though stronger monsoon rains this fall provided some respite, the distress remains: Successive crop failures have forced many rural families to abandon their land and move into the cities. Some farmers have even been driven to suicide.

Is climate change amplifying this suffering? Both the wet winter that temporarily relieved the California drought and the recent extended dry spells in Africa and Asia are at least partly the result of an El Niño event — a periodic warming of the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. The most recent El Niño was one of the strongest in decades, and some scientists suspect that climate change is increasing the frequency of especially powerful El Niño events; others, however, dispute the connection.

What is certain is that the greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere by human activities are raising the average temperature of the planet, and by doing so are adding to the existing burdens of drought. In Africa and Asia as in California, higher temperatures mean even drier fields, even lower reservoirs, and even more stress on crops, livestock, wildlife, and people.

Another certainty is that drought accelerates the drawdown of our shared water savings accounts — the water slowly collected and stored in the world’s underground aquifers. The California drought has sparked an ongoing groundwater-drilling rush in the Central Valley, and the droughts in Africa and India have also taxed groundwater resources. How much water is left underground is hard to gauge, but Jay Famiglietti, a water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., has used satellite data to make global estimates. He recently reported that water levels in 21 of the world’s 37 largest aquifers have been dropping for at least ten years. Famiglietti predicts that the Central Valley’s groundwater will be gone in a matter of decades, leaving one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions with no water savings at all.

As Governor Brown observed on that spookily dry spring day in 2015, it is a different world, and we have to act differently — not only to limit carbon pollution and the future effects of climate change, but also to conserve the water we have for the dry times to come. California, in its response to a historic drought, showed that change is possible. The challenge now, for all of us, is to sustain it.