With all the fires raging in Southern California, we see that droughts can mean a lot more than simple water shortage. Droughts are a certainty in California, something you can count on. In many ways, the California drought is as much a given as the Kansas tornado or Louisiana hurricane. Many people remember the drought of 1986-91 and the more recent one of 2006-2011 for their devastation, particularly to agriculture. Now we find ourselves in yet another drought, experiencing what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has called our worst dry spell on record. On January 17 Governor Jerry Brown declared it an emergency, and the drought has begun to take a toll on the lives of ordinary Californians.
The map to the right, courtesy of the U.S. Drought Monitor, shows the varying levels of drought throughout California. The orange represents “severe,” the red is “extreme,” and the maroon is “exceptional” — the agency’s highest level!
In many California cities, citizens are facing water restrictions with limits on their ability to water lawns. Meanwhile, food prices are way up due to the drought.
“California produces nearly 50 percent of the nation’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts — they’re kind of the nation’s garden,” Denise Gutzmer, a drought impact specialist at National Drought Mitigation Center, told HuffPost. “We’re going to be seeing higher produce prices in the store this summer.”
The problem is hitting farmers hard as they’re receiving virtually no federal water at a time when snow-water content throughout the state is at 29 percent of its typical average. With rainfall in Southern California over the past two years at roughly 60 percent of the average amount, the dryness of the land in many places means that even several significant rainstorms may not generate enough water to cause runoff into the streams and reservoirs to end the drought.
While the problems arising from the periodic droughts surprise no-one, what rankles is the lack of legislation proactively addressing the problem. It almost seems as if the end of a drought is met with a sigh of relief from Sacramento and a spout of wishful thinking that it will never happen again! However, history has shown that droughts are a part of life in California and the economy requires more preparation, particularly as California agriculture has shifted from traditional crops to fruits and nuts which cannot sustain a lack of water for even a short period of time.
Of particular concern is groundwater, which serves as about one-third of California’s water source, but can rise to as much as 60 percent during droughts. Currently, groundwater usage is not significantly governed by state regulations. This is particularly worrying because failure to address this will lead to depletion of aquifers and the collapse of land above them. With the 2009 water bond being rewritten, there’s potential to include ground water legislation in the effort. That would be a critical step to protecting one of California’s most important resources.