Sunday, February 22, 2009

California Drought

The dam at Folsom Lake sits high and dry in mid January this year.
[click images to enlarge]

The current drought gripping California began with the dry winter of the 2006-2007 season. That year saw the rainfall in the central valley at only 25% of normal, although the snowpack fared better, leaving reservoirs at the lowest level in decades. That year, throughout central California ranchers were forced to reduce their herds due to poor grazing conditions and shortage of feed due to the drought.

The 2007-2008 season, although showing a promising start, ended up with little or no rain throughout February and March. The lack of precipitation in what are typically our wettest months caused Governor Schwarzenegger to declare a drought on June 4th of 2008, followed a week later with an emergency declaration for several central valley counties.

This year the outlook is even worse. A snow survey taken the last week of January showed the water content to be only 65% of normal for this time of year. Recent storms in the last week have helped some, but water projections for the coming year are dismal.

Lake Oroville, one of northern California's largest reservoirs, is at its lowest storage level since the drought of 1977 and statewide reservoirs are predicted to be at less than half capacity.

Throughout California all of the reservoirs are well below the historic average level for this time of year. (Red arrows represent normal)

Although the drought is statewide, the coastal ranges and central valley are in dire straights with northern California gripped in an extreme drought.

Little relief is forecast from this season's stream flows.

This past Friday a plea was sent out to all cities to conserve 20% of water usage and it was announced that water deliveries to agriculture would be only 15% of normal this year. The Fresno Bee reports:
"Water is our life - it's our jobs and it's our food," said Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the farm bureau in Fresno County. "Without a reliable water supply, Fresno County's No. 1 employer - agriculture - is at great risk."

The drought would cause an estimated $1.15 billion dollar loss in agriculture-related wages and eliminate as many as 40,000 jobs in farm-related industries in the San Joaquin Valley alone, where most of the nation's produce and nut crops are grown, said Lester Snow, director of the Department of Water Resources.

Other hard decisions will need to be made regarding the future of several species in the delta estuaries. The battle between the farmers and the environmentalists began in earnest last year as Time Magazine reports:
Last August, a Federal court set limits on pumping from the Delta, in an attempt to help endangered smelt fish. In a further measure to protect smelt, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced just last week it would cut San Joaquin Valley farm water supplies to 40% of the contracted amount. Many of the farmers in the region have been allotted only one sixth of the water supply they need to sustain their crops through the crucial summer months. "This is a death sentence," says almond and wine farmer Shawn Coburn.

And the local farmers are particularly bitter at the environmental priorities governing water use. "We're looking after fish, and yet we're losing crops," says almond farmer Cort Blackburn. "You cannot put the fish in front of all the people." Chris Cardella, a farmer on the east side of Firebaugh, agrees: "We need legislature to overrule all our environmental impacts because humans come first over fish." California Farm Bureau Federation President Doug Mosebar dismisses such "myopic" thinking: "If we're assisting the fish, we're also assisting our food production." He hopes this crisis will spawn better infrastructure for moving and storing water. "We're at a crossroads right now," he says. "This is a wakeup call."

The economic impacts are astronomical in lost production and lost jobs. Without water the fields will lay fallow as MSNBC reports:
"The consequences are expected to be pretty horrible in terms of farmers' revenue, but what's really disconcerting are the possible job losses," said Wendy Martin, who leads the agency's drought division. "Those communities that can least weather an economic downturn are going to be some of the places that are hit the hardest."

Richard Howitt, a professor of agriculture economics at the University of California, Davis, estimates that $1.6 billion in agriculture-related wages, and as many as 60,000 jobs across the valley will be lost in the coming months due to dwindling water.

Analysts haven't yet provided any estimates of crop losses this year. But Bill Diedrich, an almond grower on the valley's parched western edge, said he's already worried he may lose some of his nut trees in the drought.

"The real story here is food security," Diedrich told Milligan and other officials speaking at a conference in Reno, Nev. "It's an absolute emergency and anything to get water flowing quickly is needed."

The effects also ripple through the entire economy as the New York Times reports:
Across the valley, towns are already seeing some of the worst unemployment in the country, with rates three and four times the national average, as well as reported increases in all manner of social ills: drug use, excessive drinking and rises in hunger and domestic violence.

With fewer checks to cash, even check-cashing businesses have failed, as have thrift stores, ice cream parlors and hardware shops. The state has put the 2008 drought losses at more than $300 million, and economists predict that this year’s losses could swell past $2 billion, with as many as 80,000 jobs lost.

“People are saying, ‘Are you a third world country?’ ” said Robert Silva, the mayor of Mendota, which has a 35 percent unemployment rate, up from the more typical seasonal average of about 20 percent. “My community is dying on the vine.”

Compounding the problem is the call from the Federal Government to reduce transport of fresh water out of the delta system to preserve the salmon and Delta Smelt populations. Low flows in the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers cause saltwater intrusion into the delta harming the smelt and warm water flows in which the salmon can't spawn successfully. The Natural Resources Defense Council reports:
“Fish need water to survive,” said Doug Obegi, staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Today’s opinion reflects the conclusion of numerous scientists and the Governor’s own task force, who all agree that the delta smelt need additional protections to keep them from going extinct. The opinion requires the state and federal water projects to operate in a more environmentally sustainable manner that better protects delta smelt, salmon, and the fishermen and farmers who depend on healthy fisheries and clean water.”

Additional Resources
Photos of Folsom Lake drought conditions
US Drought Monitor
Califorina Department of Water Resources
Current reservoir conditions

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