Ben Chou, Water Policy Analyst, Washington, D.C.
There’s been no hiding from the fact that the ongoing lack of rain and meager snowpack has led to widespread drought in California. The last snow survey this year (taken just last week) showed that statewide snowpack was just 18 percent of normal—that’s an astonishing 82 percent below what we typically have at this time of the year. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM), 100 percent of California is now experiencing moderate to exceptional drought conditions—the first time that has occurred in the fifteen-year monitoring history of the USDM.
Dry riverbed near Bakersfield, CA | USDA
Record-breaking rainfall lows coupled with record-breaking high temperatures this winter have had dire impacts on streamflow in major rivers and water reservoir levels throughout the state. This year’s “wet season” in California has been anything but, leading Governor Brown to renew his call for all Californians to conserve water now that we’re entering the typically driest and hottest summer months.
As if the ongoing drought weren’t bad enough, the federal government today released the newest National Climate Assessment (NCA) report, compiling the latest scientific research on climate change impacts and projected risks for the U.S. What’s in store for California (in the Southwest chapter) is alarming:
- Annual average temperatures are projected to rise 2°F to 6°F in the coming decades and by 5°F to 9°F by the end of the century, making summertime highs in the 90s in the LA metro area the new normal and summer heat waves both longer and hotter.
- Declines in snowpack of more than 30 percent in the coming decades and subsequent reductions in streamflow will decrease water supplies for cities, agriculture, and ecosystems, particularly during the spring and summer when water needs are greatest.
- Hotter temperatures and increasing water scarcity will reduce crop yields and displace jobs in some rural communities.
- Across the western U.S., the area burned by wildfires has increased by 650 percent due to warmer temperatures and drought. Wildfire risks for people and ecosystems only will grow worse—models project up to 74 percent more fires in the state.
Californians are already struggling with the changes, from more intense droughts to dwindling water supplies—the very climate impacts projected to worsen in the near future. But we can make investments in common sense solutions right now by:
- Reducing reliance on exported water and expensive, new reservoirs;
- Improving urban and agricultural water use efficiency;
- Increasing use of gray water and recycled water; and
- Using green infrastructure to capture rainwater.
This suite of 21st century, sustainable solutions not only will help us cope with the drought conditions of today but also better protect our communities from the hotter and drier days we can expect in the years ahead.
However, treating the symptoms alone will not be enough. We also must address the underlying cause of climate change by supporting EPA action to reduce emissions of heat-trapping carbon pollution from major sources like power plants. Together, these solutions can help us weather the challenges we face right now and help build more sustainable and resilient communities for future generations of Californians.