Putting a Human Face on California’s Drought

Earlier this month I posted a Sacramento Bee article on Sierra Business Council’s Facebook page that described how January’s snowpack measurements, combined with the record-breaking dryness of 2013, indicate that California is facing one of its worst droughts in recorded history. Along with the article on Facebook I posed a direct question asking, “How has the drought affected you and yours?” I naively assumed that the majority of the comments we would receive would be from frustrated skiers or snowboarders who regretted purchasing a season pass at one of the Sierra’s resorts. What we got was a serious dose of reality.

COMM BT BlogImage 3 2014 01The comments started predictably enough:

“My season pass is weeping”

“Powder skiing rates at the top of our favorite sports…”

…and then the thread took a turn. We went from shedding tears for powder to a ski patroller realizing he may need to find a new profession because he had yet to be called in to work, a vacation rental business facing the possibility of forced layoffs, and a cattle rancher tragically stating, “We’re screwed. Our cattle are starving.”

These comments weighed heavily on me for the rest of the day, into the night, and have stayed with me up to the writing of this blog post. I felt guilt for having worried about wasting money on a snowboarding season that may never really arrive while individual employees, business owners, ranchers and farmers are struggling with legitimate fears for their livelihood.

And the posters on our social media thread are far from alone. Across the Sierra Nevada and California, many individuals and their families are facing an increasingly uncertain future. It’s estimated that in Fresno County, over 200,000 acres of rich agricultural land will go unplanted. In addition, a growing number of residents who work in the Sierra’s tourism industry, whether at ski resorts, restaurants or hotels, are seeing their hours cut or are facing layoffs. Ranchers and dairy farmers are grappling with the decision to sell off parts of their herds, and Californians as a group are being asked to reduce our water usage by 20 percent. Those who still have lawns may just have to watch them die and turn to dust.

There’s no question: this drought is affecting every single one of us. But it’s affecting some of us significantly more severely than others. For better or for worse, many native Californians have grown somewhat accustomed to the occasional years of water rationing. Similar to wildfires, droughts are just a part of California’s culture.

The 1976-1977 drought, which brought on momentous rationing and shut down agricultural operations in parts of the Central Valley, stands out in the memories of many a resident who lived through it. Unfortunately, the conditions we see today are already drawing comparisons to that period. Thankfully we can at least look back at the devastating water shortages of that time and recognize the collaborative efforts of the California community and the substantial changes in water management that were implemented as a result.

Currently, it is difficult to imagine finding a silver lining amidst all of this dry, frozen dust. One of the responders to our social media post, however, managed to do just that: she wrote that while there’s an abundance of obvious negatives, “on the positive side, we are enjoying the hiking and our three little terriers are not adding to their waistlines with all of this exercise they are still getting.” With an outlook like that and a commitment to support our struggling community members in any way we can (nothing unites a community like a common challenge, right?), one can hope that we will be able to mitigate the worst of the impacts and make it through this drought yet.

If you have knowledge or suggestions for how to help our neighbors and communities endure the drought, please let everyone know in the comments section below.