Still Drowning in Dry: The Current State of California’s Drought

Envision your daily routine; taking a shower, having some coffee, eating some fruit, getting dressed, and driving to work. Now think of all the activities you do in your routine that involve water, and not just the obvious, water is used in almost every process to produce the commodities and services you use throughout your day.

Now imagine what your daily routine would be like with a drastic reduction of water or even no water; probably won’t be showering every day or drinking coffee, and maybe you won’t even have your fruit because it is too expensive to purchase. It’s hard to imagine the full scope of what our lives would be like with little to no water involved in it, yet this is something that Californians are quickly starting to experience—no imagination necessary.

Drought ImageCalifornia is in its fourth year of drought and the lack of snowpack in the Sierra is not just costing the region but the entire state. Snowpack from the Sierra provides California with one third of its developed water supply and currently it is 75 percent below historical averages—limiting water usage to downstream communities including the San Francisco Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley, and Los Angeles, along with the state’s main agricultural producers. The extreme drought has left several communities without running water and has led to discussion of criminal penalties for inappropriate use of the state’s most precious commodity. 

The Sierra—known for some of the heaviest snowfall in the world—experiences an average annual precipitation of 40-80 inches; average annual snowfall of 48-72 inches; and an average maximum snow depth of 84 inches. This year’s precipitation is 25% less than previous recorded years; snow cover 15% less and two of the state’s largest reservoirs contain less than 40% of their capacity, with Lake Oroville five feet from its record low (645 ft.) just a couple months ago. Lake Oroville can store up to 3,537,580 acre feet of water (equivalent to 1.153 trillion gallons of water) and generates more than 2.8 billion kilowatt-hours of power to the state, but on January 29 of this year, Oroville held about 1.44 million acre-feet while the long-term historical average for that date is 2.32 million acre-feet.Drought OH4

Lake Oroville isn’t the only lake experiencing the wrath of drought: Lake Tahoe, the gem of the Sierra, is currently a full foot below it’s natural rim. That is a rough estimate of 235 billion gallons lost, enough water to provide 6.5 million people with water for one year.  As Lake levels continue to drop with the warming weather, Tahoe will no longer drain into the Lower Truckee River, which supplies 90% of neighboring Reno, Nevada’s water. 

The lake’s low levels have forced the closure of multiple boat ramps and cruises like the Tahoe Queen and Paradise, unable to operate in the shallow water. Among cruise closures, other tourist generating capital like Squaw Valley’s World Cup Skicross and Snowboardcross races have been canceled due to the lack of snow. This year Squaw has recorded less than half its annual average of snowpack at 140 inches of snow on its 8,200-foot summit, in comparison to its average of 450 inches. Squaw isn’t the only resort feeling the burn; ski resort owners throughout the region are watching as their businesses take major hits due to poor snow coverage and conditions. Resorts like Homewood, Donner Ski Ranch, and Yosemite’s Badger Pass Mt. Baldy Ski Lifts have had to close or “temporarily halt” their operations because of bare runs. Temperatures are even too high for snow to be mechanically generated.

The drought is not just bad news for tourists seeking refuge from the city or locals eager to hit the slopes; this is devastating to the economies that these ventures support. This kind of impact trickles down into all local businesses, from the restaurant and hospitality industry to snow removal services and mom and pop shops selling winter sporting goods. Whole communities’ livelihoods are being impacted by the drought—and not just in the mountains.

The world is affected by California’s drought.Drought OH3

California is the country’s largest agricultural producer and exporter accounting for 17.3 percent of total U.S. agricultural output and (the 7th largest economy in the world)providing 3 million jobs through the agriculture value chain. In 2013 the state’s value of agricultural output was 46.7 billion dollars with total U.S. output valued at 269.1 billion dollars. The state is not only the top producer for the nation but is considered the breadbasket of the world exporting agricultural products to more than 156 countries and accounting for 80 percent of the world’s almonds, and 40 percent of the world’s pistachios. 

It is projected the drought will cause the fallow of 410,000 acres, resulting in the loss of 17,100 seasonal or part-time jobs and costing the state an estimated 2.2 billion dollars. The Sierra supplies water to more than one third of these agricultural operations and four of the top 5 counties of agricultural sales are in the Sierra Nevada. With 41.2 percent of the state in “exceptional drought (including the majority of the Sierra) the agriculture industry will continue to take an uncompromising toll that will affect the world.

The Breakdown:

* California has been in a drought State of Emergency since January 17, 2014

* California’s developed water supply is 75 percent below historical averages

* The state’s largest reservoirs are at less than 40 percent capacity

* If Lake Tahoe water levels continue to drop, it will no longer drain into the Lower Truckee River, which supplies Reno and Sparks with 90% of their water

 * Sierra Nevada snowpack is at 21 percent– a decrease in 58 percent from 2013/14

* The world will be affected by the decline of California’s agricultural industry, costing the state a projected 2.2 billion dollars

* As of December 2014 it has been projected it will take 11 trillion gallons of water—around 1.5 times the maximum volume of the largest U.S. reservoir—to recover from California’s drought 

Drought OH5Though these bullet points help paint the picture of the drought, they by no means encompass the entirety of the desperate situation we are in.

California has been racing against rising temperatures to increase water conservation and prepare the state for more years of drought. The state leads the nation in climate change policy and adaptation, and is soon to be the leader of water conservation. However, it is not enough.

Our state suffers from a thirst that cannot be quenched. We find consolation in that there have been hotter years, lower water levels, longer droughts and use it as a way to dismiss the urgency of the conditions we are in, relying on hope to fill our reservoirs and cool our state. Like we did when the drought started, and like we did last year when conditions seemed their worst; we can hope—hope for a wet winter, hope for more snow, more rain, hope it’ll be enough to pull the state out of drought—but we can and must also act by reducing our personal use, local use, and statewide use.

So let’s act and let’s hope, hope that our lives imagined without water will not become a reality we have to live.