What California’s Drought Means to the Sierra

As you know by now, California’s Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency for the state earlier today in response to what has been the driest water year on record in the state. Precipitation is at 19% of normal to date in the Northern Sierra region and only 7% of average for the whole water year (Oct. 1 through Sept. 30), according to the Department of Water Resources.

drought california mapAs you’d expect, Sierra snowpack is alarmingly low, at 20% of average-to-date for January 1st. In the northern Sierra, recent measurements show only 11% of normal snowpack, with 21% of normal in the central region and roughly 30% in the south.

Communities around the state are under voluntary or mandatory water use restrictions; fish species like the fall-run salmon are at risk; agriculture is feeling the impact of low rainfall and reduced water deliveries from the State Water Project (estimated at 5% of the requested amount for calendar-year 2014, the lowest initial allocation ever); and the recreation and tourism economy is clearly hurting, with ski resorts like Royal Gorge temporarily closing due to lack of snow.

The Governor’s declaration of a State of Emergency directs state officials to take all necessary actions to prepare for these drought conditions. “We can’t make it rain, but we can be much better prepared for the terrible consequences that California’s drought now threatens,” the Governor said. Those consequences would include: dramatically less water for farms and communities and increased risk of fires like the Rim Fire that can impact both urban and rural areas.

California Senator Dianne Feinstein echoed the Governor’s declaration, “applaud[ing]” his decision and calling on the President to take similar action, including appointing a drought task force to work with the state on mitigating the drought’s effects.

COMM KT blogImage 2014 01While the Governor called on “all Californians to conserve water in every way possible,” (for information on things you can do both inside and outside your home, check the Save Our Water website), there are things the state needs to do, as well, including protecting its source watershed – the Sierra Nevada. The Sierra provides all or part of the drinking water for more than 23 million people, and irrigates one-third of California’s agricultural land. Sierra Nevada water also makes up half the inflow to the Delta, California’s water “hub.” 

Many of the major Sierra watersheds have high to very-high risk of fire due to excess fuel, or biomass material, such as small trees, branches, downed wood, etc. This excess material can fuel wildfires, making them larger and more severe – destroying stored carbon, burning up habitat, rendering large areas unfit for recreation and tourism, and even disrupting water and power. This is, in fact, why the Governor had to declare yet another state of emergency for the City of San Francisco during last summer’s Rim Fire – because of the threat to Hetch Hetchy reservoir that provides over 85% of that city’s water.

SBC has been meeting with legislative staff in Sacramento to remind them about the importance of the Sierra to the rest of the state and to discuss various investment tools, including the 2014 water bond, that can help improve water quality and quantity for the rest of the State.

All Californians share the need for predictable, clean and abundant supplies of water, air and energy, along with the many other benefits of forested watersheds. SBC firmly believes the state should be investing in protection and enhancement of these important resources. Our future depends on it.

Photo Courtesy of the California Department of Water Resources