On Friday, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in the Golden State, asking residents to cut back water use by 20 percent.
“We’re facing perhaps the worst drought that California has ever seen since records began being kept about a hundred years ago,” Brown said. “Hopefully it will rain eventually but in the meantime we have to do our part… make it easier to transfer water from one part of the state to the other so that farmers, particularly those with permanent crops can keep them alive.”
This declaration makes it easier for the state to ask the federal government for aid, and does several things to facilitate the flexible management and transportation of water resources within the state. The state must now hire more seasonal firefighters, and stop new, nonessential landscaping on public property. Lawmakers of both parties welcomed the declaration.
Water restrictions could become mandatory this summer if a rain-blocking, 13-month-strong high-pressure ridge off the California coast does not move in the next few months. Many reservoirs are running at or below half of normal. This includes the state’s largest reservoir, Lake Shasta. On Thursday, outside of San Francisco, Marin County officials began drawing from one of two backup reservoirs.
January and February are supposed to be the wettest months of the year.
Though much of the rest of the country has been dealing with colder temperatures and the effects of the polar vortex, California has been breaking heat records in January. San Francisco Airport had its hottest January day on record on Wednesday. On top of the record heat, the state has also had to deal with its driest year in history in 2013. This could impact the entire country — California is America’s agricultural leader, and the important sector uses 77 percent of the state’s water.
The U.S. Drought Monitor reported on Thursday that 98.57 percent of California was “abnormally dry,” and 62.71 percent was in “extreme drought.” That number is by far the highest ever recorded since the inception of the drought monitor in 2000 — two weeks ago the extreme drought percentage was at just 27 percent.
CREDIT: The National Drought Mitigation Center
Greenhouse gas-driven climate change has made droughts worse all over the world and in the U.S. “Climate change is not just some abstract scientific debate,” said California EPA Secretary Matt Rodriquez in August when his agency issued a report showing how the state was already hurting from climate impacts. “It’s real, and it’s already here.” Much of the state’s water is stored in the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains. If it’s too warm or dry for snow to fall or stick around, then there is less snow to melt in the spring, and drained reservoirs will get little relief.
Snow surveyors went into the Sierra Nevadas two weeks ago and found that the snowpack was at 20 percent to 15 percent of normal levels for this time of year. In 2009, when Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that the worst case scenario for California was losing 90 percent of the snowpack in the Sierras, climate deniers made the case he didn’t know what he was talking about. With a drop of another ten percent of normal levels, Chu’s worst-case scenario will come to pass.
It’s not just that extreme drought will devastate California agriculture, impact industry and power plants, and seriously impact families. Drought conditions make firefighting extremely difficult. Indeed, for the first time in history, the National Weather Service issued a red flag fire warning for Kern County in the month of January on Wednesday.
Firefighters said on Friday that they were getting the upper hand on the Colby Wildfire in suburbs northeast of Los Angeles after thousands were forced from their homes. Almost 1,200 firefighters, 150 engines, nine helicopters and four air tankers responded to the blaze. Three men were arrested for using paper to start a campfire just before a breeze kicked up and started the fire.
Los Angeles received 3.4 inches of rain in all of 2013 — the yearly average is almost five times that level.