With No End In Sight, California’s Drought Endangers Public Health

CREDIT: AP Photo / Jacquelyn Martin

Secret Service agents keep watch as President Barack Obama tours a local farm in Los Banos, California.

California’s drought isn’t just threatening the state’s drinking water, officials told Reuters Tuesday. It’s threatening residents’ health.

Specifically, millions of Californians rely on wells and other underground sources for their drinking water. As levels decrease, contaminants in the water become more concentrated, as there’s less water to dilute them.

“Many groundwater basins in California are contaminated, for example with nitrates from over application of nitrogen fertilizer or concentrated animal feeding operations, with industrial chemicals, with chemicals from oil extraction or due to natural contaminants with chemicals such as arsenic,” Linda Rudolph, co-director for the Center for Climate Change and Health in Oakland, told Reuters.

Last year, California identified 183 communities relying on contaminated drinking water, and sent help to 22 of them to bring their supplies and infrastructure into compliance with environmental guidelines. The remaining communities are still in the process of updating their systems.

Jerry Brown, the state’s governor, declared a state of emergency last month thanks to the drought. And public health officials said they were targeting 10 communities for immediate relief — by bringing in freshwater supplies by vehicle and laying new piping — as they were in danger of running out of freshwater within 60 days.

In addition to water contamination, drought conditions also turn creeks and ponds into stagnant pools, allowing more mosquitoes to breed and threaten local populations with disease. The dry and dusty conditions also exacerbate asthma and lung problems.

President Obama announced almost $200 million in aid for California several days ago. And last week, he called on Congress to create a $1 billion climate resilience fund to aid California and other states buffeted by extreme weather.

Obama and White House officials have also explicitly linked the drought to the climate change that results from man-made global warming. Higher temperatures generally mean faster evaporation and drier conditions in dry areas. Rainfall patterns also shift, leading to longer dry spells interspersed with heavier deluges — wetter areas get wetter and drier areas get drier, which is especially dangerous for California’s southeast. Those changes also mean that when precipitation does come, there’s less time for it to add to snowpack and soak into the ground, which means reduced freshwater supplies.

On top of that, there’s evidence that increased sea ice melt in the northeastern Pacific is altering climate patterns in such a way that storm systems are diverted around California and the west coast, drying out the region even further.

California’s annual dry season begins April 1. At this point, the National Weather Service says the chance that enough rain will fall before then to qualify as an “average” wet season are about one in one thousand. That’s a drop from a one in two hundred estimate back in January. In short, the state’s drought will almost certainly continue through most of this year.