In April of last year, during the the annual snowpack survey at the Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada mountains, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) stood on a dry, brown meadow to address reporters. He had a serious look. For the first time since measurements began in 1942, there was no snow to measure.
“We’re standing on dry grass, and we should be standing in five feet of snow,” Brown said. “We’re in an historic drought, and that demands unprecedented action.”
With that Brown went on to announce the state’s first-ever mandatory water restrictions for potable water users. The water diet was ambitious: a 25 percent reduction compared with 2013 consumption levels statewide. “People should realize we’re in a new era,” Brown said. “The idea of your nice little green grass getting lots of water every day, that’s going to be a thing of the past.”
Last summer, the state’s water board had taken the governor’s executive order and crafted a set of rules for water providers that quickly proved successful. By the end of that summer, statewide water consumption dropped by 31 percent, and as months unfolded, conservation goals were largely met.
Now, however, the most recent state figures show that water conservation is declining, although California is moving into its sixth year of a historic drought. In fact, conservation dropped for the third consecutive month in August, the California State Water Resources Control Board said in a press release Wednesday. Statewide, August water savings were 36 percent lower than a year before.
This comes some six months after the water board started to relax water restrictions, dropping some water districts’ conservation standards slightly as a powerful El Niño was expected to bring an unusually wet winter.
But El Niño was weaker than expected, and northern California got rains just slightly above average. Snowpack, California’s most important water reservoir, replenished but only reached short to normal levels. Still, in June the water board updated mandatory conservation targets, allowing most water suppliers to set conservation standards at 0 percent based on a “stress test” that evaluates whether a water district can meet demand for three years.
In August, 343 of the state’s 411 water districts reported having enough water to meet their customers’ demands, the Los Angeles Times reported. “A bit of relaxation is OK,” water board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said then. “Abandoning water conservation is not.”
Officials have said they will monitor conservation data in the coming months and could bring back mandatory conservation standards next year if the drought persists. If that’s the rationale, then California may be well on its way to forced standards.
In the meantime, people in places like Malibu and Coachella are back to using a disproportionate amount of water — on average 300 gallons a day — compared to an average of 84 gallons in areas like Los Angeles.
Looking ahead, however, the outlook is grim. A study published this week found that regional temperature increases associated with global warming push megadrought risks for the southwestern United States to as much as 99 percent by the end of the century.
Megadrought is defined in the study as a 35-year period of aridity that compares to the worst droughts of the 20th century. A good example of such drought would be the “Dust Bowl” droughts seen in the United States in the 1930s that forced mass migrations. According to the study, rising temperatures is the main cause in increasing the likelihood of a megadrought.
“Future megadrought risk depends strongly on temperature, hence reducing global carbon emissions will limit the total amount of regional temperature change and ultimately lower the risk of megadrought,” lead author Toby Ault, assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Cornell University, told Carbon Brief.
Previous studies have also shown the Sierra Nevada snowpacks that feed California’s two major water supply networks are projected to decline to as much as 40 percent by 2050, relative to historical averages. And that by 2100, California could see a snowpack reduction of 50 percent to more than 75 percent.
Such declines are poised to be catastrophic not just for the residential water user, but also for the state agricultural industry that produces nearly half of U.S.-grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Moreover, farmers will likely depend even more on groundwater that is already quickly depleting as farmers facing water curtailments have resorted to drilling more, and deeper, wells in recent years.
“It’s a business. I’ll make no apologies for trying to stay in business and being successful,” Wayne Western Jr., a wine grape grower Fresno County, told the Sacramento Bee late last month. Western — like many other farmers near the central San Joaquin Valley — has increasingly turned to well water during the drought, a resource that is difficult to manage.
According to a Sacramento Bee analysis, San Joaquin Valley farmers dug some 2,500 wells last year, which is five times the annual average for the previous 30 years, and by far the highest number on record.
Brown did sign a bill two years ago that limits groundwater pumping. However, the law doesn’t take effect until 2020 and takes 20 years to reach full implementation.
Meanwhile, researchers like James Hansen, former NASA director and now a prominent climate activist, warn that countries are not doing enough to limit warming to 1.5°C, which in theory would help the planet avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change like increased risk of megadroughts.
Just this week Hansen said in a study (currently awaiting peer review) that staying below 1.5°C established by the Paris Agreement requires negative carbon dioxide emissions, in other words, taking carbon out of the environment.