California: Dire water crisis amid climate change-driven drought

April 12, 2015

Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, made a dire warning in March: there is only one year's worth of water left in the state's reservoir storage and river basins.

Famiglietti said even nature's oldest water backup supply —groundwater — could be gone soon after the reservoirs dry up.

About 38.8 million people live in California, which produces much of the United States' food. California's drought is throwing the ecology of the region into crisis, and ordinary people are scrambling for ways to help.

Many restaurants have stopped serving table water unless requested by customers. People have stopped flushing toilets willy-nilly, are taking shorter showers, and aren't washing their vehicles as often.

But such measures don't tackle the big questions about what is causing this drought — and what can be done in response.

Climate change and 'mega-droughts'

Scientists recognise that the “mega-droughts” in the US west are the result of climate change. This is producing record-high temperatures on the west coast along with historic cold winters and “mega-storms” in the east.

In an article last year, NASA research scientist Bill Patzert explained that while west coast droughts were not new, climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels has been linked to longer heat waves. Patzert noted: “That wild card wasn't around years ago.”

This year is looking even worse than last year. Rainfall in California is at a record low. Using tree ring data going back hundreds of years, scientists have calculated this year will be the driest in 434 years.

The California Department of Water Resources also reported that snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which naturally refills reservoirs when it melts in the spring and summer, is at between 16- 22% of normal levels.

Less snow also means more wildfires, which are already sweeping across the state at higher-than-average rates. Fires have destroyed 3200 acres since the start of the year, with the main fire season of the year still to come.

All this will impact on crops that are central to industrial food production in the US. Last year, the US Department of Agriculture reported: “Because California is a major producer in the fruit, vegetable, tree nut and dairy sectors, the drought has potential implications for U.S. supplies and prices of affected products in 2014 and beyond.”

In response to the crisis, the state's water conservation measures are aimed at individuals and small businesses, not big agriculture, which sucks up 80% of California water to grow crops — which amount to one third of US produce — in a desert.

Until last year, California had no statewide regulations on drilling deep into ancient aquifers for farmers' fields. As the water levels have dropped, Central Valley growers have sucked these wells dry to produce commodity crops like nuts.

It takes about a gallon of water to grow one almond. One walnut takes almost five gallons of water. Other types of produce grown in California are equally dependent on exorbitant amounts of water to grow — one head of broccoli takes more than five gallons.

Oil and gas

Another industry helping to bring the crisis to a head is oil and gas. Energy giants have swooped into California over the last couple of years to get in on the hydraulic fracturing boom. Fracking pumps huge amounts of water into the earth to release pockets of natural gas and oil.

Despite reports that land in California is sinking by one foot per year due to reservoirs drying up, reports have revealed that oil companies have been pumping wastewater from fracking into groundwater reservoirs and wells. There is even talk of pumping this contaminated water into the sea.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported on February 3 that California regulators allowed oil companies to fill 170 aquifers that could be suitable for drinking or irrigation with fracking waste product. Companies drilled close to another 253 wells that the EPA had considered protected because they were potentially usable aquifers.

California Governor Jerry Brown is expected to sign a bill authorising US$1 billion in spending aimed at alleviating the crisis. The California Senate approved legislating for spending on infrastructure and aid to communities hit hardest by the water crisis, and for fines punishing the illegal diversion of water that hurts fish.

But California lawmakers are talking out of both sides of their mouths when they say they punish illegal “diversions of water” but refuse to go after oil corporations for contaminating the reservoirs and groundwater.

Brown portrays himself as a political leader in implementing environmental practices and pursuing renewable energy. In January, Brown proposed an expansion of California's renewable energy goals from one-third by 2020 to 50% by 2030. But at the same time, California's economy has become more integrated than ever in a national boom in fossil fuel extraction.

This means for those living in California that there is a struggle ahead, and we must prepare for it by uniting forces that can take corporations and politicians who only think about the bottom line while California burns.

Supporters of ecological justice need to fight for sustainable food production, workers' health and safety and indigenous rights.

It is estimated that farmers and the agriculture industry as a whole lost $2.2 billion in profits due to the drought last year, and 17,000 people were thrown out of work.

Rural towns with populations in the thousands, predominantly the working poor, are having to make hard choices about water usage while their groundwater and wells are contaminated by fracking pollution.

Indigenous rights

The rights of indigenous peoples on the Klamath-Trinity basin, including the Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes, are also under fire. Californian tribes have been fighting for years to protect fisheries and salmon populations, with warmer shallower waters causing fish to die off.

Recently, 734 gigalitres of Trinity Reservoir water was diverted to the Sacramento Valley and San Joaquin Valley, drawing the reservoir down to near-record lows. This was despite a federal court ruling in 1979 that entitles tribes to “as much water on the Reservation lands as they need to protect their hunting and fishing rights” for “time immemorial”.

Threats to the river system will grow as California lawmakers push to build new dams, which devastate salmon populations.

In response, Hoopa Valley tribal member Dania Colegrove, from the grassroots Klamath Justice Coalition, told the East Bay Express on March 25: “It's going to be a fight from now on.”

[Abridged from Socialist Worker.]

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