TROUBLED WATERS

Tapped Out

For most Californians, it's a given: Turn on your faucet and water flows out. It makes it easy to take for granted a substance so essential to survival. Anyone who's lived in the Golden State for an extended period of time is familiar with the concept of drought—so much so that residents have become numb to it, brushing aside the severe impact it may have on their most basic needs. As climate change alters California's landscape at an alarming pace, this may no longer be a viable option.

Here are some of the ways drought affects California and its residents.    

Bad Math: The California Equation

Increasing Heat + Less Snowpack for Water Storage + Less Rain + Ag Industry Tapping Into Groundwater = Megadrought

The domino effect: Drought leads to dried-out brush, which becomes fuel for wildfires. Wildfires incinerate brush that would normally absorb rainfall. As a result, during the rainy season, residential areas become flooded. Prolonged periods of flooding can lead to landslides.

“Climate change is screaming into our faces.”

–Dr. Emily Fairfax, assistant professor of environmental science and resource management, CSUCI

Putting Out Fires

Drought and fire are a toxic relationship. As rainfall decreases in California and temperatures rise, a perfect stage is set for a wildfire season that seems to have neither a start nor an end date. Dry soil leads to trees dying off, brush becoming flammable and dried-out vegetation serving as incendiary fuel for wildfires. In a vicious cycle, water that is already in short supply is then needed to put out the fires.

“Typically, you wouldn't see a wildfire until September or October," says Cordie Qualle, interim director of the California Water Institute at California State University, Fresno. “Last year, we had fires all summer. They just kept going and going and going. All that means is you have a very dry watershed that's overgrown. The drought gives you low humidity, low water content. The rest of it has to do with our hot California summers. You've got yourself a big recipe for a fire. It's both a blessing and a curse. From the agricultural side, those hot summers drive our agricultural output. From the forest fires side, it's a disaster."

What many residents might not know is that droughts are actually more costly for the state of California than fires. According to Drought.gov​, “Since 1980, the U.S. has sustained 258 weather and climate disasters where the overall damage costs reached or exceeded $1 billion. Among these, 26 droughts cost the nation at least $249 billion. Only hurricanes were more costly."

One of the reasons many people aren't aware of the economic impact is due to optics. It's not exactly easy to capture a photo of a drought and its implications, while dramatic images of raging fires engulfing residences are quick to catch the public's attention.   

Secondly, drought is categorized and funded differently than other natural catastrophes by the federal government. “The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture issues a drought emergency declaration," says Gillisann Harootunian, Ph.D., executive director of University Initiatives at Fresno State. “With a quick onset disaster like a wildfire or flood, FEMA gets involved instead. A drought has a slow onset with prolonged damage. It's rarely classified as a disaster under the Stafford Act that triggers the massive FEMA response, even though a drought is disastrous economically and lasts a lot longer."

A ramp closed sign sits at the foot of a boat ramp.  

Sinking Land

As the climate warms, rain is unable to freeze, and an increasingly smaller stretch of the Sierra Mountains receives snow, which is a major contributor to California's water supply. We rely on that runoff to fill up reservoirs. When there isn't enough water above ground, we must rely on groundwater.

“In drought years, farmers and ranchers have been pumping water out of the aquifer faster than it can be replenished," says Alison Bridger, Ph.D., professor of Meteorology & Climate Science at San José State University. “And that's led to a lot of sinking—some land has sunk by as much as six feet. Then the aquifer collapses, and once it's collapsed, you can't reinflate. When you break it, you've lost it."

Dr. Harootunian further explains: “As the aquifer is depleted, rocks and soil compact and fall in on themselves, damaging the infrastructure above. Eventually, the subsoil can compact to such an extent that the storage capacity of an aquifer is permanently damaged."

Joe Del Bosque, owner of Del Bosque Farms in the Central Valley and alumnus of Fresno State says farmers are dealing with natural droughts and regulated droughts. A number of regulations have diverted water to the environment to protect smelt and salmon, leaving farmers with a third of the supply they had in 1990.

“As a result, farmers have gone back to groundwater pumping because of the loss of surface water," he says. “Subsidence [the gradual sinking of land] is a big concern. If the California Aqueduct that passes by my land sinks a foot, that canal may lose its capacity to transport water."

“Because it's getting warmer, evaporation will increase, so even if you get the same amount of rainfall, more of it's going to evaporate before it can get into a reservoir or sink into the groundwater.”

–Alison Bridger, Ph.D., San José State

The Price of Food

Drought has a direct impact on the food chain in California and how much consumers are going to pay at the grocery store. Agriculture demands water—and lots of it—whether it be for crops or livestock.

“Normally, ag water is around $40 or $50 an acre-foot [one acre-foot equals approximately 325,851 gallons]," Qualle says. “Because of the drought, it's somewhere around $200 to $1,200 an acre-foot. They're also going to have to charge more because they're paying so much more for the water. That's going to be reflected in prices."

Less water means reduced crops, which will affect availability of certain goods. “Some nut farmers aren't irrigating this year," he continues. “They're basically dropping them on the ground to relieve stress on the trees and trying to keep them alive. What that says is there won't be that much commodity available in the market."

This year, there has been a decrease in the planting of tomatoes due to the drought. That will trickle down to the consumer in the way of more expensive tomato products: pizza sauce, spaghetti sauce, ketchup. “For an average household, that may limit what they can buy," Del Bosque explains. “It's going to impact working-class and lower-income people who are not going to be able to afford the cost of produce."

“As extreme drought claims most of the state, California Governor Gavin Newsom…asked Californians to voluntarily cut their water use by 15 percent.”

–CalMatters

When the Well Runs Dry

Like many other issues, drought often takes a greater toll on low-income communities, where residents depend on private wells for water. There are pockets of these communities throughout California, but the majority are found in the San Joaquin Valley, and a lot of the residents are farmworkers.

“The San Joaquin Valley is very groundwater driven," says Laura Ramos, programs manager at the California Water Institute. “These towns are in danger of having their wells go dry. If their groundwater level drops lower than what the current well is, a new well can cost upward of $50,000. What we saw in the last drought was that there were so many wells going dry that even if these communities had the money, there was nobody to build the well, because everybody had a backlog of three or four months. There are some programs offered by the state of California to help those disadvantaged communities, but sometimes there's not much that can be done if there isn't water underneath them."

STORY: MICHELLE MCCARTHY

PHOTOGRAPHY: Patrick Record

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