California’s Water Crisis

Global Climate Change affects every part of the United States.  In California, there are two major climate-change consequences: ferocious wildfires and drought.  When I lived in a city (Berkeley) i felt somewhat immune from these problems.  Now that I live in the country (West Sonoma County) the impact is more obvious.  This year we’re having a water crisis.

When we bought our rural property, we didn’t think much about our water supply.  We had a well and all our neighbors had wells.  Then, several summers ago, we learned that some of our neighbors’ wells had failed and they were having water trucked in.

The water situation in California is VERY complicated, but millions of Golden-State families rely upon groundwater wells and, this summer, many of these are drying up.  (Roughly one-third of California’s 40 million residents rely upon groundwater for their household needs.)  This is happening throughout the state but is most critical in the eastern part of the Central valley — roughly the area that extends from Sacramento to Bakersfield.

The two-thirds of Californians that do not rely upon groundwater for their personal needs, have access to systems that redeploy surface water; that is, water systems that capture rain water and distribute it from one of California’s ten drainage basins — Sonoma County utilizes water from the “North Coast” system.  This year, because of subnormal rainfall, these drainage basins are all severely below capacity.

Historically, the northern part of California is much wetter than the south: “75 percent of California’s available water is in the northern third of the state (north of Sacramento), while 80 percent of the urban and agricultural water demands are in the southern two-thirds of the state… California has more irrigated acreage than any other state, thanks to massive water projects that include dams, reservoirs, aqueducts and canals to deliver water to users, especially in the central and southern portions of the state.” (https://www.watereducation.org/photo-gallery/california-water-101 )  Southern California also gets significant water from the Colorado River.  In addition, San Diego County gets water from the massive Carlsbad Desalination plant.

Earlier this month, California Governor Gavin Newsom extended emergency drought orders to 41 counties across the golden state; 73 percent of the state falls into the most serious drought categories: “severe” or “extreme.”  2020-21 rainfall was lower than expected, particularly in the northern part of the state.  On April 1, the date when the snow is normally deepest, statewide snowpack was just 59 percent of the historical average.  Particularly in the north, reservoirs are much lower than normal.

There are (at least) four aspects of California’s water crisis:

1.Failing public water systems: Even before the 2020-21 drought, a California Water Board study (https://www.ppic.org/blog/a-look-at-californias-safe-and-affordable-drinking-water-gaps/?) found “a funding gap of $4.6 billion to resolve safe drinking water problems over the next five years… The study assessed public water systems currently out of compliance, public systems at risk, and communities served by very small systems, domestic wells, and tribal systems. Among the publicly regulated systems, we found that 326 were failing and 617 were at risk of failing.. Many of the state’s troubled systems are concentrated in the San Joaquin Valley,” This finding indicates that groundwater-based systems are failing; particularly in the eastern part of the state.

2. Depleted reservoirs.  A recent survey found that California’s reservoirs are currently at 50 percent of their rated capacity.  ( https://engaging-data.com/ca-reservoir-dashboard/)  (And 64 percent of their historic capacity at the end of May.)  This situation is particularly troubling for the big reservoirs in Northern California.  For example, the mammoth Shasta reservoir is at 44 percent of capacity (and 51 percent of its historic capacity for the end of May.)

3. Over-taxed rivers.  Although much of California’s agricultural needs are are served by wells — roughly 50 percent — and water transported via aqueducts and canals, a substantial amount is water deployed from rivers.  The largest rivers within California (Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Russian) are severely depleted.  The Sacramento Bee (https://www.sacbee.com/news/california/water-and-drought/article251654333.html#storylink=cpy) reported: “The federal government Wednesday said municipal water agencies that belong to the Central Valley Project will receive just 25% of their allocations, down from the previously announced 55%.”

To make things worse, the Colorado River — which provides water to Southern California — is nearing historic lows. (https://www.cnn.com/2021/05/27/weather/lake-mead-colorado-river-shortage/index.html )

4. Conflicting water rights: During periods of drought, the ancient California bugaboo — water rights — reemerges.  In many areas of the state, there are conflicting claims to groundwater — particularly rivers which historically have been oversubscribed.  (It’s estimated that portions of the San Joaquin River have been oversubscribed by 800 percent.)  This situation leads to hostile disputes and, occasionally, violence.  (https://www.alternet.org/2021/05/bundy/ )

Bottom line: This summer is going to see a severe water crisis in California.  Some areas of the state are going to see water consumption cut to 25 percent of normal.  This situation is going to impact all aspects of the state’s economy, particularly agriculture.