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California Drought or Not? Taps Turned on in Parched State

Less than two weeks after Gov. Jerry Brown (D) told California the state’s four-year drought showed no signs of letting up and permanent water conservation measures were needed, the State Water Resources Control Board decided to lift the statewide rules.

Regional and local water officials can now decide how best to conserve water in their regions.

The same day the water board issued its directive, the U.S. Geological Survey released a study that showed California’s lawn-burning drought showed no signs of a permanent reversal.

But a reversal is just what the water board did May 18.

Many reservoirs are at least partially filled with water. The mountain snowpacks are back. Northern California isn’t as dry as it was for more than four years thanks to a winter of steady rains.

But still, Gov. Brown said his state was going to have to get used to living with less water.

“Californians stepped up during this drought and saved more water than ever before,” Gov. Brown said in a statement. “But now we know that drought is becoming a regular occurrence and water conservation must be a part of our everyday life.”

Gov. Brown issued an executive order in April 2015 mandating a reduction in water use. California responded by cutting the use of potable water by 24 percent compared with 2013.

Since June 2015, urban water districts across California were ordered to cut water usage by an average of 25 percent.

The restrictions were based on water usage rates. Communities that used the most water were targeted for the largest cuts. While the average was 25 percent, Modesto, Calif., was ordered to reduce water consumption by 36 percent.

The state water board believes it’s time for that to end, at least temporarily. The old rules have been replaced by a “self-certification process.” Water districts will be able to forecast their own water supply and demand for the next three years, and reduce water use accordingly.

“We are still in a drought, but we are no longer in the worst-snow-pack-in-500-years drought,” said Felicia Marcus, the head of the state water board.

“We had thought we are heading toward a cliff. We were worried we were in our own Australian millennial drought. We wanted to make sure people didn’t keep pouring water on their lawns with wild abandon,” she added.

Michael Cooke, the municipal services director of Turlock, told the Modesto Bee it’s too early to declare the emergency over where it hardly ever rains, in Southern California.

“They see reservoirs filling up, and they think the drought is over, but us with our groundwater systems, we haven’t seen any recovery in the aquifer yet,” he said.

The U.S. Geological Survey is on board with that sentiment.

The USGS released a study May 18 — the same day the water board eased up on water use restrictions — that echoed Gov. Brown’s statement: the water supply in California is never going to get any better.

Of course, never is a really long time. There could be blips on the radar screen to come when Californians are dancing in the rain, like the kids in an old Coca-Cola commercial.

But for the most part, no. That is not going to happen.

“If past patterns of California land-use change continue, projected water needs by the year 2062 will increase beyond current supply. If historical trends of land use changes to or from urban, agricultural or other uses continue, the result will be increased water-use demand beyond what existing supplies can provide. Large uncertainties associated with weather and climate variability have the potential to exacerbate the problem,” the USGS report said.

“The reality is California’s water demands outpace supply, and the precipitation this winter did not change that,” said the co-author of the USGS study, Dick Cameron, associate director for Science, Land Conservation Program at the Nature Conservancy in California.

The USGS study shows the problem is not with how much rain or snow might or might not fall; rather, California is creating its own crisis by the way land is being used.

The study showed projecting land-use change data for California over the 50 years from 2012 to 2062 revealed the following potential changes:

* Large increase in urban area: 2 million acres of newly developed land over 50 years – a net increase of 40,000 acres a year – the equivalent of adding an area just larger than the city of Stockton each year.

* Large amount of grassland habitat loss of 1.1 million acres over 50 years, despite continued protection at the historical rate. This loss will also exacerbate challenges in preserving and recharging aquifers.

* An overall 4 percent increase in water supply demand (applied water) within the study area due to urbanization and expansion of orchards and vineyards.

* Large shifts from annual to perennial crops, which removes flexibility in irrigation demand during drought. While annual-crop water demand dropped 30 percent, perennial-crop demand increased 37.5 percent. Given the difference in area between these types, net agricultural water demand decreased nearly 8 percent over current demand.

* There will be a large shift toward developed-land water uses from the agriculture sector: Urban water use in 2062 is projected to increase to 27 percent of overall water use in the study area (from 18 percent in 2012).

* A net increase in overall projected water use in 38 of the 46 California counties in the study area by 2062.

In other words, if all of California’s lawns dry up and blow away, it will have only its own greed to blame.

“Assuming a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario of future land-use change, we show that the current pattern of increasing development and additional perennial cropland (orchards and vineyards) will lead to loss of grassland habitat and increased water use,’ he added.

Well, OK, state water board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said. She had to admit nobody really knows what is going to happen next, and if there will be enough water to go around in California.

“Rather than speculate on what people will do and what will happen,” Marcus said, “we have a learning lab over the next seven months to see.”