California drought problems are far from over, and they may be getting worse, according to meteorologists and climate scientists. Fresh rains are finally dropping much-needed snow on the Sierra Nevada mountain range, but the Golden State would need three times the average rainfall for the next three months to avoid an impending water catastrophe. That is not likely to happen, sending the state’s leaders scrambling to find emergency solutions to the water crisis.
2013 was one of the driest years on record for California, and this winter season may be driest in more than 500 years, making this drought the worst in the Golden State’s history. Much of the state depends upon water stored as ice and snow on the state’s mountain ranges until the spring runoff that refills reservoirs and water tables throughout the state. A winter without snow will become a summer without water. Right now, the snow pack is less than 20 percent of what should be on the mountains at this time of year.
The last time California drought problems were this bad was 1975 to 1977, during Governor Jerry Brown’s first term in office. By the time that drought broke in 1978, California had become famous for its “shower with a friend” campaign to encourage water conservation. San Francisco was in such dire straits that the city had only 30 days of water left when an emergency water pipeline to the city was put into service.
This time around, conditions are even worse than they were in the 1970s. The population of the region has nearly doubled, from 20 million in 1977 to 38 million in 2014. Agricultural production in the state has increased exponentially, with $45 billion in agricultural revenues in 2013, doubling the agricultural production in 1978. That $45 billion makes California an agricultural powerhouse. More than 11 percent of all the food produced in the United States is produced in California, including almost 50 percent of all the U.S. grown fruits, nuts and vegetables, so whatever affects California agriculture will also affect the nation as a whole.
The growth of the population and the agricultural production in California is directly attributable to three things: the climate, the fecundity of the soil and the Governor Edmund E. Brown California Aqueduct. That is the extensive network of rivers, dams, aqueducts, and pipelines designed to bring water down from the Sierra Nevada mountain ranges and valleys of northern and central California to the water-starved south.
Drought conditions are nothing new for southern California, an area that is best described as mostly a sub-Saharan desert. Recognizing that water supplies would put limits on the growth of the Los Angeles area, the late two-term governor of the state, Pat Brown, the incumbent governor’s father, initiated the construction of the complex water management system that now bears his name. Work began on the project in 1963, but the project only completed 1997…and it may already be out of date.
An aqueduct system only works when there is enough rainwater to keep it filled and there has not been enough rain in California over the past three-years to keep up with the demands on the system. The current system is already draining all the water it can from the watershed area and there is no place for California to build a second aqueduct system, nor time enough to do so. Even after this drought ends, California’s drought problems are still far from over since the existing system is already running at full capacity.
The current governor of the state, Jerry Brown, has been living with California drought issues all his life. He saw his father fight and win the battle to build the aqueduct, and won his first term as governor during the 1975 to 1978 drought. At 75, he is serving out what will probably be his last term as governor in the middle of another, deeper drought, so this is his legacy issue and he will be remembered for how well he handles this water crisis.
Last week, the three-term governor proposed a $687 million package of emergency measures designed to respond to the present situation. Saying that governors cannot make it rain, Governor Brown added that “you cannot manufacture water,” but that there are many ways that Californians can better use the water they have. Brown’s proposals include emergency relief funds for 17 communities who are already on the verge of running out of water completely. Emergency well-drilling projects to find more artesian water, above-ground pipelines to bring water to the hardest hit communities, and mobile desalination machinery for coastal communities are all being discussed.
Republicans in the state legislature appear to be going along with Brown’s plan for the moment, but they are planning to introduce their own bill, proposing longer-term solutions to permanently solve the state’s water problems.
The culprit responsible for the Golden State’s water shortage crisis is a mysterious high pressure ridge that has remained stationary over the state for much of the past three years. The high pressure ridge keeps rains from falling on the western slopes of California’s coastal mountain ranges that usually catch those rains and divert the rainfall into the aqueduct system. Since there is nothing that the Brown administration can do to move the high pressure system away from the coastal areas, they are open to suggestion.
As serious as the California drought is, there are still some humorous aspects to it. A Sacramento, California, Bishop, Jaime Soto, president of the California Catholic Conference of Bishops, recently requested that people of faith pray to God for rain. Not to be outdone, a group of Methodist ministers have also issued a plea for rain prayers to their congregations, with Muslim clerics following suit. A similar request for rain prayers was issued by the Catholic bishop of Monterrey and Los Angeles in 1906, making it clear that California drought problems are still far from over. This is just the latest of many droughts, but it has already been one for the books and it is not over yet.
By Alan M. Milner