California braces for extreme drought

A high-level overview of dry conditions in the San Joaquin Valley just five years after a historic drought

From 2012-2016, California experienced one of the most severe droughts in its history. Five years later, the state is positioned for an even more severe period of environmental stressors.

According to the Glossary of Meteorology, a drought is defined as “a period of abnormally dry weather sufficiently prolonged for the lack of water to cause serious hydrologic imbalance in the affected area.” In easier to understand terms, a drought is a period of unusually persistent dry weather that lasts long enough to cause serious problems such as crop damage and/or water supply shortages. The severity of the drought depends upon the degree of moisture deficiency, the duration, and the size of the affected area.

In April, Governor Newsom listed 41 counties, including Tulare County, in an emergency drought declaration. In early July, California Governor Newsom expanded the state’s drought emergency declaration to a total of 50 counties across the state.

Historically, drought is a regular occurrence in the San Joaquin Valley. This region’s climate is classified as “Mediterranean” with an average of 20 inches of rain each year in the north and 5 inches in the south.

However, as urban populations and agricultural activity has increased over the years, the limited water resources of the region have been increasingly stressed. California finds itself in a moment where water demand is at an all-time high despite water supplies being at an all-time low.

Record highs and lows

The 2021 drought is unique in its intensity and in its scale. Many records have already been broken during its first year and there is uncertainty over how long it might last.

According to the United States Drought Monitor, 70.44% of Tulare County is under “Exceptional Drought” with the remainder of the region classified as under “Extreme Drought”.

Rain totals for the Tulare Basin indicate that the region is experiencing its driest year ever. This latest June has been the driest June in 127 years of recordkeeping and overall the current “water year” (the period from October to September) has recorded only 9.7 inches to date.

For comparison,the next driest year for this area is 10.9 inches (1976-1977) while the wettest year has been 56.3 inches (1968-1869).

As a result, the Sierra Nevada is also experiencing a “snow drought” – a period when there is a period of abnormally low snowpack. Overall, the Sierras provide one-third of California’s water supply by serving as a water reservoir so in warmer months, water flows to the valley floor during dry months with little rainfall. 

As early as May of this year, snowpack was only 5 percent of the yearly average and as of July, the snowpack is nearly completely gone.

Farms and communities along the Valley floor have depended on snow melt from the Sierra Nevadas to augment water supplies, however as drought increases at higher elevations, snow melt that normally would reach the valley floor is being absorbed by the mountainside, meaning less of the water that would reach the valley floor completes its journey.

Drought’s early effects on the valley

In many ways, Tulare County and the San Joaquin Valley have not completely rebounded from the 2012-2016 drought. As a result, this year’s drought has had far-ranging impacts on several sectors of the region.

The Agricultural sector utilizes much of the overall water supply in the region. According to the state of California, over 75 percent of the State has been converted to land uses that have increased overall water usage. There have been several efforts to utilize the California Legislature to mitigate negative impacts of drought, notably the passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act”.

Under this law, local governments were directed to develop “groundwater sustainability plans” in order to gradually reach sustainable levels by the year 2045. Ivanhoe is currently represented by the Mid-Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency. 

Some advocates argue that the 2045 timeline is inadequate given the increasing severity of drought conditions.

Additional efforts will have to be made to balance agricultural water needs with the needs of people and the environment, for example with the needs of the Endangered Species Act. 

According to the National Marine Fisheries Services, water shortages in the Sacramento River are expected to kill “up to 88% of the juvenile winter-run Chinook Salmon’’ Moreover, the lack of water supply is being compounded by the increasing average temperature of water.

 These stressors have led department officials to estimate that these combined forces may lead to a near 100% mortality rate. The Salmon provides economic benefit, food for other animals in the ecosystem, and are culturally significant to many Native American Tribes.

According to the California Department of Water Resources, local Tulare County riparian corridors like the Kaweah and Tule Rivers are also experiencing low flows, respectively at 18% and 15% of normal.

Additionally the Pixley National Wildlife Refuge serves as a critical climate refuge for migratory birds and native plants for Southwestern Tulare County but is being stressed by lack of water.

The Refuge serves as a critical “wetlands” habitat. As nearly all original habitat was converted to agricultural usage, rivers would regularly flood and create areas with large but shallow pools of water. This ecosystem supported large populations of birds and other land based species like the kit fox.

This national refuge relies on three groundwater pumps to maintain its wetlands habitat and has reported that two are not drawing water from the aquifer. This lack of water further stresses the endangered plants and animals that are dependent upon this environment.

Additional potential impacts include loss of ecosystem types, shift in biological communities, impacts to rare species, and increased pressure from invasive species, and impact to water supply.

During the last drought, Tulare County was one of the regions in California that experienced the most severe water insecurity for community drinking water. A recent report to the California Legislature has revealed that through January 2019, more than 2,600 reports of dry wells were received with “more than half” coming from Tulare County.”  As many residents in the surrounding areas of Ivanhoe are on private wells that are typically shallower than agricultural wells, they experience a particular level of vulnerability to prolonged drought.  

Ivanhoe’s neighbor of Tooleville is currently experiencing severe stress on its community water system. The two-street community relies on two wells but one has recently failed them. Jose Luz Mendoza, a Tooleville resident says “We are experiencing a wáter crisis right now. Our well went dry. We want the city of Exeter to give us water. And please support us.”

As the drought continues indefinitely, more Tulare County residents will continue to experience water shortages. Currently, Ivanhoe’s water system is not experiencing serious strain on its infrastructure.

State increases water regulation

Since its creation, the California State government has played an active role in water management. These efforts have included large-scale infrastructure to store and deliver water but have increasingly included efforts to reduce water usage as overall water supply has steadily declined.

On July 8th, Governor Newsom signed an Executive Order N-10-21  for all Calfironians to voluntarily reduce  their water usage by 15 percent. Citing that “there is now a need to augment ongoing water conservation and drought resilience investments with additional action to extend available supplies, protect water reserves in case drought conditions extend to a third year and maintain critical flows for fish and wildlife”, the Order was signed in hopes of long-term water security. 

Water efficiency measures have been impactful in reducing negative impacts from drought. For example, data shows that from 2013-2016, Californian’s average water use was reduced by 21 percent. This Executive Order identifies five categories where California residents can contribute to water efficiency: irrigating landscapes more efficiently, running dishwashers and washing machines only when full, finding and fixing leaks, installing water-efficient showerheads and taking shorter showers, and using a shut-off nozzle on hoses and taking cars to car washes that use recycled water.  

Along with agricultural water usage, the State of California is considering approval of and “Adopt an Emergency Curtailment and Reporting Regulation for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.”

  If approved, this emergency order will limit agricultural water use in this period of uncertain water supply. The State Water Resources Control Board will host a meeting to vote on August 3rd with speculation implementation of the emergency order will begin as early as mid-August.  

During the last drought, the State did not consider such bold action. However, as drought continues indefinitely, California heads into a future where “Water supply in many parts of California, including the Delta watershed, is insufficient to meet demands and requires urgent action to ensure the protection of health, safety, and the environment”.

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