From the Ground Up

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Not a pretty picture

The fact that we’re experiencing a record-breaking drought throughout California and the southwest may not be on everyone’s radar yet.  But now we can see the evidence from space. Images taken by NASA’s  space satellite on Feb. 16  show the effects of extended drought in the form of brown patches along the coast and throughout most of the Sierra Nevada mountains. In a normal rainfall year these brown areas would show up as white, since they would be covered with snow. In the photos below, if you look at the lefthand image, taken a year ago in January 2013, it shows the snow pack in the Sierras. In the image on the right, taken one month ago, there’s virtually no snow pack.

CA drought via NASA-NOAA

NASA pictures of California drought

That prominent strip of green along the western edge of the Sierras is also not a good sign.  In a normal year all that green would be white with snow cover; the green is an anomaly. The satellite also picks up scattered green patches in the central agricultural regions–the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. Those are farms where they’re still irrigating the crops. Not that the farmers themselves don’t have plenty to worry about, as they plan to drastically scale back the planting of row crops this year.

A 3-year long pattern of subnormal precipitation has left us with a water deficit– meaning the lakes, rivers, reservoirs and snowpacks are all below normal levels. It would take greater-than-average rainfall to make up what we’ve lost. Last week the storm system amusingly named “Pineapple Express” brought us our first significant rainfall of the wet season, with 6-12 inches of rain recorded in the northern Sierras. There were even some flood warnings in the San Francisco/Bay area. But it wasn’t enough. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, we would need 3-4 more “copious” storms in the central Sierras in order to get us even close to average, and the likelihood of that is nil. And by the way, there was no rainfall recorded in Southern CA and the southwest.

At least both state and federal government are starting to take the situation seriously. Speaking at a rural water facility in Fresno County on Feb. 14, President Obama drew a clear connection between climate change and the water shortage. He urged Congress to pass legislation that would allocate $300 million to “emergency aid and drought-relief projects, upgrade city water systems and water conservation, and speed up environmental reviews of water projects”. And the White House also announced $100 million in aid to ranchers facing livestock losses and $60 million to help food banks.

But water in the state of California has always been mired in politics, and that is still the case. It all boils down to an argument over who gets the biggest share of the water pie–agriculture, the major cities, or environmentalists who want to restore the salmon runs. But arguing over what remains of the water reserves won’t help, and neither will praying for rain. What we need to do is bend our intelligence towards finding long range solutions to the problem.



Welcome, raindrops


We got some rain yesterday. Yes, we did–not much, but a little. Precious little according to the precipitation map at LA’s  Dept Public Works.  Check it out to see how much fell in your neighborhood.

In my neck of the woods it was 0.20 inches. In the coastal areas there was a bit more, up to 0.35 inches. Inland, there was very little to none, as in  Z.E.R.O. inches in Palmdale, Lancaster, Castaic.

If it rained every day for the whole month of February, we might be okay. But extended weather forecasts call for a continuation of our dry and sunny pattern.

Now that the drought is official, I am waiting for the message to get out and everyone to start taking small steps to conserve water.

In the home, here are some suggestions:

Take shorter showers (this means ME! I am guilty.)

Don’t use your toilet as a wastebasket or ashtray. Every flush uses 5-7 gallons of water, so only flush when necessary.

Don’t run the water the whole time you are shaving or brushing your teeth. Use what you need to wet your toothbrush or rinse the soap off your razor, and turn the tap off.

Don’t let the faucet run continuously while rinsing vegetables in the sink or doing dishes in the sink.

There is NO need to totally rinse off every single scrap of food before loading dishes into the dishwasher. (Guilty, again!)

Install aerators on all the faucets in the house. (It’s cheap to do!)

Switch out your shower heads for “low-flow” versions.
In the garden:
Make sure your sprinklers are adjusted so they are spraying your plants, not the sidewalk.

Put a a 3-inch layer of mulch around trees and shrubs. It will discourage weeds as well as conserving moisture.

Don’t over-water your lawn. If you step on the grass and it springs back, it doesn’t need watering yet.

Set the mower blades higher and mow less often. Letting grass grow up to 3″ tall will conserve moisture.

Tear out your lawn altogether and plant drought resistant plants and ground cover.

Install soaker hoses or a drip system in your flower beds and around your trees and shrubs, and reserve the use of spray heads for larger areas of grass or ground cover. Also, switch out your conventional spray heads for low-volume (i.e MP rotator) heads.

C’mon people, let’s do it!

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The 100-Year Drought


I’ve been thinking a lot about the water shortage since the Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency last week. It’s pretty clear that the situation is getting dire, with evidence everywhere you look: reservoirs are running at below half of normal; the snowpack is at 20% to 15% of normal; January temperatures have been abnormally high; and red flag fire conditions have been declared in many communities that haven’t seen any rain at all during what are supposed to be the wettest months of the year. This is serious and it affects the economy in general. The impact will be felt by farmers, ranchers, and consumers not just throughout the state but throughout the country.

And locally? So far the Governor has asked residents to voluntarily cut back water usage by 20%, but soon we’re definitely going to reach the point of mandatory rationing– it’s just a matter of when and how soon. During all of  2013, Los Angeles only got 3.4 inches of rain– that’s less than 1/5 of what is considered “average” rainfall.

I’m grateful that several of my recent clients have ripped out their lawns and requested that they be replaced with drought-tolerant landscaping and drip irrigation. Thank goodness people are getting the picture.