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.
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.