California is in trouble.
Drought has returned to the U.S. state in a major way, and bone-dry docks are just the tip of the devastating problems facing the state. Currently, 41 of California’s 58 counties are in a drought state of emergency, affecting approximately 30% of the state’s population. As we move into the summer, experts anticipate the drought’s impacts will only get worse.
Newsom Expands Drought State of Emergency
Earlier this week, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought state of emergency in 39 additional California counties, bringing the total number of counties affected by the emergency to 41. Newsom originally declared a regional drought emergency in Sonoma and Mendocino counties in April. However, he was prompted to expand the emergency to additional counties after hot temperatures and extremely dry soils — both hallmarks of climate change in the Golden State — ate into the snowpack and expected runoff from the Sierra Nevadas. (Snowpack itself was already low this year after a subpar winter wet season.)
As a result, Newsom’s office stated, major reservoirs, including those along the Klamath River, Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and Tulare Lake watershed, experienced “historic and unanticipated reductions in the amount of water flowing.”
What the State Can Do in a Drought Emergency
Newsom’s drought emergency proclamation directs the California State Water Board to consider modifying requirements for reservoir releases and diversion limitations in order to conserve water upstream later in the year and maintain water supply, improve water quality, and protect cold water pools for salmon and steelhead. The order also moves to speed up the review and processing of water transfers so that water can go to areas where it is needed most.
In addition, state agencies are partnering with local water suppliers to promote water conservation. Some municipalities have also implemented mandatory and voluntary water-saving measures. Officials from the California Natural Resources Agency directed residents to limit outdoor watering, take shorter showers, and turn off the water when brushing their teeth or doing the dishes, all orders reminiscent of the drought that racked the state in the mid-2010s.
A $7 Billion Drought Response Package
In a statement, Newsom called on Californians to step up their efforts to save water. The governor has also announced a $US5.1 ($7) billion immediate and long-term infrastructure and drought response package on Monday, which includes $US1.3 ($2) billion for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, $US500 ($643) million for land repurposing to support growers, and $US300 ($386) million in drought relief and urban management grants for small community water systems.
“Shoring up our water resilience, especially in small and disadvantaged communities, is imperative to safeguarding the future of our state in the face of devastating climate change impacts that are intensifying drought conditions and threatening our communities, the economy and the environment,” Newsom said when he announced the proposal.
The governor is asking the state legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, to pass his package. Lawmakers have until June 15 to pass a spending plan.
What Happened in California This Year
California and many parts of the West rely on snowpack for water resources. There has been less snowpack, as well as rapid spring snowmelt, this year. Consequently, the resulting snow water equivalent, or the amount of water that will be released from a snowpack when it melts, has been drastically low. In California, the snow-water equivalent is at 6% of normal levels for this time of year. In essence, there’s next to nothing left on the ground in the Sierra Nevadas, with state data showing less than an inch of snow water equivalent on average.
The state began the winter wet season in drought as well. That, coupled with a dearth of snow and rain this winter, left the ground so dry that the water from the snowpack seeped into the ground instead of flowing into rivers, streams, and reservoirs.
“What’s amazing to me as a climate scientist is to see the snow melt occur and then to see the rivers lakes and steams not responding,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles and the Nature Conservancy, told CNN. “The soil under the snow is so dry that there is no runoff.”
As of this week, the Drought Monitor declared the entire state of California is now experiencing some form of drought. Nearly three-quarters of the state is in exceptional or extreme drought, the worst categories.
The Warm Temperatures Didn’t Just Affect the Snowpack, Though
Warm temperatures in April and early May also led to those holding water rights below dams withdrawing their water much earlier and in greater volumes than in other dry years. Overall, warm temperatures, weak snowpack, and early withdrawal of water reduced water supplies by more than 500,000 acre feet, Newsom’s office said, the equivalent of the water supplies for 1 million households for a year.
The worsening drought comes just a few years after the state had some of its wettest years on record. The flip-flop reflects a trend climate scientists have tracked: California’s average precipitation hasn’t changed much, but dry and wet years have become more extreme. This trend is expected to continue due to climate change, increasing the urgency for the state to figure out how to cope with drought and more snow depending on the year.
A Drought Is One Thing, Wildfire Is Another
Droughts can elevate the risk of wildfires, something California is unfortunately very accustomed to. Last year was the state’s worst wildfire season recorded in modern history. More than 4.2 million acres, or more than 4% of the state’s roughly 100 million acres, had burned by year’s end, according to Cal Fire. The state saw its first fire to burn more than 1 million acres in modern history as well as a host of other large, damaging blazes. There’s even signs that fires from last year overwintered and are still smouldering.
As of May 5, the state had already seen a significant increase in the number of wildfires and acres burned compared to the same time last year, Cal Fire said. In May of 2020, the state had registered 1,065 fires and 1,726 acres burned. This year, there have already been 1,788 fires and 13,604 acres burned.
The 2021 Wildfire Season Is Yet to Come
It’s still early for wildfires in California, with the season not really kicking into gear in late summer or early fall. That’s when hot, dry winds known as Santa Ana or Diablo winds depending on what part of the state you’re in kick up and help spread flames.
It’s not clear yet whether the 2021 fire season will be as devastating or worse than 2020. Experts are concerned the severe drought, dry vegetation, and an expected hot summer could be a recipe for disaster. Dry winter conditions, however mean there’s less overall vegetation. That could deprive fires of the fuel they need. Yet, when fires do spark in a drought, they tend to get bigger and be more destructive.
There is one thing we do know though: 2021 is off to a worse start than last year.