NPR Spotlights California Water Issues


NPR’s Morning Edition launched an “occasional series” on California’s water woes this morning. Veteran correspondent John McChesney begins with the impact on agriculture in the Central Valley’s Westlands Water District, the nation’s “biggest irrigated region.”

KQED’s Central Valley Bureau Chief and Climate Watch contributor Sasha Khokha will have three stories in the series, two of which will debut on The California Report in the weeks ahead:

WATER METERS: Many California cities are preparing for or implementing mandatory water rationing this summer. But there are still cities and towns, particularly in California’s Central Valley, where water can’t be rationed because residents don’t even have water meters.  Residents are charged a flat rate for any amount of water they use. Khokha looks at the city of Fresno, where water meters will be phased in, but not until 2013.

MENDOTA PROFILE: The town of Mendota in California’s Central Valley is at the heart of the economic crisis spawned by drought and the loss of farm jobs.  Sam Rubio grew up here, the son of a Mexican farmworker.  He went off to college, and was planning to become a doctor, but instead has returned to this town to teach biology, mentor local kids, and run a café that’s become a haven for the farmworker youth.

AG ADAPTING TO DROUGHT: California farmers are facing an increasingly uncertain water supply, brought about by drought, environmental restrictions on pumping, and climate change. How will farmers adapt? Some of them are yanking out water-intensive crops and replacing them with more drought-tolerant ones. But others are trying to keep growing the same crops with improved technology. We’ll follow a new tech start-up that’s helping farmers use water more efficiently by tracking how much moisture reaches each plant in their fields–and sending a satellite message to their cell phones. We’ll also talk with a researcher who says there are ways California can grow some key crops, like oranges and nuts, using less water.


Decoding California’s Drought History

Abbie Tingstad is a paleoclimatologist at UCLA. She specializes in reconstructing drought records in the western United States, and takes us along on some of her field research in this guest post:

Part of a Piñon pine beam under the collapsed rock shelter. This beam was one of several sampled for tree ring analysis. Photo by Abbie Tingstad.

Part of a Piñon pine beam under a collapsed rock shelter. This beam was one of several sampled for tree ring analysis. Photo by Abbie Tingstad.

By Abbie Tingstad

The site was so remote we needed a team of archaeologists and a couple of heavy-duty 4x4s to get us there.

Deep within the rocky piñon-juniper cliffs of northwestern Colorado was a secret so well hidden I didn’t see it until I was physically inside, face-to-face with a series of hand prints made over a thousand years ago. This rock shelter was occupied during Medieval times by Fremont Indians, contemporaries of the Anasazi whose cultural center was further south in the Four Corners Region. The site had already been excavated, but our interest as dendroclimatologists was not in artifacts. We had come to take samples from the ancient piñon and juniper beams that once supported this structure for the valuable paleoclimate information contained within their annual growth rings.

Tingstad sampling a live Piñon pine tree in northeastern Utah. This tree is about 550 years old. Photo by Glen MacDonald.

Tingstad sampling a live Piñon pine tree in northeastern Utah. This tree is about 550 years old. Photo by Glen MacDonald.

Gathering Medieval climate information from tree rings, lake sediments, and other natural climate archives in the Western US is critically important for understanding the implications of increasing temperatures in this region, particularly when it comes to future water supply and demand.

Research has confirmed that temperatures rose in the Western U.S. from about A.D. 800-1300, which translated into a series of droughts. The most devastating of these occurred in the mid-11th and 12th Centuries, when dry conditions persisted for several decades and may have contributed to the collapse of the Anasazi and Fremont cultures.

Paleoclimate data from tree rings and other sources also suggest that the mechanism driving drought during the “Medieval Warm Period” was eastern Pacific Ocean cooling. Like a widespread, extended La Niña event, cool sea surface temperatures may have strengthened the persistent moisture-blocking system of high-pressure off the West coast, nudging storm tracks north.

While the Medieval period is an instructive analogue for the warming we are beginning to experience, it is an imperfect one. Two major factors separate the episode the Fremont and Anasazi experienced a thousand years ago from what we are just beginning to undergo today. First, Medieval warming appears to have been fostered by a combination of increased solar irradiance and decreased volcanic activity, rather than anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Secondly, Medieval times were characterized mainly by summer warming, while winter and spring temperatures are expected to increase most dramatically in the future. These differences manifest themselves in many ways, but notable for the water-starved West are the implications for decreased winter snowpack and earlier spring river discharge.

The Medieval Warm Period may not offer a precise preview of our future, but it serves as a valuable warning about the tenuous balance of water supply and demand in California and the Western US, something the occupants of the Fremont rock shelter we visited were likely aware of.

Since the turn of the new Millennium, drought has been the norm rather than the exception in this region and the end is not in sight: As of May 1, 2009 surveys suggest that the Sierra Nevada snowpack is two-thirds of normal. What we can learn from Medieval times is not to expect “normally” moist conditions to return any time soon, and to plan accordingly.

Snowpack Buildup “Too little, too late”

Frank Gehrke at Tamarck Flat last winter.

Frank Gehrke at Tamarack Flat last winter.

That’s how Frank Gehrke described the somewhat improved numbers in the latest Sierra snowpack survey. Gehrke has been trekking up to the snow courses for decades to do the seasonal surveys. Today, the statewide average for water content in the snowpack came in at 80% of normal for this date.

Northern Sierra locations clocked in a bit better at 84%, southern locations at 77%. These are an improvement over last month’s tally, when the state averaged only 61% of normal–but reservoirs are not filling fast enough to make up for the long, dry winter that preceded this recent string of storms.

Not that the recent rains haven’t helped. Oakland, Long Beach, Riverside and San Diego are among several spots that have now had at least 90% of their normal precipitation–and some local reservoirs have been catching up. But up in the Sierra, where it really counts for the Big Picture, they’re not catching up fast enough. The main holding “tanks” for the state’s two major water supply systems, Shasta Lake and Lake Oroville, are still at 60% and 55% of normal, respectively.

The recent storms have been relatively warm, too, with precipitation falling as rain all the way up to 7,500 or 8,000 feet. This is precisely the condition that climatologists have been warning about. Snow sticks to the mountain and makes its own reservoir, slowly releasing water well into the spring, as it melts off. But rain at those high elevations is double trouble. It runs off immediately into the rivers and also accelerates the snow melt. That means less water for later in the season, when we really need it.

That may be why the Governor didn’t wait around for today’s numbers. He went ahead and declared a statewide drought emergency on Friday, urging urban water users to cut consumption by 20%.

Can There Be This Much Climate News?

"Reports to the Contrary" by Chester Arnold

"Reports to the Contrary" by Chester Arnold

Some weeks it seems like KQED could fill up its entire “news hole” with climate-related stories (thank goodness we don’t). Last week was a prime example.

Monday: A keynote speaker at U.C. Berkeley’s annual Energy Symposium said that we need a “Fed” for energy policy. John Hofmeister, a former executive at Shell Oil and founder of Citizens for Affordable Energy, told the lunch crowd that the only way to overcome the current two-year “policy cycle” (the length of a congressional term) is with an autonomous policy group like the Federal Reserve Board, which can take a longer view.

Tuesday: PG&E announced a massive new solar power initiative (it was brought to my attention this week that no news story is complete these days without the word “massive”–at least when there’s no opportunity to use “deadly”). If approved by state regulators, the project will provide 500 megawatts of photovoltaic energy by 2015. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the plan is that instead of, say, taking over huge tracts of the Mojave, the project will rely heavily on “solar infill;” making use of property already owned by the company, where they can conveniently access the grid.

Wednesday: Senator Barbara Boxer chaired a hearing of the Energy and Public Works Committee to update members on the latest climate science. They heard testimony from four experts, including Christopher Field of Stanford, who essentially said things are worse than you think. Ranking minority member James Inhofe of Oklahoma seized the moment to decry a $6.7 trillion “climate bailout,” a reference to upcoming federal climate legislation and costs associated with an aggressive plan to fight global warming. You can watch the entire two-and-a-half hour webcast for the gory details.

And of course also on Wednesday, the Coen Brothers rolled out their TV ad for The Reality Coalition, assailing the concept of “clean coal.”

Thursday: The California Air Resources Control Board rolled out new regulations to control some of the lesser known (but highly potent) greenhouse gases, including sulfur hexaflouride, used in the manufacture of computer chips. CARB says a pound of it has the same atmospheric warming potential as ten metric tons of CO2. The board also unveiled a new drought page on its website.

Friday: The Governor issued the latest in a series of drought declarations, this one proclaiming a state of emergency and called on cities to reduce their water use by 20%.

And this week wasn’t all that unusual.

Monday, another week begins with the winter’s third survey of the Sierra snowpack. While recent storms will no doubt have raised the water content from last month’s 61% of normal, it should be something of an anticlimax, especially given that the Governor didn’t wait for the numbers to make his drought declaration last week.

Record-Low Water Allocations for Farms

Photo by Sasha Khokha

Deceptively soggy fields in Fresno County. Photo by Sasha Khokha

This morning’s news for Central Valley farmers was bad–but not unexpected: record low allocations of water from state and federal irrigation systems, just as growers make their spring planting decisions.

There are two major plumbing systems that supply water for Valley farms. This morning, the federal Bureau of Reclamation said the best-case scenario will be that ag customers of its Central Valley Project get 10% of their requested water this year. Zero is more likely for most, especially if the current season’s weather patterns persist. The previous low for CVP allocations was 25% in the early 1990s.

Also today, the California Department of Water Resources confirmed its earlier estimate of 15% allocations for farms served by the State Water Project.

The recent string of rainy days has left fields soggy but failed to make a dent in the current drought. Elissa Lynn, Senior Meteorologist for the state Department of Water Resources says we’d need four or five more big storms by April to bring the state’s precipitation levels up to normal.

It’s unlikely it will keep raining hard enough, for long enough, to bring California out of a drought.

And that means more fighting over the state’s water supply. Especially when it comes to the massive state and federal plumbing projects that pipe water from northern California to make arid Central Valley fields bloom.

Not only is there less water in the state’s reservoirs, but there are restrictions on pumping it because of legal decisions to protect the endangered delta smelt.

On The California Report this morning, we visited with a Fresno County tomato farmer, to find out how he’s coping. If you missed it, that radio story will be posted here sometime today.

For more on the drought, explore Climate Watch’s newest resource, California’s Water. Visit this page for access to KQED’s drought coverage, data and reports from the Department of Water Resources and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and California water news from across the Web.

Leveraging Disaster: Australia’s Fires and Climate Policy

Environmentalists in Australia are seizing on the recent catastrophic fires there to press for more aggressive action on climate change.

Reuters news service reports that the drought-driven fires, which killed at least 130 people in the nation’s Victoria province, have become a fulcrum in arguments to intensify Australia’s relatively modest targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Here in California, we can only hope that the Australia fires aren’t a preview of the summer ahead. Last year’s fire season set records, with more than 2,000 fires burning at one point. This year, conditions will likely be even drier.

Snowpack Slips Further

bay_2981.jpgAfter the puny amount of precipitation we had in January, you sort of knew this was coming. Sure enough, after the second survey of the season, the statewide average for water content in the Sierra snowpack has slipped further.

As of today’s survey, the state’s Dept. of Water Resources says the snowpack’s water component is 61% of normal for this date. A month ago it was closer to three-quarters. Normally water content increases over the course of the snow season.

It only serves to cement growing fears that the coming summer will make last year’s water restrictions look like a tea party. In an unusually blunt statement, DWR Director Lester Snow said “We may be at the start of the worst California drought in modern history.” Reports are already coming out of the Central Valley of farmers planning to take more acreage out of production this year, and some cities anticipate going to court to get their desired water allocations.

Today’s survey combines manual tests at four alpine locations with readings from a network of electronic sensors. Even more alarming are some of the readings from key reservoirs. Lake Oroville, the main holding tank for the State Water Project, is at 43% of “normal” and just 28% of total capacity.

A developing La Nina condition in the Pacific may divert the jet stream and hold more rain at bay, as the season winds down. There are about two months left in California’s core “wet” season.

Photo by Heidemarie Carle: San Pablo Bay after some sparse January rain.

Cities, Farmers, Ski Resorts Sweat Out the Snowpack

“Better late than never”is about all you can say if you’re keeping a wary eye on the Sierra snowpack. Winter finally arrived in the Lake Tahoe region, just in time for Christmas skiers–but maybe not in time for water consumers looking ahead to next summer.

As of Christmas Day, the three key reservoirs in northern California were all at less than half of their “normal” levels for this time of year; Shasta (47%), Oroville (45%) and Folsom (44%). Oroville, a critical link in the State Water Project, was at just 22% of its total capacity.

With the winter’s first hands-on Sierra snow survey coming up next week, Elissa Lynn, Sr. Meteorologist for DWR tells me that readings from the network of automated snow sensors indicate that we’re about 15% of the way toward a full “normal” season (as measured on April 1st). That means we have a lot of catching up to do.

Ski resorts are already having a lean year and as Tom Knudson writes in today’s Sacramento Bee, some are looking ahead to when climate change might cause this kind of year to become the norm.