A Deep Dive Into California’s Recurring Drought Problem
By Glen Martin
3 January 2018
Photo courtesy of California Magazine
“Feel it yet? That dire sense of déjà vu? It probably depends on your livelihood or interests. If you’re a Bay Area boulevardier or the type once described in singles ads as a lover of long walks on the beach, you’re no doubt delighted by the unceasing blue skies and unseasonably pleasant temperatures. But it’s another matter if you’re a farmer, salmon fisherman, water agency manager, skier or whitewater kayaker. Your income—or at least, your sense of well-being— is directly determined by what falls from the sky.”
In recent months, California has experienced unseasonably warm weather and light precipitation patterns — a stark contrast from last winter’s record-breaking downpours. Such weather patterns are reminiscent of the extreme drought California faced from 2013-2016. This begs the question: is California on track for another large-scale drought?
Although challenging to predict, climatologists at the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center (CPC) recently observed that much of the West is experiencing “persistent ridging” or the presence of strong, storm-rebuffing, high-pressure systems. Persistent ridging characterized the state’s most recent drought.
College of Environmental Design professor Matt Kondolf and UC Berkeley alum Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute are investigating the ways in which California can weather climate aberrations and improve water storage methods.
Federal meteorologists state that despite early precipitation across much of the Southwest, California’s rainy season seems “unable to get off the blocks.” As a result, the CPC predicts significant drought development in this region.
Nevertheless, meteorologists do expect an uptick in rainfall in regions north of the Bay Area before the wet season ends. Additionally, even if the persistent high-pressure ridge continues to haunt California, the state can rely on pre-existing water reservoirs to sustain itself.
“I’m not extraordinarily worried about the near term,” says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, a non-profit dedicated to research and policy relating to freshwater issues. “We had an extremely wet winter last year and our reservoirs are full, so we’ll start out [the dry season] in pretty good shape. Also, our responses over the last five years [such as water restrictions on urban users] show that we can handle shortages to some degree.”
Of more concern, what saved California during the last drought was the overpumping of groundwater, says Gleick, who earned his doctorate and master’s degree in energy and resources at UC Berkeley. Such pumping, he says, is unsustainable, resulting in the permanent overdraft of state aquifers. Overpumping has resulted in massive ground subsidence throughout much of the San Joaquin Valley, resulting in billions of dollars in damaged infrastructure. Further droughts may be unable to rely on the existence of groundwater.
The lack of groundwater is particularly worrying, as the most recent drought was not necessarily an anomaly. Perhaps, such droughts are an indication that California is returning to “an arid baseline,” reflecting the climate conditions prior to Euro-American settlement.
So if severe droughts are to be expected in California, how are we to cope with dwindling water resources? Matt Kondolf, UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning, asserts that many of California’s water issues are driven by institutional causes.
“Our system of water rights [and] subsidies results in inefficient, outdated and suboptimal use of water, driven by many perverse incentives,” Kondolf said. “We actually have a lot of water in the state, and with our existing storage and [better management], we could get ourselves through most short droughts, though not long droughts such as [those between] 850–1090 CE and 1140–1320 CE.”
Kondolf’s research investigates improve methods for optimizing water storage. For example, many reservoirs in California are unable to store the maximum capacity of water due to sedimentation. By removing mud, silt, and sand from the reservoirs, “new” storage can be realized — a less expensive alternative to building additional reservoirs or raising dams.
“Assessing options for removing sediment and preventing additional sedimentation certainly makes sense,” Kondolf said, though he cautions some investments made today may not pay off for years. “It’s generally best to let gravity do the work [e.g., through flushing by strategic water releases]. Mechanical removal tends to be very expensive and you wind up with lots of material to dispose of during times of the year when you can’t put it in the rivers. However, compared to the costs of building new storage, mechanical removal can still be favorable.”
Read the full article here.