Hiltzik: Water created the West, drought may finish it off
In what may become an iconic image for drought-stricken California, Gov. Gavin Newsom stood on the parched bed of Lake Mendocino on April 21 to announce an emergency declaration for Sonoma and Mendocino counties.
“I’m standing currently 40 feet underwater,” he said, “or should be standing 40 feet underwater, save for this rather historic moment.”
Newsom’s point was that the reservoir was at a historically low 43% of capacity, the harbinger of what could be a devastating drought cycle not only for the Northern California counties that fell within his drought declaration, but for most of the state — indeed, the American West.
The last extended drought struck California in 2012-16. Still fresh in the memory, it was a period of stringent mandated cutbacks in water usage.
Lawns were forced to go brown, homeowners prompted to replace their thirsty yards with drought-resistant landscaping and to upgrade their vintage dishwashers and laundry machines with new water-efficient models. Profligate users were ferreted out from public records and, if they could be identified, shamed.
Although there have been wet years since then, notably 2017, the big picture suggests that the drought never really ended and the dry periods of this year and 2020 are representative of the new normal — a permanent drought.
Experts warn that climate change will only make things worse. The years 2014 and 2015 were the two hottest on record, “which made coping with water shortages even more difficult,” the Public Policy Institute of California observed in 2018.
Research suggests that extreme dry years will become more common, but so will extreme wet years. The latter isn’t a panacea for drought, because the state’s water storage capacity can be overwhelmed by excessive rainfall, especially if a warmer climate reduces the snowpack, nature’s own seasonal reservoir.
Newsom’s step-wise approach of declaring emergencies in the hardest-hit regions of the state and holding back elsewhere until conditions spread shouldn’t leave any doubt that the crisis is just beginning.
“We’re definitely in a drought,” Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the giant Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, told me. “This may go down as one of the five worst years on record.”
Water supply in the State Water Project, which distributes water to agencies and districts serving 27 million Californians and 750,000 acres of farmland, is so low that the project is delivering only 5% of requested supplies this year. The allocation has fallen that far only twice before since 1996, according to the state Department of Water Resources, which runs the project.
It may already be too late to avoid some of the conflicts and consequences of the drought age in California. Every segment of society will have to come to terms with deepening scarcity, and with each others’ competing demands.
Residential users, growers, the fishing industry and stewards of the environment will be increasingly at odds, unless the state can craft a drought response that spreads sacrifices in a way that each group considers fair. To ask the question whether that is likely is to answer it.
California’s water policies and infrastructure were products of an era of abundance. During a century of growth there always seemed to be enough water to satisfy demand — and when there wasn’t, engineering know-how and public funding provided the means to move water from where it was to where demand was growing.
That was the case with the construction of the Los Angeles and Colorado River aqueducts early in the last century and the State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project in succeeding decades.
Complacency marked some of this work. The expectations of the water supply that would be provided by Hoover Dam, for example, were based on surveys of the Colorado River's flow taken during a historically wet period.
The river has never provided as much water as was estimated in 1922, when the prospective supply was apportioned among the seven states of the Colorado basin. Dealing with the shortfall has been a challenge ever since, at one point even bringing Arizona and California to the brink of interstate war.
Water policy in California has historically been reactive rather than proactive. The first years of 2012-16 drought yielded the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Known as SGMA and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2016, the law was the first to regulate the exploitation of groundwater, which feeds one-third of the state’s demand in normal years and half in dry years.