By Anita Ladher, Staff Contributor
As many Americans were greeted at the beginning of the new year with freezing cold temperatures and snowstorms brought by a polar vortex, unusually warm weather and extremely dry conditions in America’s most populous state has Californians fearing the worst water crisis since the 1970s. Measures to address the drought will impact California residents and businesses as mandatory orders are implemented to enforce water usage limits in some localities, and difficult decisions are made to prioritize the use of scarce water resources for urban and agricultural uses over the needs of water-intensive energy production methods.
Facing its driest year on record, Governor Jerry Brown officially declared a drought State of Emergency in California, which sets the stage for additional state and federal action to address the crisis. With 2013 being the driest year on record in California, nearly two-thirds of the state is experiencing “extreme” drought, with the remaining portions experiencing “severe” drought conditions. Equally troubling, snowpack in California’s Sierra mountains is currently only at 20 percent of its average. The National Weather Service has indicated that there is no end in sight to these dry conditions as “unseasonably dry and hot conditions” are forecast for the southwestern United States.
In his State of Emergency declaration, Governor Brown called on California residents and businesses to voluntarily reduce water consumption by 20 percent. In addition, Governor Brown ordered state agencies to implement water conservation measures and to assist in water transfers to ensure that water is directed to the greatest areas of need. While Governor Brown has urged Californians to voluntarily reduce water usage, some local governments in the state have issued mandatory orders for residents to reduce water consumption by 20 to 30 percent.
“Snowpack in California’s Sierra mountains is currently only at 20 percent of its average.”
The drought presents numerous environmental and agricultural challenges for California, including the increased risk of devastating wildfires with the potential to destroy thousands of acres of land. Still in the early weeks of January, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection responded to 150 winter wildfires sparked by extremely dry conditions. The current amount of winter wildfires is unprecedented given that there were no fires during this same period last January and the “historic average is 25.” Last week, a fire in Southern California caused by dry conditions burned nearly 1,700 acres within 30 minutes, which highlights the unprecedented dangers presented by a drought that has state fire officials fearing that the worst is yet to come.
Based on past experiences with droughts in the state, the current drought may result in a decrease in the use of hydroelectric power generation in California. In non-drought years, hydroelectric power generation typically provides nearly 15 percent of California’s energy consumption. However, the current drought has resulted in historic below average water levels for ten of the state’s twelve water reservoirs, which may result in a significant reduction of nearly 50 percent in hydroelectric power generation as water becomes increasingly scarce. In 2011, when California faced dry conditions less severe than the current drought, hydroelectric power generation decreased in the state from 21 percent to 13 percent while less water-intensive forms of energy production such as natural gas generation increased by nearly 20 percent during the same time period. Furthermore, as water is directed to meet urban and agricultural needs, certain fisheries such as those along the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, will likely suffer from a reduction in water. As a scarce water supply is directed to meet urgent needs, it is increasingly likely that agricultural groups and environmentalists will file lawsuits to protect their rights to water for crops and fish habitats.
“The current drought has resulted in historic below average water levels for ten of the state’s twelve water reservoirs, which may result in a significant reduction of nearly 50 percent in hydroelectric power…”
“I think the drought emphasizes that we do live in an era of limits, that nature has its boundaries,” said Governor Brown in a recent news conference addressing the drought. As the drought continues, Californians will be tasked with conserving scarce water resources and living within an era of limits.