The Current Drought: Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst

November 18 , 2022

Photostability chamber


We're here in part because the latest drought came so quickly. It took more than three years for reservoir levels to drop to extreme drought levels. In the current drought, the decline lasted less than two years -- reflecting exceptionally dry conditions in Northern California, where most major reservoirs are located. Climate change is exacerbating the intensity of the drought: conditions have deteriorated rapidly this summer, the hottest on record.

Conditions in the Sacramento River Basin are critical not only to the region itself, but also to the Bay Area and Southern California cities, as well as the San Joaquin Valley farms served by the Central Valley Project and state water projects. For SWP contractors, the water allocation for these projects is set at only 5%, while for some of CVP's agricultural contractors, the water allocation is as low as 0%. One consequence is lower crop acreage; for example, about 110,000 fewer acres (mostly rice and cotton) than in 2020, taking into account the drought conditions, and anecdotal reports of lower plantings of other crops due to reduced water availability and heat stress Both area and output have declined. While there will be some costs, overall farming has proven to be quite resilient. The real question is what happens next year.

Reduced surface water supplies have also spurred more groundwater pumping, accelerating the drop in water tables that naturally occurs during droughts: Nearly a thousand drinking water wells have reportedly dried up, leaving residents in some low-income rural communities without water from their taps flow out.

Overall, cities have so far had no major problems coping with drought, reflecting significant investments in drought preparedness, including water storage, in the past. Notable exceptions include communities on the typically wetter North Coast -- including Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino -- and several others across the state that are currently under severe drought restrictions.

Finally, freshwater ecosystems are severely affected by drought. Low currents and high temperatures in the Sacramento Valley and along the North Coast have put severe stress on salmon and other endangered species.

While Californians look to the skies and hope for more rain, we also need to act now to minimize social, economic and environmental risks if the drought persists into 2023. In our latest report, we highlight a number of short-term priority actions, including reducing the negative impact of increased groundwater withdrawals, identifying drinking water systems at risk of shortages and acting quickly, and managing reservoirs more conservatively to ensure provision for the environment. necessary water flow.

Despite the recent torrential rains, it's important to remember that we're still in the middle of a drought - and we could be facing another year of extreme conditions. We must be careful in managing our water resources: hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

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