Climate Change is Shaping California’s Water Future: Watch Our New Webinar

, climate scientist | October 24, 2016, 1:36 pm EDT
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In the water world, October marks the beginning of a new “water year,” which means that the 2016 drought year is officially over and speculation is already beginning over whether the coming year will be wet or dry. Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted a “weak” La Niña or dry weather pattern starting in late fall or early winter.

Over the last year, the Los Angeles Times published over 175 stories with “El Niño” in the title: first with hope that “Godzilla” storms’ would end California’s five year drought, and then with disappointment. But here’s what’s not in the news: El Niño and its counterpart La Niña are nothing compared to what we call “La Madre” of California’s water: climate change. We just hosted a webinar with Laurel Firestone, the co-founder of the Community Water Center, on how climate change is already affecting California’s water system biophysically, socially, and economically.

Here are a couple of the main take-away messages from the webinar:

Climate change is widening the gap between water demand and water supply

California, along with many other western states, built a water storage system in the 20th century that was designed to capture winter snowmelt and then convey the water through a system of canals, pipes, and pumps to agricultural and urban users during the summer. Climate change represents a fundamental change to California’s water system. If we continue to emit large amounts of greenhouse gases, scientists project that we will see a loss of up to 80% of our snowpack by the end of this century.

In addition, recent studies have shown that increasing temperatures are responsible for worsening the severity of the current drought by about 25%. Over the last two decades the number of water years that were characterized as both dry and hot doubled in comparison to the last century. What this means is that recent dry years were almost all hotter than average and these increased temperatures drive up evaporation, transpiration, and water demand, essentially widening the gap between water demand and water supply.

Reduced reservoir levels and stream flows have led to unsustainable levels of groundwater pumping

As the drought has reduced the water levels in reservoirs, rivers, and streams, many water users have shifted to groundwater sources. As climate change continues to have significant impacts on our surface water supply, we are witnessing what we call “The Big Water Supply Shift:” much greater exploitation of our shared groundwater. Over half of our total water use in California came from groundwater during this drought, drawing down this critical reserve. Groundwater essentially serves as the state’s water savings account and has been a buffer during dry times. Yet, unsustainable levels of pumping are depleting this resource and many areas are now in a condition known as groundwater “overdraft” which simply means we are taking out more than we are returning to the account.

Increased groundwater pumping has had a host of negative impacts, including thousands of dry wells and communities without basic access to drinking water

Groundwater levels are dropping at unprecedented rates, causing land subsidence – where land is actually sinking due to the loss of water pressure underground. And in areas with some of the greatest groundwater declines, there are schools and communities entirely dependent on groundwater for drinking water.

Similar to the water quality disaster in Flint, Michigan – it is low income communities and communities of color that bear the brunt of the drinking water crisis in California. The most vulnerable have been those without a centralized water system and with only 1 or 2 wells in areas of intensified and unregulated groundwater pumping. Already thousands of families have lost their water supply entirely, and many more communities have lost water supply and had to turn to more contaminated sources, resulting in unsafe water.

Treating drought as an “emergency” is socially and economically disastrous

The drought has not only been socially devastating but also extremely expensive. On the individual level, many residents in the San Joaquin Valley are spending 4-10% of their incomes on drinking water; this is well above the “affordability” threshold of 2% of median household income.

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In addition, taxpayers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on short-term, “emergency” fixes including trucking in bottled water, portable shower stalls, and public water tanks. These solutions, while necessary, do not protect communities against the longer and more severe droughts we expect in the future.

So, what’s the solution? In a word (or three): sustainable groundwater management

Sustainable groundwater management holds the promise of helping California adapt to both drier dry periods and wetter wet periods, and it is critical to deliver on our commitment to the Human Right to Water. The passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014 signaled the first-ever statewide requirement for measuring and managing groundwater resources, but the devil is in the details and in the data.

Over the next nine months, groundwater basins are required to form new organizations called groundwater sustainability agencies. These agencies will have the authority to regulate, and charge for, groundwater pumping. Find out if there is a groundwater sustainability agency near you using this handy map, and contact the agency to ask to join their interested parties list. If there is no agency in your area yet, contact your county board of supervisors. Finally, to get resources to participate in groundwater planning, check out our sustainable groundwater management website where new materials are posted often to help equip you to participate in more sustainable groundwater planning.

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  • Thanks for your facts and analysis on groundwater. On the cost impact side of the shortage, I’ve always surmised that the larger and long term affects would run like this: 1. Farmers get less water allocations and higher costs for it, both in pumping and in other ways. 2. Food production necessarily goes down as a result. 3. A magnification of costs through the supply chain raises food costs across the board, and for the long term. 4. Lower income people suffer the most. – and through all this, cities and counties continue to approve development under weak logic and the influence of building fees and taxes, effectively forcing draconian solutions to a decades long water crisis.