California Drought Could Wipe Cities Off Map If Their Water Runs Out
Rick Jackson treads through the debris-laden flow of the Kings River as water runs along its parched floor for the first time in six months.
Fishermen are dwarfed by the banks of Lake McClure, about 40 miles east of Modesto. The lake is at less than 10% of its capacity.
Vehicles are burned and homes are reduced to rubble in the community of Swall Meadows, Calif., Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015. California’s top energy official realized it flying over the normally pristine, snow-cloaked Sierra Nevada at Christmas and seeing stark bare granite cloaked in dirty brown haze. The state’s fire chief realized it when crews were fighting a raging wildfire consuming houses and tinder-dry forests at 7,000 feet in February. California, with snowpack at a record low this winter, and much of the West are becoming dirtier, more perilous places, with billions of dollars less hydroelectricity from runoff, greenhouse-gas emitting fossil fuels filling the gap and no melting spring snow to temper fire dangers. MICHELLE RINDELS AP
Desperate measures: Pleasanton resident Dan Green fills buckets with recycled water at the Dublin San Ramon Services District residential recycled water fill station on Wednesday
No more water: A gardener carries his tools following work at a South Pasadena home on April 8, 2015 in California, where a way of life once prized by homeowners throughout the state – the green grass lawn – is coming to an end with the realization there is no more water
Dried up: A ‘River Closed’ sign is posted on the Truckee River which has dried up because of lack of water at Lake Tahoe, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California on Wedneday
High and dry: A buoy is high and dry on the Truckee River where it originates from its source at Lake Tahoe in Tahoe City, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California on Wednesday where the level of the lake is 6 feet below the minimal level of flowing into the Truckee River
…But the most alarming feature of the state’s water shortage remains hidden from view, scientists say. California is running low on groundwater, the vast pools of water stored in underground aquifers that took thousands of years to fill up but are now being drained to irrigate farm fields and run sink taps.
An aerial survey of select areas in Southern California and the south Sierra Nevada in early April showed that millions of trees have died and were “most severely drought impacted,” said biologist Jeffrey Moore, acting regional aerial survey program manager for the U.S. Forest Service.
Wild animals in drought-stricken Western states are dying for a drink
Dying of thirst and hunger, critters search for sustenance.
By Darryl Fears May 6 at 10:12 AM
For the giant kangaroo rat, death by nature is normally swift and dramatic: a hopeless dash for safety followed by a blood-curdling squeak as their bellies are torn open by eagles, foxes, bobcats and owls.
They’re not supposed to die the way they are today — emaciated and starved, their once abundant population dwindling to near nothing on California’s sprawling Carrizo Plain about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles, where the drought is turning hundreds of thousands of acres of grassland into desert.
Without grass, long-legged kangaroo rats can’t eat. And as they go, so go a variety of threatened animals that depend on the keystone species to live. “That whole ecosystem changes without the giant kangaroo rat,” said Justin Brasheres, an associate professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of California at Berkeley.
Endangered kangaroo rats are just one falling tile in the drought’s domino effect on wildlife in the lower Western states. Large fish kills are happening in several states as waters heated by higher temperatures drain and lose oxygen. In Northern California, salmon eggs have virtually disappeared as water levels fall. Thousands of migrating birds are crowding into wetland shrunk by drought, risking the spread of disease that can cause massive die-offs.
As the baking Western landscape becomes hotter and drier, land animals are being forced to seek water and food far outside their normal range. Herbivores such as deer and rabbits searching for a meal in urban gardens in Reno are sometimes pursued by hawks, bobcats and mountain lions. In Arizona, rattlesnakes have come to Flagstaff, joining bears and other animals in search of food that no longer exists in their habitat.
“You think about it. In our urban environments we have artificial water. We’re not relying on creeks,” said David Catalano, a supervisory biologist for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. “We have sprinkling systems. We water bushes with fruit and water gardens. That’s just a magnet for everything.
“We’ve seen an increase in coyote calls, bear calls, mountain lion calls — all the way to mice and deer,” Catalano said of residents placing distress calls to his department. “At your house everything is green and growing and flowering and they’re being drawn to it.”
The state wildlife agency said it’s preparing for a deluge of calls reporting bear sightings from Lake Tahoe this summer when berries and other foods they eat disappear for lack of rain.
About 4,000 mule deer have disappeared from a mountain range near Reno between late last year and now, likely because of drought. “Our level of concern is very high,” Catalano said. Nevada has placed low fiberglass pools called guzzlers that hold up to 3,600 gallons of water at more than a thousand wilderness areas across the state to provide water for wildlife.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department sent a message for a second year to residents in Flagstaff near Grand Canyon National Park: “Don’t be surprised if you see more wild animals around town in the next few months. Drought conditions may cause creatures like elk, deer, bobcats, foxes, coyotes and even bears to wander further into town than normal, as they seek sources of food and water.”
Don’t feed them, the department warned. Remove pet food, water bowls, garbage and other items that attract wild animals. It does more harm than good.
In California, where mandatory water restrictions were passed by the state water board on Tuesday, humans are already coming into contact with desperate wildlife from the 250,000-acre Carrizo Plain National Monument in California’s Central Valley, near Bakersfield.
“Just today, 20 minutes ago, four coyote cubs arrived” from the Bakersfield’s outskirts, said Don Richardson, curator of animals for the California Living Museum, which has an animal shelter in the city.
“We actually get everything from reptiles to mammals,” Richardson said.
“We have 13 San Joaquin kit fox, an endangered species. They were abandoned, orphaned. The kit foxes health was impacted by the struggle to make it with reduced resources. Then of course we see a lot of birds of prey — owls and golden eagles.”
The animals are already suffering from the fragmentation of their habitat because of ranching and urban development. “It’s looking to be a very, very difficult year for wildlife,” Richardson said.
Endangered San Joaquin kit fox, coyotes and birds in the wildlands outside Bakersfield all rely on the giant kangaroo rat to survive. But those rodents are struggling themselves.
“We fear that a semi-arid grassland is becoming a desert,” said Brasheres. “The giant kangaroo rat can’t survive in desert.”
A study by the university recorded a 95 percent population loss since 2010.
Before the drought, 60 percent of their habitat was covered in grasses they eat and seeds they store for hard times in a network of underground burrows, Brasheres said. Four years of little rain has reduced the cover to 18 percent.
“They simply lack food so they starve,” Brasheres said. As the state wildfire season approaches, the remaining grasses could be wiped out.
For a study, biologist caught a few kangaroo rats this year to probe their condition. “They were skinny,” Brasheres said. “We looked at females to see whether they had young, whether they were lactating.” They weren’t.
In this reality where food is scarce and births are few, kangaroo rats are still a top prey item, further shrinking their numbers.
The demise of this species would be unthinkable, Brasheres said. There’s no overstating how important the rodent is in the ecosystem. Few others are around to feed snakes, badgers weasels and animals already mentioned. Even the soil kangaroo rats dig for burrows creates moist habitat for insects.
A worse situation is hard to imagine, said Stafford Lehr, chief of fisheries for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. But there is one.
Chinook salmon are in great danger, he said. For two years, only 5 percent of their eggs have survived winter and spring migrations because the cold water their eggs need to survive drains from rivers and reservoirs.
“If you draw down a reservoir, cold water at the bottom drains first,” Lehr said.
To save them, wildlife officials tried to replenish cold water that drained from Shasta Lake north of Sacramento last year. “It didn’t work,” Lehr said.
“Ninety-five percent of eggs and juvenile brood in 2014 were killed,” Lehr said. “Those would be expected to return three years later. We also had heavy mortality in 2013, expected back in 2016. The 2015 fish are spawning right now. We’re trying everything in our power to have enough cold water in Shasta so we don’t have what we had last year.”
Salmon are only part of the problem. Smelt are at the lowest number ever recorded in the state. They are a major forage fish, feeding other fish and birds in the marine ecosystem.
“It’s part of the heritage resource in the state of California. It’s our responsibility to ensure they are protected,” Lehr said. “Every time you lose something it puts pressure on the environment.
“You lose it, and something else will replace it but it will be lost. They’re part of the ecosystem. Millions of dollars have been invested in their survival.”
In this photo taken Friday March 27, 2015, farmer Rudy Mussi poses at one of his pumps that draws water from a slough to irrigate his farm land in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta near Stockton, Calif. As California enters the fourth year of drought, huge amounts of water are mysteriously vanishing from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and farmers whose families for generations have tilled fertile soil there are the prime suspects. Delta farmers deny they are stealing water, still, they have been asked to report how much water they are pumping and to prove their legal right. Mussi says he has senior water rights in a system more than a century old that puts him in line ahead of those with lower ranking, or junior, water rights. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
California farmers resign themselves to drought: ‘Nobody’s fault but God’s’
Despite efforts to dig deeper into the earth to get at diminishing groundwater, the spectre of desertification may cost Central Valley farmers too much to carry on
Baked earth at Clarence Freitas’ farm, outside Fresno. Photograph: Rory Carroll/the Guardian
Rory Carroll in Fresno, California
Saturday 7 March 2015 08.00 EST
Kim Hammond does not want responsibility for her neighbours’ livelihoods, or for the crops which stretch in all directions as far as the eye can see, or for the earth itself in this corner of California.
But these days, her little bungalow office in the yard of her family’s drilling company can feel like Mount Olympus.
“It’s just way too stressful, playing God,” said Hammond, a grandmother who co-owns the company and works as its secretary. “Every day we have people on the phone or here in person, pleading. It breaks your heart. But I always give it to them straight. I don’t sugarcoat it.”
It is her job to tell farmers when – or if – a team can visit their property to drill for groundwater and make a well which can save a crop, avert bankruptcy and, perhaps, preserve a way of life.
As California faces a likely fourth year of drought, demand for drilling in the Central Valley has exploded. Hammond’s company, Arthur & Orum, can barely keep up: its seven rigs are working flat-out, yet a white folder with pending requests is thicker than three telephone books.
The waiting list has grown to three years, leaving many farmers to contemplate parched fields and ruin in what has been one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions. It supplies half of America’s fruit, nuts and vegetables.
“We’re overwhelmed. We’re going crazy,” said Hammond. “Everyone is in a desperate situation. Everyone has a sad story.”
Arthur & Orum has bought an additional rig for $1.2m, and out-of-state drillers have moved into the area. But as drills criss-cross the landscape, boring ever deeper into the earth, there is a haunting fear: what if they suck up all the groundwater? What if, one day, the water runs out?
“We’re having to go deeper and deeper,” said Hammond. “They say we’re tapping water millions of years old. That boggles the mind. I can hardly grasp it.”
Meagre rain has depressed the water table so much that in some areas drills bore more than 1,500ft. Sucking up water stored long underground can cause soil to subside and collapse. In some places the land has dropped by a foot. Hydrogeologists have warned that pumping out groundwater faster than it can recharge threatens springs, streams and ecosystems.
Hammond said she was conflicted that the family business was saving some neighbours’ livelihoods for now but risked long-term devastation. “They say we’re cutting our own throats. I live here. I don’t want to live in the desert.”
Sensing drama, a reality TV production company has asked the family company about doing a show.
The spectre of desertification inched closer this week. The Sierra Nevada snowpack, which supplies about a third of California’s water, is paltry. The California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program found just 6.7in of snow – close to the lowest on record – at a survey spot near Echo Summit.
Storms in December and February mean reservoirs hold more water than this time last year, but they remain well below average. Conservation efforts are slipping. In January urban areas used 9% less water than January 2013, far below the official target of 20%.
El Niño, the weather system which often douses the western US, has returned after a five-year absence but promises little relief. Mike Halpert, deputy director of the Climate Prediction Center, said in a statement it is “likely too late and too weak to provide much relief for drought-stricken California”.
Federal officials warned last week that for a second consecutive year irrigation projects were likely to allocate zero water to Central Valley farmers without senior water rights.
“This is an absolutely devastating shock,” said Ryan Jacobsen, executive director for the Fresno County farm bureau. “Unless things change dramatically in the next six weeks, we expect 2015 to be much worse than last year.”
Crisis is apparent as you drive through the valley. Many fields are fallow – some idled last year, others more recently. The earth is baked hard. Preliminary estimates suggest Fresno may have recorded its warmest-ever February, prolonging what has been dubbed the “time without winter”. Roadside signs warn of the consequences. “No water = no food.” “Food grows where water flows.”
The American Meteorological Society has found no definitive link between climate change and California’s drought, but a recent report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said rising temperatures caused dry periods to overlap more often with warm periods.
‘It’s like frigging chemotherapy’
Computers and state-of-the-art irrigation have not spared Shawn Coburn, 46, who owns a farm near Dos Palos, in Merced County. Last year he abandoned alfalfa and pomegranates and cut his 1,000-acre tomato crop by two-thirds. “This year I’ll fallow all of it. You’ll see a lot more land fallowed this year.”
Like many farmers, he assailed pumping restrictions aimed at protecting the delta smelt, a threatened fish, and other environmental regulations, branding them ruinous and futile. Environmentalists call them vital to the entire ecosystem.
Coburn has spent almost $4m on wells but said in some areas water plumbed from ever lower depths was often laden with salt and other minerals. “It’s like frigging chemotherapy,” he said. “You can get away with it for one year. By the third year you’re basically killing the tree.”
Even so, many farmers see no alternative.
Clarence Freitas, 56, who owns 70 acres of almonds and grapes, watched with relief as a team from Arthur & Orum drilled into his baked soil, boring through 80ft a day until reaching 440ft and an expensive, urgent replacement for his old 160ft-deep well.
“My heart hurts, my bank account hurts,” he said, as muddy water gushed from pipes. Neighbours advised him to go deeper, in anticipation of the water table plunging further, but Freitas said the men in his family tended to die young – “I hope it’ll last 20 years and by then I’ll be gone.” He was not optimistic about the valley. “This could go back to being desert, the way it was before irrigation.”
Many farmers are descendants of migrants who fled here to escape the 1930s dust bowl, a trauma immortalised in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. It could happen again, except this time in California’s man-made Eden, said Matt Hammond, 51, Kim’s husband, on his way to a drilling site.
“They’ll keep growing crops around here until they pump the valley dry. If something doesn’t change, everything will dry up and die. It won’t be farmable anymore.”
The community had hoped for a “miracle March” of bountiful rain but that seems unlikely, he said, scanning azure skies. “Nobody’s fault but God’s.”
“The demand we’re placing on the aquifer and the deep bedrock drilling, which is going on at an alarmingly fast pace, is really scary,” said Tricia Blattler, executive director of the Tulare County Farm Bureau. “Folks are really concerned we’re not going to be able find water in the groundwater system much longer. We are tapping it way too quickly.”
California Towns Shrink Amid Drought, in More Ways Than One
Tony Azevedo’s a third-generation farmer in California’s Central Valley. For decades, his family has grown cantaloupes. This year, he won’t — and he’ll leave a third of his 11,500-acre farm fallow.
“This field would have been cantaloupes, had we had the water,” he explained, pointing to some of his unplanted acres. “Tomatoes, garlic, beans — there are plenty of crops we could have grown.”
Azevedo says he needs to be strategic with how he allocates his groundwater, which he pumps from underground aquifers to irrigate his crops.
“It’s very unusual for us to use well water 100 percent like we’re using today,” he said. “You take a glass of water and you put one straw, two straws, three straws — eventually you’re going to run out of it, right? Well, that’s what the aquifer is. It’s a big cup, and we’re all pulling out of it.”
Water levels in underground aquifers near the small farm town of Stratford have dropped an average of eighty feet in three years, according to California’s Department of Water Resources.
Strain on groundwater resources can cause land above aquifers to drop. Some parts of the San Joaquin Valley are sinking as fast as a foot as year. It’s not happening as quickly in Stratford — but the town is sinking in more ways than one.
“The local hardware store, the auto parts store, the tractor dealership: everybody counts on [farmers] to keep rolling and that’s not happening right now,” Azevedo said. “When we have a third of our ranch is idle, that’s a third less we’re spending in the community, and so it affects everybody.”
Along the main drag in Stratford, many buildings are boarded up.
The gas station is gone and so are the restaurants, although you can find a fresh cup of coffee at the auto parts store where Wesley Rodrigues works.
“I wish it was better,” he said, “like it used to be. But things happen, I guess.”
At the grocery store across the street, Mahmod Almihiri watches business dry up. “No water, no workers,” he said.
Some of the customers who do shop at his small market find it hard to make ends meet. Almihiri finds it hard to turn them away. “I can’t say no,” he explained. Instead of cash, he sometimes collects IOUs on slips of paper. Right now, he says he’s owed about $7,000 dollars.
It’s the price he pays to help his neighbors in need. He believes his business – and his town – will survive for the next generation.
“I have hope, but it’s just a matter of getting water here,” said customer David Hartsburg. “Water brings people. Without water you got nothing. Nobody can live. Nobody can survive. Its that’s simple.”