Without a drought, California takes stock

Infrastructure issues, dry wells and other troubles still linger across the Golden State.

 

In response to this year’s wet winter weather and effective water conservation, California Gov. Jerry Brown has declared the Golden State’s more than 5-year-long drought over, for the most part. With the exception of four counties, Brown on April 7. Even as he did so, however, he emphasized the importance of preparing for future droughts — and dealing with the fallout from the one that just ended. “This drought emergency is over, but the next drought could be around the corner,” Brown said in a statement. “Conservation must remain a way of life.”

To that end, Brown a requirement that water agencies report urban water use to the state as well as prohibitions against wasteful behaviors like watering lawns during rainstorms. In addition, a coalition of state agencies released . Despite those actions and the snowmelt-swollen reservoirs now dotting the state, California’s water woes are far from over: Problems like overdrawn aquifers, crumbling infrastructure, damaged ecosystems and compromised drinking water supplies — which were exacerbated by a drought they largely predate — will likely linger for years.

California’s governor declared the latest drought over in most of the state on April 7, but water is still an issue there — wild fluctuations in precipitation, for example, mean infrastructure like dams and levies must be able to handle deluges as well as dry periods.

Sucking up groundwater faster than nature can replenish it has been an issue in California for decades. And when drought shrinks surface water supplies, the rate of pumping intensifies. That can magnify the negative like wells drying up, land collapsing through subsidence, seawater intrusion along the coast and as aquifer levels drop. In 2014, the governor signed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act into law, which aims to through local management plans.

In some places, though, irreversible damage has already been done. It’s sometimes possible to reverse land subsidence by recharging groundwater, but not always — if too much water is pumped from deep aquifers situated in silt or clay instead of sand, layers of ground can become . That eliminates water storage capacity and means the surface is permanently sunk. Parts of California’s San Joaquin Valley have dropped by , cracking and buckling infrastructure like roads, bridges, pipelines, canals and dams. And the need to repair them is on top of the maintenance and fortification that dams and spillways across the West need to cope with the deluges that hit California between droughts, a necessity brought into stark relief by the erosion of the emergency spillway at Oroville Dam in February.

Technically, the latest drought isn’t over yet in four California counties. Brown kept the emergency declaration active in Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Tuolumne counties, three of which are located in the Central Valley, in order to continue funding drinking water deliveries in rural communities where dropping groundwater levels have dried up domestic wells, . Digging a deeper well is often prohibitively expensive; one long-term solution is to connect houses to a city water supply, but rural residents can be reluctant to take on a municipal water bill.

Ecosystems and wildlife are still feeling the effects of the drought, too. Severely dry conditions, bark beetles and disease killed over 100 million trees in California between 2010 and 2016, putting houses and power lines at risk of tumbling timber and sparking controversy over the best way to deal with vast tracts of dead trees. And when water is scarce, native species like and salmon suffer the consequences, says Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California Davis. Fishery managers have recommended that regulators in California this year, including a complete prohibition on commercial catch of Chinook salmon returning to the Klamath River. Ceremonial fishing by tribal members will also be . The restrictions are in response to dwindling salmon populations — this year’s adult fish hatched a few years ago, when rivers impacted by the drought were running low and warm, making it difficult for young salmon to survive. Migratory bird populations that depend on wetlands and lakes for nesting and food also as birds crowded onto .

In the coming decades, especially as climate change accelerates, California will continue to face severe weather on both ends of the spectrum, Lund says. “California’s a very dry place that sometimes has some very wet years — and sometimes has even drier years,” he says. “We’re always between extremes.” So while the drought may be over for now, chances are good that the Golden State will again face prolonged shortages — and in the meantime, long-term struggles with groundwater and ecosystems remain. “We certainly have a lot of water problems,” he says. “We always have, we always will.”

Emily Benson is an editorial intern at NewTowncarShare News.

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • Southwest Borderlands Initiative Professor of Native Americans and the News Media The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University is...
  • AWF seeks an energetic Marketing and Communications Director. Please see the full job description at https://azwildlife.org/jobs
  • The Southwest Communications Director will be responsible for working with field staff in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico to develop and execute detailed communication plans...
  • An intentional community designed for aging in place. Green built with Pumice-crete construction (R32), bamboo flooring, pine doors, T&G ceiling with fans, and maintenance free...
  • (CFROG) is a Ventura County, CA based watch-dog and advocacy non-profit organization. cfrog.org
  • Take your journalism skills to the next level and deepen your understanding of environmental issues by applying for the 2019-2020 Ted Scripps Fellowships in Environmental...
  • WINTER WILDLANDS ALLIANCE POSITION ANNOUNCEMENT: EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR Winter Wildlands Alliance seeks an experienced and highly motivated individual to lead and manage the organization as Executive...
  • The San Juan Mountains Association is seeking a visionary leader to spearhead its public lands stewardship program in southwest Colorado. For a detailed job description...
  • The Cascade Forest Conservancy seeks a passionate ED to lead our forest protection, conservation, education, and advocacy programs.
  • Mountain Pursuit is a new, bold, innovative, western states, hunting advocacy nonprofit headquartered in Jackson, Wyoming. We need a courageous, hard working, passionate Executive Director...
  • The Draper Natural History Museum (DNHM) at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center of the West in Cody, WY, invites applications for the Willis McDonald, IV...
  • Couple seeks quiet, private, off-grid acreage in area with no/low cell phone service and no/low snowfall. Conservation/bordering public lands a plus. CA, OR, WA, ID,...
  • 20mi N of Steamboat Springs, majestic views, aspen forest, year-round access, yurt, septic, solar electric, seasonal ponds, no covenants, bordering National Forest. Ag status. $449K....
  • Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions: Communications & Development Manager/Director (remote work possible) and a Deputy Director...
  • Former northern Sierra winery, with 2208 sq.ft. commercial building, big lot, room to expand.
  • The dZi Foundation is seeking a FT Communications Associate with a passion for Nepal to join our team in Ridgway, Colorado. Visit dzi.org/careers.
  • Available now for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojaidigital.net.
  • Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • 1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • Suitable for planting hay, hemp, fruit. Excellent water rights. 1800 square foot farmhouse, outbuildings, worker housing.