The Sierras have had practically no snow this year. Lake Tahoe, which relies on skiing for income, has no ski areas operating at full capacity. Some only have 30% of their lifts open. Last year, they had 50 feet of snow in some places. The Sierra Nevada is at a mere 14% of normal snowpack. The southern California Metropolitan Water District (MWD) says this could be the driest year on record.
This isn’t just happening in California. It’s been exceptionally warm and dry across the nation. Flowers are blooming in New Hampshire in January. Last year, California had exceptional amounts of rain and snow. This year is the opposite. So, what accounts for this bipolar weather? The cause is a combination of a La Nina, which usually brings dry weather, coupled with an exceptionally strong arctic oscillation which blocks cold, moist air heading south from the arctic. This is due to the most extreme jet stream pattern on record. No one is able to make predictions as to when it will change.
Most of California is now classified as being Abnormally Dry or in Moderate Drought. The MWD says reservoirs filled with previous years’ rains are enough to get them through two or three dry years. But, that’s primarily in urban southern California. Conditions are drier in northern California. Ranchers and farmers are getting nervous, wondering if they should make contingency plans now. Irrigation water is already being delivered in some areas, which is unusual for January.
Making things worse, the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center says there will be a 2.6 million acre foot drop in Colorado River water this year. An acre foot is about 325,000 gallons. The crucial spring flows into Lake Powell are predicted to be just 71% of normal. California gets substantial amounts of water from the Colorado River, which is now so overused that it no longer drains into the ocean. In 2011, Arizona used 2.7 million acre feet from the Colorado. The Imperial Irrigation District in southern California took 2.9 million acre feet and is the single largest user of water from the Colorado.
It’s rather astonishing that California agriculture takes more water than any other user and that the water comes from hundreds of miles away. But that’s the nature of the California water system. Water from the Sacramento Delta and the Colorado is routinely sent hundreds of miles to the end user. This creates somewhat of a vicious cycle in that a primary use of electricity in California is for pumps moving water, while electricity generation itself frequently requires large amounts of water. So, we’re using water to create power to move water, something which seems remarkably unsustainable. But that’s the system we have.
Some may be saying, well then, just throttle back on the water supply to the Imperial Valley and the Central Valley (which uses delta water). Those farmers and ranchers get too much danged water anyway! This complaint often comes from urbanites unaware of the economic powerhouse that California agriculture is and how in a very real sense, California feeds the nation.
A study of history shows that some civilizations can withstand severe droughts and survive while others collapse. But droughts weren’t the entire cause of such collapses. Rather, they tipped the societies into collapse after the failure of elites to govern properly and to provide a robust infrastructure. The Anasazi were probably wiped out by a severe decades-long drought.
We are better prepared for drought now, but still, such an event would have major consequences on the southwest and California. Meanwhile, Texas is surviving its extraordinary drought in a surprisingly resilient manner. We should study how and why some societies survive severe droughts.
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I guess instead of water from the Colorado river, we should invest in trucking down snow from Washington...
I live in a desert with sprinklers, it's only a matter of time until we run out of water for everyone.
Writing from near Lake Tahoe, I can tell you that the MLK holiday -- normally one of the busiest for the ski resorts -- was a disaster. No more than 1/4 of the expected people came up to ski and enjoy the Lake in winter. Snow is expected this week into next week and we may yet be able to salvage some of the ski season.
It's a matter of resourceful technology such as desalination plants, irrigation systems and other water useful technology that prevent societies from going down with drought. There is the ability to have sewage water convert to drinkable water. Currently there is even a project in Carlsbad where they will be having ocean water being transformed to drinkable, usable water. Some border countries have to battle for water and even steal their neighbor's water.
Shortages in the Central Valley have bode well for Republicans, as they have been able to blame the water crises on Democrats meddling with the delta. The problems and solutions need to be much larger than just short term political gains. Our energy, water, and food infrastructure won't be able to feed the rapidly growing global population unless we find an alternative to oil for transportation. Until we do that, on top of drought, we risk the spread of famines that already devastate vast regions of the world.
The droughts we have now are minor compared to what the Anasazi suffered. Their drought lasted for decades. Which certainly gives one pause, considering what would happen to the southwest were another drought like that to hit.
I think water economy, saving and recycling it should be basic for the west and southwest. In 20 years, golf courses in deserts will be considered a bizarre abomination of the past, IMO.
Its seems to me that the reports and empirical evidence have conflicting results. Despite this being one of the driest december's on record for California, and potentially the driest year on record, the Met water district says we can have 3 years without cutbacks as it stands now? I think you ask the right question Bob-how and why do some societies survive sever droughts while some collapse?