El Nido is a small settlement of some 300 souls located almost right in the middle of California, in the grand agricultural enterprise known as the San Joaquin Valley. Translated into English, El Nido means "the nest." It's a fitting name for the place, though its founders couldn't have foreseen how. Today, El Nido is also located near the center of a 1,200-square-mile bowl-shaped depression in the land. Year-by-year, it's becoming evermore nest-like. Between 2008 and 2010, the center of the bowl sunk more than 21 additional inches, according to a recent U.S. Geological Survey report.
What's happening around El Nido – the sinking – is, in technical terms, known as "subsidence," and it's common in the San Joaquin Valley. Subsidence is caused by farms that pump large amounts of water from aquifers to wet their crops. Their thirst for groundwater tends to grow in drought years, when water supplies in aboveground canals are constrained. ("That’s possible," explains Legal Planet blogger Richard Frank, "because California, unlike other Western states, has no statewide system of groundwater regulation.") Ironically, reports the USGS, groundwater mining and the rapid subsidence it causes now threatens to crumble aboveground water infrastructure, quite literally.
Absent rapid delivery of major groundwater regulation reforms -- and don't hold your breath for those -- this year is shaping up to be another in which drought begets subsidence in California, among other undesirable things. Last year was the driest in the state's recorded history. Now, California's statewide snowpack holds only 17 percent of the water, or "snow water equivalent," that it typically does on this date. For California, this will mark the third consecutive drought year. And each year hurts a little more than the last. As the Modesto Bee recently reported: "In 2013, State Water Project allocations were at 35 percent of requested deliveries. The initial allocation for 2014 is 5 percent, the lowest on record."
The numbers are especially skimpy in Oregon and Washington, too, as the map below showing the amount of water in Western snowpacks as a percentage of normal indicates.
Though the Colorado River Basin doesn't appear quite as squeezed at the moment – see Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, the sources of most of the basin's water – the reality is that it's still stuck in the drought that has reigned for the better part of the last decade and a half. Here, drought has spurred some reforms, and a big one will become very real this year. For the first time, Lake Powell, the major reservoir on the upper part of the river, will release less water than usual to Lake Mead, the major downstream reservoir and a crucial water source for Arizona, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and many farms in those states. With less water coming into Lake Mead but just as much going out, the reservoir's water level will drop more rapidly, pushing it closer to the level at which downstream states will be forced to start taking less out.
Unfortunately, for most places in the West experiencing drought, the forecast portends more of the same:
That said, neither El Niño nor La Niña are exerting their influence this year, making it harder to predict what kind of moisture the months ahead will bring to the mountains. We could still be surprised – and delighted – by big storms. As hydrologist Tim Skarupa of Arizona's Salt River Project, a water utility, recently told the Arizona Republic, in these so-called "neutral" phases, "we’ve had some of our driest years and some of our wettest.”
Cally Carswell is the assistant editor at High Country News. She tweets @callycarswell.