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 lifted the official drought emergency 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 left in effect 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 a plan to promote water conservation and prepare for future droughts. 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 consequences of groundwater overdraft like wells drying up, land collapsing through subsidence, seawater intrusion along the coast and damage to ecologically sensitive springs, streams and lakes as aquifer levels drop. In 2014, the governor signed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act into law, which aims to eliminate groundwater overdraft in the state by 2040 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 irreparably compacted. That eliminates water storage capacity and means the surface is permanently sunk. Parts of California’s San Joaquin Valley have dropped by up to 28 feet, 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, leaving hundreds of household without running water. 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 Delta smelt 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 severely curtail commercial salmon fishing 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 sharply limited. 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 declined during the drought as birds crowded onto fewer and smaller patches of habitat.

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 High Country News.

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