California has one year of water left: Hype or reality?

When a NASA scientist speaks in blunt terms about water supply, other scientists take notice.


A Los Angeles Times op-ed penned by NASA senior water scientist Jay Famiglietti last week caused a stir in drought-racked California. In forceful and vivid language, Famiglietti announced that the state has only about a year of water left in its reservoirs, rivers and lakes, as well as in its snowpack and soil.

Based on data acquired from NASA satellites, Famiglietti reported that the persistent drought conditions in the state have led to a 34-million acre-foot deficit in surface water – a volume 50 percent larger than Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir. “... (O)ur strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing,” Famiglietti wrote. “California has no contingency plan for a persistent drought like this one (let alone a 20-plus-year mega-drought), except, apparently, staying in emergency mode and praying for rain.”

When scientists drop the academic posture and speak in blunt terms, other people – in particular, other scientists and water watchers – take notice.

Some took issue with the op-ed’s headline – “California has about one year of water left. Will you ration now?” – saying it was out of sync with the rest of the article. New Mexico journalist and water reporter John Fleck fired back on his blog, calling it “scary as hell, a click-generating machine.”

Fleck also tapped Jay Lund, a professor of environmental and civil engineering at UC Davis (and a noted California water commentator in his own right), for comment. “It’s not the right impression that one more year of this and we’re toast. There’s quite a bit more left in groundwater,” Lund wrote. “A little bit less every year because we’re pumping, trying to make up for the drought.”

But it’s hard to deny that the metrics of California’s ongoing drought demand serious attention. The most recent snow survey at the beginning of March pegged snowpack statewide at less than 20 percent of average. "Nearly a third of our SNOTEL sites in the Cascades and Sierra Nevada are reporting the lowest snowpack ever measured," said Cara McCarthy, a hydrologist with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. "For the first time, some sites were snow-free on March 1. These areas can expect reduced summer streamflow."

The slopes of Mt. Shasta at about 6,000 feet were bone dry as of March 1
Jeremy Miller
The state is already taking action. Yesterday, California water regulators approved a new set of water saving measures. The rules, which will kick in later in the spring, include limiting lawn watering to two days a week and cutting water use in restaurants and hotels.

While city dwellers grapple with the prospect of brown grass and smaller gardens for a second year in a row, farmers in the southern reaches of the Central Valley are bracing for another season of steeply curtailed water deliveries. Last year, Central Valley farmers pumped aquifers at a frantic clip, as water districts received little to no water from the state’s two largest irrigation systems – the State and Central Valley Water Projects – which deliver water hundreds of miles from wetter regions in northern California to the warmer, arid reaches of the south.

This year looks like it will bring more of the same. At the end of February, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that water contractors in the southern Central Valley would be receiving a “zero percent allocation” (see: bupkis, nada, zilch) of water via the canals and aqueducts of the Central Valley Project, portending another year of widespread fallowing of farmland. Allocations could increase if spring snowstorms materialize – but based on the current weather patterns, that appears a remote possibility. The Department of Water Resources announced that projected deliveries from the State Water Project (and its centerpiece California Aqueduct) are a little better, at 20 percent – up from 5 percent last year – but hardly ideal.

With figures like these casting a pall over the months ahead, it’s hard to accuse Famiglietti of overstatement.

It's also important to remember that the dispute here is one of degree, not of kind. Both Lund and Famiglietti have spoken thoughtfully to HCN about the need for greater oversight of the state’s surface and groundwater supplies.

As Famiglietti told me for a story last year about California’s new groundwater monitoring regulations, educating the public about the state’s evolving water crisis is a delicate balancing act, a tightrope of tone that requires the presentation of technical scientific data in a dispassionate way while helping the public understand the gravity of that data.“I see my role as trying to be very clear about definitions. What is groundwater? What are the connections?” he said. “But it can be awfully frustrating to sit in my office and look at these charts and graphs that are so compelling, and so scary, and realize that a lot of people don't know about what’s happening.”

You have our attention now, Mr. Famiglietti.

Jeremy Miller is a contributor to High Country News, and is based in Northern California. 

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