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. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...