Stop if you’ve heard this before: California is in the grip of a severe drought. Again. Now the federal government is stepping in to help. To assist California, which is the nation’s largest food supplier, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently declared a drought disaster for 50 counties. That makes growers throughout the state who have been struggling with parched conditions eligible to seek federal loans.
Moisture content in vegetation is typically not something Cal Fire has to pay attention to until May or June. This is not a typical year. The United States Forest Service already checked fuels in the Sierra Nevada Foothills in eastern Fresno County on April 1 because of abnormally dry conditions confronting the state. Also atypical — Cal Fire is bringing in additional personnel this week to have more fire engines staffed by week’s end.
Lack of monsoon rainfall last summer and spotty snowfall this winter combined to worsen the Western drought dramatically in the past year, and spring snowmelt won’t bring much relief. Critical April 1 measurements of snow accumulations from mountain ranges across the region show that most streams and rivers will once again flow well below average levels this year, stressing ecosystems and farms and depleting key reservoirs that are already at dangerously low levels.
As drought deepens in the West and the water used by farms and people alike dwindles, farmers in Arizona and California are bracing for cutbacks in the two major federal systems that supply irrigation and drinking water to millions of people.
Water storage is shrinking with no snowpack to replenish reservoirs managed by the Bureau of Reclamation in California and Arizona. Shasta Lake in northern California is about half full while lakes Mead and Powell, the two giant reservoirs designed to contain more than 50-million-acre feet of water behind Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, respectively, are precariously low with under 20-million-acre feet of total storage combined.
The San Diego County Water Authority is developing a water shortage contingency plan, though not implementing it, despite dry conditions in places from which the region imports much of its water.
The region draws about 20% of its water from local sources, including groundwater, desalinated seawater and local reservoirs, according to the Authority’s website. Fully one-half of regional water is imported, by various means, from the Colorado River. A minority proportion comes from Northern California.
San Diego County is in the midst of the sixth driest rainy season on record, conditions that could lead to rare and sizable spring wildfires if things stay dry, the National Weather Service said on Tuesday.
San Diego International Airport has recorded only 4.36 inches of rain since the official water year began on Oct. 1. That’s more than 4 inches below normal. The airport averages 10.33 inches of rain from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.
California is at the edge of another protracted drought, just a few years after one of the worst dry spells in state history left poor and rural communities without well water, triggered major water restrictions in cities, forced farmers to idle their fields, killed millions of trees, and fueled devastating megafires.
California is heading for a “critically dry year” as drought spreads across the American West, creating a slow-moving crisis for the Biden administration and state officials.
The Golden State’s annual survey of Sierra Nevada snowpack, upon which it relies for as much as a third of its water, was only 59% of normal, officials warned last week, underscoring that the state didn’t get the “March miracle” of rain and snow it had hoped for.
Dry conditions in the Southwest, largely associated with La Niña, have intensified what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is calling the most significant U.S. spring drought since 2013, affecting an estimated 74 million people.
As the rain season comes to a close across Northern California, water districts are keeping a close eye on rain totals that are below average, and water managers are explaining what another “dry water year” means for our region. According to California’s Department of Water Resources, or DWR, the state is well into its second consecutive dry year. That causes concern among water managers. However, it comes as no surprise.