Drought Declared…Finally

Last week, Governor Brown finally made official what farmers have known for a month:  We are in a drought.  Many people were expecting him to issue strict restrictions on less than essential uses like watering lawns.  After all, farmers all over the state have already been told by their water districts that they will be receiving little or no water for irrigation this year.

Instead, he asked people to voluntarily cut their water use by 20%.

Since the last drought, water conservation has saved millions of gallons of water.  Golf courses are now mostly irrigated using recycled water.  Public restrooms have water saving fixtures.  Thousands of miles of irrigation canals have been channeled into pipes underground, reducing evaporation.  And millions of acres of farmland have been converted to new high efficiency irrigation technologies.  Conservation has allowed our state to keep growing, but much of the water saved has been devoted to efforts to conserve fish in the Sacramento Delta.  And no new reservoirs have been built in decades.

But average citizens have not been enlisted in the fight to save water.  Most homes in the state still have lawns irrigated with clean drinking water.  Low flush toilets and low flow showerheads sit alongside their water-wasting cousins on store shelves, where all but the most conscientious consumers ignore them.  And every time it does rain, millions of square feet of roofing, asphalt and concrete in our cities and suburbs run rain water straight into drainage ditches and into rivers, the ocean or sewage treatment plants.  Greywater systems to recycle household water are actually illegal.  New commercial developments are not allowed to create runoff, but neither are they mandated to store the water for later use.  We continue to treat precious rainfalll as a nuisance that must be whisked away as quickly as possible, unless it happens to fall within the watershed of a reservoir.

Hundreds of thousands of roofs across the state now sport solar panels to conserve energy, thanks to mandated incentives from utilities.  We need statewide rules for new homes and incentives for existing ones for cisterns to store rainfall runoff and landscaping appropriate for our dry climate — especially in Southern California .    Instead, many municipalities and developments new and old in California continue to mandate that homeowners maintain green lawns.

The agricultural economy of California is going to take a huge hit from  the drought even it only lasts one more year, which seems unlikely.  One local farmer told me that will be planting only half of his acreage, and laying off half of his employees.  He will be buying half as much seed, fuel, fertilizer, etc.  Multiply this a thousand times across the state and you have an idea of the drought’s economic affect on rural communities.  If the drought continues for more than a year, numerous farms will shut down or sell their land.

As I have mentioned in the past, we are Terra Firma are extremely lucky to have one of the most sustainable water sources in California.   Most of our water comes from Lake Berryessa, which has never restricted deliveries to its customers.  And because there is no conveyance to send the water to Southern California — yet — the reservoir has not been overtapped to fuel growth down there like so many others in Northern California have.

Long-term programs to increase our water supply and conserve water aside, there is one way that Governor Brown can instantly make millions of gallons of water available:  stop releasing water into rivers for fish.    In droughts like this that occurred before the first dams were built, most streams and rivers in our state would have been completely dry.  And yet we continue to release precious water from dwindling reservoirs that no one is allowed to use, so that flows in the rivers can continue to support fish.  The reality is that native fish and other wildlife in California have adapted over thousands of years to drought cycles like the one we are in, and they survived.  Humans in our state still have a long way to go before we can say the same.

Pablito

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