The heat is on: California water restrictions a frightening harbinger

Snowpack at Yosemite National Park's Halfdome is going, going, gone.

Snowpack at Yosemite National Park’s Halfdome is going, going, gone.

I share a running joke with some cousins in California. Whenever they brag about basking in the sunshine and poke fun at our extreme cold or heavy snowfall in the Midwest, I always say, “Yeah, but at least we’ve got water.”

Somehow, that’s not so funny anymore.

California Gov. Jerry Brown has imposed mandatory restrictions on water usage in the drought-stricken state, on residents, businesses, and farms. All cities and towns must reduce their water usage by 25 percent by February 2016, although the restrictions would not affect the state’s agricultural industry. That move is being criticized by many, as the industry uses about 80 percent of the state’s water. California agribusiness will have to report more information on groundwater use.

Brown’s executive order has other requirements as well. Water to campuses, golf courses, cemeteries, and other large landscaped areas will be cut. Some 50 million square feet of lawns throughout the state will be replaced with “drought-resistant landscaping.” There will be a temporary, statewide rebate program to replace old appliances with new, water-efficient models.

The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which state residents count on for about 30 percent of their water supply, is at a record low — only five percent of its usual amount. There’s usually five feet of snow at this time of year, but Brown made his announcement in the Sierra Nevadas, standing on dry, brown grass.

To recover from the drought, California needs a whopping 11 trillion gallons of water. According to a CNN story, that estimate is based on a NASA satellite data analysis of how much water the state’s reserves lack. “That’s more than 14,000 times the amount of water it would take to fill the Dallas Cowboys stadium, according to CNN calculations. It’s the amount of water that flows over Niagara Falls in about 170 days’ time.”

To make things worse, the year is shaping up to be one of the hottest and driest on record. Temperatures in Southern California are already in the 90s — in March.

Lest anyone think this is an anomaly, think again. According to a story in the Washington Post, the severity of the drought is likely caused by climate change. “Climate change is best characterized as a drought amplifier rather than the cause of the drought itself,” the story said. In other words, even though climate change isn’t driving the weather pattern behind the drought, it is directing the temperatures up, making the effect of the drought devastating.

Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Noah Diffenbaugh, an associate professor of Earth system science and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, and colleagues pointed out the obvious. “Our analyses show that California has historically been more likely to experience drought if precipitation deficits co-occur with warm conditions and that such confluences have increased in recent decades, leading to increases in the fraction of low-precipitation years that yield drought,” the researchers said in a conclusion. “In addition, we find that human emissions have increased the probability that low-precipitation years are also warm, suggesting that anthropogenic warming is increasing the probability of the co-occurring warm–dry conditions that have created the current California drought.”

In non-academic speak, that means: The hotter it is, the worse the drought, and carbon emissions are making it hotter. “We now have very clear evidence that global warming is increasing the risk of the conditions that are creating this drought,” Diffenbaugh said.

So who are you going to believe? A Stanford professor who’s a climate expert or Sen. James Inhofe (R, Stone Age), who thinks he’s clever by throwing a snowball on the Senate floor, just because he was inconvenienced by a Washington, D.C., snowstorm?

We used to tease my uncle in Southern California when, instead of planting grass at his house, he landscaped the area around his home with multi-colored stones and some cactus. He claimed that he just didn’t want to cut the lawn. It turns out that he was a man ahead of his time.

One Comment on “The heat is on: California water restrictions a frightening harbinger

  1. You are so right, Sher, these are scary times. We ripped out the lawn in the fall and have drought resistant plants. It was in the high 90s in AZ (the Giants didn’t look good.) they’re talking about As mega, 50 year drought. Get yer guest room ready!

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