Peter Fimrite is better than most, like his father, Ron, was. Good at finding odd angles like, in the present story: “Why not look at the drought from the historical perspective of the state’s environmental movement, in other words, a critical perspective, at least an intellectually respectable one?
It makes for a fine article, built on an interview of veteran California environmentalist, Jonas Minton. But, as far as his drastic either/or choice for public investment, we'd like to add a third: why not take this moment to strengthen the existing dams which, according to a study made of them during the Gray Davis administration are all -- except three -- out of compliance?
Factoring in a few population statistics makes a complete picture of witless capitalist pandemonium. Despite the unrecessive depression, the population increased by 1.1 million between 2010 and 2013 to an estimated 38,332,521, according to the US Census Bureau. – blj
San Francisco Chronicle
California drought: Water officials look to rules of '70s
Look for water officials to revive rules of the '70s...Peter Fimrite...1-19-14
The American River looks to Jonas Minton very much like it did nearly four decades ago when he took a kayak out into what was then a trickling stream and scraped across the rocks on the bottom.
That year, 1977, was one of the driest in California history, a drought that inspired a water conservation movement, along with low-flow toilets and showerheads, water-saving washing machines and dishwashers, drip irrigation and recycled water.
Still, Minton, a water adviser for the Planning and Conservation League, says it's with a sense of deja vu that he looks out now over the normally mighty American, which hit its lowest level in decades last week. "I wondered then if we would learn from that hard lesson," Minton said about his time on the river in 1977.
"Now, 37 years later, I again look at the same hard rocks in the dry channel. I realize we have clung to the notion that we do not have to live within our means."
While Californians are environmentally conscious and mindful of conserving natural resources, water demand has never been greater. The state's population has nearly doubled since the '70s, from 20 million to 38 million, and agricultural needs remain significant: The Golden State produces nearly half of the nation's fruits, nuts and vegetables.
Way below normal
Last year was the driest calendar year in California since records began in 1849, and hardly a drop of water has fallen this year. The Sierra snowpack - used to irrigate millions of acres of farmland and to quench the thirst of most of Californians when it melts - is 17 percent of normal. The state's reservoirs are way below normal, and there is not enough water in the rivers for the salmon to spawn.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency Friday, asking for a voluntary 20 percent reduction in water use by the public, businesses and government agencies.
Judging by previous droughts, this is what California can expect:
-- Water conservation programs will be implemented around the state encouraging limits on watering of gardens, washing cars, showering and other discretionary uses. Water efficient appliances will become crucial commodities, like low flow toilets were in previous droughts.
-- Farmers will have to choose between pumping more local groundwater, changing crops or leaving their land fallow as water availability decreases and prices increase.
-- Hydroelectric power generation will decrease, forcing California to use more expensive fuels, but also encouraging other sources of electricity, like solar and wind power.
-- The fisheries along the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta will suffer as water is siphoned away to meet the needs of urban and agricultural interests.
-- Groundwater levels will sink and the ground will subsist further in the San Joaquin Valley as more and more water is sucked from the aquifer into wells.
-- Agricultural agencies and environmentalists could file lawsuits to protect their rights to water for crops, fish and spawning habitat.
-- Wildfires could increase in frequency and intensity across the state as the fire season lengthens. The recent fire in Big Sur is a prime example.
Prospects for a turnaround this year are grim. The National Weather Service says it may rain by the end of January, but the state would need several huge storms to ease concern.
The problem, according to meteorologist Jan Null of Golden Gate Weather Services, is that an area of high pressure has been changing the trajectory of the jet stream, guiding storms away from California and the western United States, like a boulder in a creek blocking the current.
"What the jet stream is trying to do is equalize the cold air from the poles and the hot air from the equator," Null said. "That balance has always changed in the past, but when the right balance is reached, it can stay there for a long time."
There is no telling when the atmospheric equilibrium will change, but carbon dating of tree stumps found in Mono Lake when water levels there were at a low point indicate that some California droughts have lasted as long as 150 years, time enough for a tree to grow in a lake basin. A long-term drought today would be catastrophic.
State and federal officials are scrambling to draw up emergency drought plans and numerous local agencies, including Marin and Sonoma counties, which rely mostly on local supplies, have either instituted rationing or are contemplating conservation orders.
"It's critically dry," said Louis Moore, spokesman for theBureau of Reclamation at the U.S. Department of Interior. "Where we are right now is right around even with the driest period in the early 1990s and even back in 1977. We're conserving water and we're looking for additional water."
Last week, the Sacramento City Council ordered residents in the northeastern part of the city, where a half-million people rely on water from Folsom Dam, to reduce water use by 20 to 30 percent amid fears that the lake could go completely dry. The dam now sits at 18 percent of capacity, 42 percent of its average level for this time of year.
Mendocino County, which relies primarily on well water, has declared an emergency. The 10 reservoirs run by the Santa Clara Valley Water District are critically low, with so little water in the Almaden Reservoir that the district has had to pump water over the spillway so that steelhead trout in Los Alamitos creek can survive.
The Santa Clara water district has the benefit of abundant groundwater, which is not an option in many other areas. The State Water Project recently announced it would be providing only 5 percent of its contracted allocations to water agencies, prompting an angry response from farmers.
"Without an adequate water supply, an estimated 200,000 acres of prime agriculture land will remain unplanted on the west side of Fresno County," said Tom Birmingham, general manager of the Westlands Water District, who blamed regulations favoring fish health over farm well being and administrative inaction for compounding the problem. "But it's not just the farmers that will suffer. Farmworkers, communities, businesses and California consumers will feel the full impact of the drought and regulatory failures."
Minton and other environmentalists say the water problems have been exacerbated by the fact that a lot of farmers have switched from annual crops - like cotton, lettuce and tomatoes - to permanent crops, like almond trees and pistachios, which must be watered all year.
"California is the largest worldwide producer of almonds," Minton said. "They made the choice to plant trees that give them a higher annual profit, with the risk that they cannot be sustained in dry periods."
Most of the state's reservoirs have enough water to last for at least another year, according to the experts, but even administrators in those areas with ample supplies are worried.
"Droughts are usually uneven. Some parts of the state are affected worse than others," said Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis. "If it continues, some agricultural users will be hit pretty hard this year and some of the Bay Area districts that rely on the delta might be hit pretty hard. Southern California and San Francisco will still be in pretty good shape, but if next year is dry it will just get worse and worse."
In the end, Minton said, water districts and regulators will be facing many of the same choices California dealt with in 1977, when he was scraping the bottom of the American River in his kayak.
"The question that California will have to address ... is where do we invest the money," he said. "Do we invest in dams and pipelines ... or do we invest the money in recycling, groundwater cleanup and conservation technologies?"