Is California about to run out of water?

NASA’s Jay Famiglietti recently wrote that though the state’s water supply is rapidly disappearing, it’s not yet too late – but Californians need to commit to conservation today.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo/File
In this Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014 file photo, houseboats sit in the drought lowered waters of Oroville Lake, near Oroville, Calif. California is entering its fourth year of drought with lower than normal rain and snow falling on the state that leads the nation in agriculture production.

California’s water supply is dwindling by the day, and it shows no signs of slowing down.  

In a highly-cited op-ed published in the LA Times last week, NASA’s Jay Famiglietti sums it up: “Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing.”

While that appears to be enough to keep the Golden State afloat, so to speak, a little while longer – Mr. Famiglietti has taken to Twitter to clarify his statement – it does mean that, based on current and previous data, California is running out of water, fast. It also means that if there was any time for Californians to get their conservation game on, it’s now.

First, a quick look at the numbers: The three main water sources sustaining California are water in reservoirs, water pumped from underground aquifers, and mountain snowpacks. As of January last year, all three had been depleted by an extended dry period, according to the state’s Department of Water Resources.

The Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins have been losing volume by 4 trillion gallons a year since 2011 – more water than the population of California uses for municipal and domestic purposes annually, according to data collected via NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellite mission, or GRACE.

About 60 percent of that loss is due to depleting groundwater beneath California’s Central Valley, according to the researchers who analyzed the data.

Up in the Sierra Nevada mountains – where the snow serves as the main water supply for the western United States, particularly in the summer – the numbers aren’t looking good, either: This month, California’s Department of Water Resources found the water content in the mountain snowpack at only 19 percent of the early-March historical average, continuing a years-long downward trend.

“The only year it was lower was 1991 when it was 18 percent,” DWR public information officer Doug Carlson told The Christian Science Monitor when the data came out. “We are right on the cusp of the worst reading since 1950.”

Rising temperatures aren’t helping. Not only was 2014 California’s hottest year on record, it also marked the state’s warmest winter ever; the average temperature from November to January was 49.5, about 4.5 degrees warmer than the 20th century average, according to the National Climatic Data Center.

The high temperatures mean that even when there was precipitation, it didn’t deliver the much-needed snowfall to the Sierra snowpack.

“We're not just up a creek without a paddle in California,” Famiglietti wrote in his op-ed, “we're losing the creek too.”

While there’s cause for major concern, the fight isn’t over yet.

Famiglietti suggested several steps to take: immediate mandatory water rationing across the state’s water sectors; acceleration of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014, which requires the formation of groundwater sustainability agencies within the next two years; and the creation of a state task force that focuses on long-term water management strategies.

Also, he wrote, “the public must take ownership of this issue.”

There are some signs that they have. In November, Californians voted to pass Proposition 1, which designates about $7.5 million for groundwater storage, water recycling and conservation, groundwater cleanup, and other projects.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has also increased the rebate for ditching a regular grass lawn and replacing it with “water-wise landscape features” from $2 to $3 per square foot to $3.75.

Students at California State University-Los Angeles pledged to “Go Dirty for the Drought,” postponing washing their cars, the Monitor reported in November. Social media has also been helpful, with various hashtags bringing awareness to the public about small steps they can take.

“The idea of this was to get people talking about the drought,” Rachel Stich, communications director for LA Waterkeeper, which started #DirtyCarPledge, told the Monitor. “Now people tell us that even if they don’t want to leave their car filthy, they’re ready to take shorter showers or get a low-flush toilet.”

“This crisis belongs to all of us,” Famiglietti reminded the public in his op-ed. “Today, not tomorrow, is the time to begin.”

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