No snow at the Phillips Station site


Drought in California. Jerry Brown ordered mandatory restrictions yesterday, standing on a mountaintop that should be snowy but isn’t.

The governor’s emergency order comes after a year of requests for voluntary conservation — and a record-breaking warm and dry spell culminating in the worst April snowpack in recorded history — have failed to alarm many Californians enough to cut back on water.

Do they think it will just be there anyway? Like magic?

Snow surveyors found no snow at the Phillips Station site — the first time that’s happened in 75 years of early-April measurements. In an average year, the site would have 5.5 feet of snow. Across the Sierra, electronic readings indicate the water content of the snowpack is only 5 percent of average.

5 percent!! That’s no good. That’s no good at all. Lots of people, lots of agriculture…not good at all.

That shattered the previous low record of 25 percent of the average April snowpack, set last year and in 1977. The implications are huge for the cities, farms and wildlife that depend on melting snowpack to yield water during the spring, summer and fall.

Snowpack traditionally is at its peak by early April, before it begins to melt. With the state’s historically wettest winter months now gone, the drought is now firmly rooted in its fourth consecutive year.

Not a good portent.

Comments

  1. Katydid says

    Deserts were never meant to grow rice and other water-intensive crops. Deserts were never meant to have fountains of water spraying up into the air, or golf courses, or swimming pools, or green grass in yards. Las Vegas, Phoenix, and much of California are going to crash hard as the weather heats up.

  2. John Morales says

    [meta]

    Katydid @1, your language irritates me because of its ostensible intentionality.

    (But yes, as the idiom has it, the chickens have come home to roost)

  3. RJW says

    I can’t believe what I’m reading, here in Australia mandatory restrictions on water use are usually automatic during drought conditions.
    California is in a record-breaking drought and only now restrictions are imposed, jeeeez!
    I presume there are no desalination plants in operation, dual-flush toilets, household tanks or other nanny-state regulations.

    Good luck California!

  4. iknklast says

    Do they think it will just be there anyway? Like magic?

    Yes, actually they do. Most people have little knowledge of where their water comes from. When they turn on the tap, it’s there. The process it goes through to get there is invisible to most. As someone who has devoted my life to studying water, it’s horrifying how much people take that for granted here, even in the dry states.

  5. says

    BUT – he refuses to ban fracking, which not only uses lots of water, but pumps contaminated water back into the aquifer (as has been detected) because he says “we need the gas.”

    Homeowners will be facing limits and fines… but
    frackers will be able to use millions of gallons of water AND contaminate everyone’s aquifers.

  6. hotshoe, now with more boltcutters says

    Deserts were never meant to grow rice and other water-intensive crops. Deserts were never meant to have fountains of water spraying up into the air, or golf courses, or swimming pools, or green grass in yards. Las Vegas, Phoenix, and much of California are going to crash hard as the weather heats up.

    Nothing to disagree with the idea of shutting down the fountains and letting the ridiculous-to-begin-with golf courses die out.

    But the statement about crops is just shallow and reactionary. Modern rice farming in CA is really not water-intensive, not any more so than orange groves. Now, you may think that the people of the world (and the United States in particular) should do without both rice and oranges if they can’t grow them in their own back yards using only natural rainfall, but that is not in fact how our western civilization works.

    Your statement is ignorant: the north delta of the Sacramento, where the rice fields are, is not a desert and never has been Average rainfall is 18-20 inches/year, which is more than enough to support rice and other agriculture with suitable storage or groundwater recharge for the dry summer season. Prior to introduced agriculture, drainage, and levees, the great central valley was filled from the Coast Range to the Sierras with meter-tall grasses (and periodically flooded almost like the Nile river valley).

    There have been other periods of drought in recorded history, but we have to look in to prehistory to find evidence of 4 consecutive years where there was so little winter rain in the valley and just plain no snow in the mountains.

    Even last year, in the third drought season, no one had reason to expect this this year would not return to historically-normal rainfall. Many farmers made recent capital investments in more-efficient irrigation systems, because in any case the cost of water delivery was going to go up. CA as a whole has already made the largest infrastructure investment of any place in the world for its (huge. complicated, interlocking) system of reservoirs and aqueducts to transfer melting snowpack to people who need water (to drink, to farm with, to wash dishes with so they can serve meals to tourists …) It seemed to reasonable people that would be good enough. No one was completely cheerful about the future, especially with competing demands for green lawns in Los Angeles and crops in the valley and smelt in the delta streams. But no more than a handful of doomsayers thought that one spring day we would look up and there would be literally no snow to feed the aqueducts.

    I certainly do not hope that you – or anyone you love – goes hungry this year as a result of a million acres of the most productive agricultural land in the world being fallowed for lack of irrigation water. Good luck with finding those oranges and those sacks of rice at your local store!

  7. John Morales says

    I live in South Australia, and we went through all that a decade ago; the commons are now regulated to prevent the eponymous tragedy.

    For example, we have water allocation plans.

    (Planning regulations are part of it — e.g. requiring for new dwellings in rural areas to have 10,000 litre domestic water tanks (and a 5,000 litre for fire-fighting in bushfire areas))

  8. guest says

    ‘shallow’, ‘reactionary’, ‘ignorant’…. I guess it just wasn’t possible to just tell us what you understand about the situation without the adjectives? Personally, I’d have been much more likely to think you didn’t have a hidden agenda if you’d left those out.

  9. chrislawson says

    The free market is already saving us! Once the drought has destroyed local agriculture and the contaminated aquifers have damaged the environment, then there will be no need for all those pesky regulations reducing the profitability of fracking, will there?

  10. Charles Sullivan says

    Lawns and swimming pools must suck up a lot of water. Cut those out, and it could make a difference.

  11. hotshoe, now with more boltcutters says

    ‘shallow’, ‘reactionary’, ‘ignorant’…. I guess it just wasn’t possible to just tell us what you understand about the situation without the adjectives? Personally, I’d have been much more likely to think you didn’t have a hidden agenda if you’d left those out.

    Please do feel free to think that a “hidden agenda” which you imagine I have absolves you of the responsibility to learn something. Please do feel free to remain ignorant because you don’t like my choices of words.

    A slow-motion natural disaster which directly affects at least 40 million people – and indirectly affects all 320 million USAians, as well as having international implications – is bound to create a little emotional tension. It’s bound to lead to finger-pointing and blame-games, but those are worthless (even if accurate, which they’re mostly not) unless in turn they lead to actual solutions.

    Yes, turning off the fountains is a good minor solution; Las Vegas is criminally wasteful. Turning off the agricultural output — which has up till now been larger than the output of entire countries such as Mexico, Germany, and Canada — is not a good solution. However, turning off CA agriculture has already happened in some degree, and we’re just waiting to find out what fresh disaster that causes.

    We’re going to see renewed unemployment, worsened poverty in the already poorest rural counties, plus widespread child malnutrition due to unavailable/unaffordable produce.

    The massive federal, not state, Central Valley Project has notified all customers that it must deliver zero water to farms this year (in hopes of being able to provide about 25% of contracted allocations to drinking-water utilities and to wildlife refuges). That missing irrigation water would have gone to about 3 million acres of vegetables and fruit in six out of seven of the most productive farm counties. Last year, some fields were fallowed and some – particularly orchards which are too expensive to replant – were kept in production or at least kept alive by drawing on new deep groundwater wells, This year, who knows. Already, so much groundwater has been pumped that the land is subsiding as much as a foot per year. It’s not sustainable. Imagine the damage to bridges, levees, buildings’ foundations. Worse, the water table in some areas has been sucked dry below the reach of residential wells and we now have thousands of scattered homes without running water.

    I’m not a farmer. I know some ranchers but I don’t personally know anyone who farms. As they say, I don’t have a horse in this race … except that I’m a human being, a fellow citizen, concerned, or to be honest, rather panicked about the welfare of all the parents and children who have nowhere else to go. That, and the only reservoir from which my town can draw its water is filled not by rain but by the CVP. I don’t expect to see people in my town lining up at the water truck for their water ration this year, but it could happen someday, and will almost certainly happen to other CA communities of as many as 10,000 people by next month.

    That’s going to be quite a picture.

  12. hotshoe, now with more boltcutters says

    Lawns and swimming pools must suck up a lot of water. Cut those out, and it could make a difference.

    In CA statewide, all personal usage including drinking, cooking, washing, plus outdoor water for landscape, pools etc is about 20% of the total water usage. Percentage-wise, lawn watering isn’t much. But it’s the single most wasteful use of water since it’s never necessary. No one’s life requires a watered lawn. I would cheer if the Legislature would pass a bill making it illegal to water any ornamental grass in CA effective, well, as soon as they could pass it.

    Swimming pools use about half as much water per day as a watered lawn (and there are thousands of times fewer pools than lawns overall). Urban-rural interface communities may encourage homeowners who do have a pool to keep it filled as a mini-reservoir for fire fighting. Some cities have drought regulations that prohibit filling a new swimming pool but don’t prohibit maintaining / topping up an existing one. Correct use of a cheap pool cover can cut evaporation by 90% or more. Some communities require a cover; most don’t. They all should, although enforcement is problematic.

    Of course, any private pool, no matter how conserving, is inherently more wasteful than a municipal pool in terms of “overall happiness per gallon”. But that’s American capitalism for ya. Fight against paying a dime in taxes to go towards healthy safe recreation for everyone in their community at the public pool, and spend it paying the fine for filling their private pool which they never use anyways.

  13. Decker says

    How much do we really know about long term weather patters in the US Southwest?

    The Pueblos had a flourishing agricultural society in the region for many centuries, but at some point it came crashing down because of a prolonged drought.

    Who knows if the brief period California has been part of America was rather exceptional in terms of weather, rainfall and snow pack?

    We have lots of water here in Canada. Lots and lots of it. If the current drought promises to be very long term ( 60-70 years some experts say), then arrangements can be made to divert some of that water towards C.A.L.I.F.O.R.N.I.A.

  14. moarscienceplz says

    RJW #7

    I can’t believe what I’m reading, here in Australia mandatory restrictions on water use are usually automatic during drought conditions.
    California is in a record-breaking drought and only now restrictions are imposed, jeeeez!
    I presume there are no desalination plants in operation, dual-flush toilets, household tanks or other nanny-state regulations.

    The American success story is predicated on completely ignoring a problem until it becomes a catastrophe. If we were to plan ahead for problems like this, what would become of American exceptionalism?
    😉

  15. Katydid says

    @5; you’re saying I meant to write something that appeared to be true? Please put away the $10 words and say what’s actually on your mind, because your attempts at communication made no sense.

    @ rice-growing in the desert; do you seriously believe rice is NOT a water-intensive crop? It grows *in the water*. Please research this. There’s a reason so much rice has been grown in the water-intensive wetlands in the USA. It’s still being grown in places other than California.

    There’s certainly a lot of childish butthurt over the notions that farming can be done responsibly, that ubiquitous backyard swimming pools use water, and that a green lawn in an arid environment takes water.

  16. hotshoe, now with more boltcutters says

    @ rice-growing in the desert; do you seriously believe rice is NOT a water-intensive crop? It grows *in the water*. Please research this. There’s a reason so much rice has been grown in the water-intensive wetlands in the USA. It’s still being grown in places other than California

    And this is why i said your statement was reactionary and ignorant. Clearly you didn’t take in any of the information I provided. I’ve been researching this for forty years and I do indeed know better than your sarcastic knee-jerk response that just because rice is planted in water, thereby it is *obviously* a water-wasteful choice. I don’t believe, I know. Farmers aren’t ignorant, you shouldn’t be, either.

    I don’t feel like repeating myself, but I will emphasize the point that rice culture in CA has the same water requirements per crop as tomatoes, peanuts, soybeans, and most other grains; lower water requirement than corn, peppers, sugarbeets, sunflowers, pistachios, almonds. It’s stupid to try to mock rice-growers “in the desert” when you don’t mock almonds even more. But maybe that’s because you personally like almonds and you don’t like rice.

    Of course, CA rice is not a necessity. It’s about 1% of the world’s total rice supply, and if it disappears tomorrow, hardly anyone will notice. For that matter, CA tomatoes aren’t a necessity, either, but if they disappear, they will make a much more noticeable gap in the world supply. CA tomatoes in 2014 were more than 10% of the world’s total, more than any single country except China. CA produces 100% of the US supply of almonds, and more than 80% of the world’s total almond supply. Not to mention 99% of the US supply of walnuts, 97 % of kiwifruit, 97% of plums, 95% of garlic …

    CA agriculture output overall is larger than all but 9 or 10 entire countries. If/when this disappears, it will have ripple effects through the entire world economy. There will be people already on the edge of poverty who will be pushed into starvation by increased price of food as CA supply drops out of the market.

    There’s certainly a lot of childish butthurt over the notions that farming can be done responsibly, that ubiquitous backyard swimming pools use water, and that a green lawn in an arid environment takes water

    No butthurt on my part at all. I personally don’t know anyone who has a backyard swimming pool. Of the current 75 homes listed for sale in my town, exactly 3 have a pool. (So much for “ubiquitous”! ) I haven’t had a lawn in 33 years, but 90% of my neighbors have at least some patch of grass in the front yard. I advocate that our local water board implement regulations that prohibit all lawn watering and pool-filling. Too bad for those 3 families who thought a pool would be a great selling point, and too bad if the new buyers never get to use the pool they buy. Too bad for for the hard-working CA-born man – who has been feeding his family with his lawn-care service – who is going to have to go out of business this year. We’re all going to be losers in this drought, and some are going to lose more than others.

  17. chrislawson says

    Dave Ricks@6, that is indeed a very dramatic photoset. My favourite: #60 because of its caption: “State Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, calls for members of the Senate to reject proposed legislation that authorizes fines for water division while debating two drought related measures at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday, March 25, 2015. In spite of Republican opposition the bill was approve on a 24-12 party-line vote. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli) ”

    Good ol’ Republican logic. It’s OK to spend $1bn of public money on emergency water management, but god forbid you ever fine a farmer for stealing water during a major drought.

  18. RJW says

    @20 moarscienceplz,

    “The American success story is predicated on completely ignoring a problem until it becomes a catastrophe.”
    That’s not exclusively American, perhaps it’s part of the frontier ethos.
    The Australian climate is very variable compared to other countries which experience regular and reliable rainfall, so generally, it’s unrealistic to expect that this year’s weather patterns will necessarily prevail year after year. As a result we’re better prepared psychologically for the next drought.

    However, I don’t want to give the impression that Australians have been historically farsighted or even competent in water conservation practices. It’s only in the last generation or so that widespread water saving measures have been introduced. Instead of nursing English gardens through dry 38C summers many Australians have finally got the message and have planted drought tolerant shrubs and flowers. We have also squandered the resources of one of the largest artesian basins in the world.

  19. hotshoe, now with more boltcutters says

    Dave Ricks@6, that is indeed a very dramatic photoset. My favourite: #60 because of its caption: “State Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, calls for members of the Senate to reject proposed legislation that authorizes fines for water division while debating two drought related measures at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday, March 25, 2015. In spite of Republican opposition the bill was approve on a 24-12 party-line vote. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli) ”
    Good ol’ Republican logic. It’s OK to spend $1bn of public money on emergency water management, but god forbid you ever fine a farmer for stealing water during a major drought.

    I can’t view that photoset on this computer, but I don’t have to be cause I know what that jerkwad looks like.

    Tom Berryhill is a farmer himself. What do you want to bet he’s protecting one of his friends or business partners whom he knows, or at least suspects, is involved in dodgy water use?

    I think a prerequisite for being a Republican politician is to be a hypocritical ass.

    Sometimes I have bad days. On my bad days, I think they should all be lined up and shot for treason against the greater public they are supposed to represent..

  20. hotshoe, now with more boltcutters says

    [OT]
    Katydid @21, in your #1, what were deserts meant for (and by whom)?

    John –
    Clearly, meant for Off-Road Vehicle use.

    And you know how badly those muddy rice fields can bog down your Honda 3 wheeler.

    Clearly, meant by god.

    I’m pretty sure it’s spelled out in Genesis. :)

  21. says

    The hit on agriculture is one of the things that’s terrifying me about this.

    I did not know Cali had that much of a monopoly on almonds. (I did know, as of yesterday, how water-intensive they are.) Damn!! I love almonds! And, especially, things made with almond paste.

    And doing without tomatoes…?

    But even apart from my personal picnic table…crop failures and agricultural regions turned desert, NOT GOOD.

    We’re so screwed.

  22. says

    iknlast @ 8 –

    As someone who has devoted my life to studying water, it’s horrifying how much people take that for granted here, even in the dry states.

    That reminds me that during Katrina it became obvious that a surprisingly large number of people don’t realize that water is by far the most urgent need in any emergency – they kept putting food first. I kept shouting jeezis, people, not food, WATER.

    It didn’t take long at all before people started dying of dehydration, on camera.

  23. hotshoe, now with more boltcutters says

    Don’t ever take water for granted. Three days you can live without it, at most.

    I’m one of the people who learned that lesson after the Loma Prieta earthquake.

    I always have a case of plain soda water (aluminum cans, more environmentally sound than plastic bottles and they stay safe to drink for years) in the trunk of my car, and another case in the front hallway of the house. If I’m stuck out somewhere after a disaster with roads and bridges down, I can manage a few days … and if I’m home, likewise I hope to survive a few days until the water trucks reach our neighborhood after the pipes break.

    Of course, a few days of canned water aren’t going to mean much if a big quake shatters the main conduits that deliver from the CVP to our local water agencies. It’s not our household plumbing that’s the really scary weak spot.

    When the next big quake hits the Hayward Fault, it could break the aqueduct which carries from Hetch Hetchy all the water for 2.5 million people, and service will take months to restore. I’ve heard that there’s a retrofit in the works but I don’t know how far it’s progressed.

    EBMUD has completed seismic retrofitting of their main water tunnel so they should be able to supply water to a million East Bay residents even after a large magnitude quake.

    I wonder if one of the factors in how slow California agencies have to been to respond to threats of oncoming drought is how focused they have been on responding to the more obvious threat of killer earthquakes.

  24. Katydid says

    And this is why i said your statement was reactionary and ignorant. Clearly you didn’t take in any of the information I provided. I’ve been researching this for forty years and I do indeed know better than your sarcastic knee-jerk response that just because rice is planted in water, thereby it is *obviously* a water-wasteful choice.

    @hotshoe; if you got your head out of your ass, you might learn something. Take a look around the world at the rice-growing areas. if you can push your ego and your self-righteousness out of the way for just a moment, you will see that rice paddies are water-intensive, flooded most of the growing season. When there are so many places in the USA that are water-logged, it’s just plain stupid to waste what dwindling water California has left on a crop that’s not suited to that environment. I am sorry you appear to relish your ignorance too much to actually acknowledge reality.

  25. Katydid says

    Whotshoe: what’s your next act? Demanding cranberry bogs be introduced in California, because obviously in your mind, wasteful use of water is hunky-dory? Will you now rail at the injustic of California not having its very own cranberry bogs?

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