How California Droughts Have Dangerous Impacts
Extreme droughts like the one gripping California for three years now may become more frequent in the future due to climate change, according to new research.
Despite heavy rains this month, 78 percent of California is still experiencing either exceptional or extreme drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. Unusually low snowfall across the state is largely to blame, scientists say. About one-third of California’s water comes from snowmelt in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which stretch through the eastern part of the state for nearly 400 miles.
Rain is great and does help – But the ultimate deciding factor is snowfall in the Sierras. Average to above average snofall levels are what is needed to bring California out of a drought.
In April 2014, when the year’s snowpack should have been at its peak, the California Department of Water Resources reported that levels were at only 18 percent of the average for that time of the year. This trend toward less snowpack is projected to continue this century as some climate models suggest that minimum winter temperatures will continue to increase across the state.
Continuing warmer temperatures means less snowpack, which ultimately will impact on California’s water supply.
Drier conditions are also priming California’s forests for larger and more frequent fires, especially along the fringes of urban areas, where more people are coming to the forests for recreation, according to Alicia Kinoshita, a professor at San Diego State University. Visitors to the forest may smoke, or make bonfires.
Aside from the direct dangers fires pose to the people and property in their paths, they also set the stage for compounding hazards in the future, including landslides, floods and poor water quality, scientists say.
As forest fires singe the root systems of California’s trees and weaken their ability to hold on to soil, California’s water quality will also suffer as more soil gets into the drinking-water supply, said Tim Kuhn, a hydrologist for Yosemite National Park. Without ground cover to shield soil, rain droplets directly contact soil particles and mobilize heavy metals that can contaminate water. Loose soil can also increases the turbidity, or cloudiness, of water, forcing water-treatment facilities to work harder to supply clean water and potentially shut down for a period during particularly large fires.
What to do
As both water stress and populations increase in the future, Californians will have no choice but to adapt and decrease their reliance on water. For the public, this could mean installing water-saving appliances in homes, curbing residential landscape water use and installing low flow appliances. Installation of artificial turf is among a top option that companies and home owners can adopt.