California has a “Mediterranean” climate, which means that each year it has a concentrated rainy season, followed by a long temperate and dry period. California’s rainy season typically runs from early October to late March, with very little precipitation outside of these months. It is now early 2014 and the rains have not come, for the third year in a row.
Based on past experience, here is what Californians can expect this year if it remains as dry as it is now.
- Urban water agencies will (and are beginning to) roll out a wide range of voluntary and mandatory water “conservation” programs. These typically ask customers to limit discretionary water uses such as watering gardens and washing cars and sidewalks. As droughts worsen, agencies expand these programs to offer incentives for both structural and behavioral changes: purchase more water-efficient appliances, remove grass and plant water-efficient gardens, cut shower times, and more.
- Some farmers and water districts with “junior” water rights will see water allocations from state and federal irrigation projects severely cut; some growers with “senior” water rights will see modest or even no shortages at all. Farmers with water shortages have some options: seek temporary water transfers from other users, increase pumping of local groundwater, change the kinds of crops they grow, or leave some lands fallow.
- The generation of hydroelectricity at California dams will drop dramatically from average levels because it varies directly with streamflow. Because renewable hydropower is among the cheapest and most versatile of electricity sources, California ratepayers will have to pay for more costly fossil fuels to make up for the difference.
- Natural ecosystems are likely to suffer severely, especially fisheries in the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta (the “Delta”). These ecosystems are already under severe pressures due to water diversions and other stresses. The California Department of Water Resources described some of these past drought impacts here.
- Wildfires could be more frequent or severe, and the wildfire season may expand into normally wet months. Soil moisture is already extremely low; vegetation is likely to die in the foothills, coastal ranges, and Sierra; and these factors can increase fire danger.
- Prices of water are likely to rise, in part because of the real cost of water scarcity, and in part because our water rate designs still too often penalize efforts to conserve water, leading to higher rates during droughts even when water use goes down.
In the short term, water agencies, managers, and users will look to the temporary fixes mentioned above, including behavioral changes, to help cut demand for water to a level that more closely matches reduced supply. This is evident by the imposed restriction Gerry Brown has recently put in place.In the long term, we need to make permanent fixes. Many of us still have old toilets, showerheads, washing machines, and other appliances and we must replace them. Some homeowners still insist on having lawns that mimic those in the humid East and in our current climate we should instead plant native vegetation that uses less water. Most of us still pay too little for our water. Higher prices would more properly reflect the true cost of getting, treating, and using water in California. And we must seek out new, renewable sources of water, including especially water treatment and reuse, rainwater harvesting, and brackish water desalination.
California is a spectacular home, and we choose to live in its dry and variable climate. Our water behaviors should match and respect this environment, even during normal times, but especially, and critically, during drought times.