Thursday, 23 April 2015

California's enduring drought

Water Conflict Starts as Climate Change Induced California Drought Expected to Worsen Through Summer, Autumn

From the West Coast perspective, climate change is a day-to-day, in-your-face affair.
22 April, 2015

The sunsets in Seattle are tinted red from massive Siberian permafrost fires belching immense smoke plumes in springtime. California snow packs and reservoirs are at historic low levels after a four-year-long drought that is the worst in 1200 years and the hottest winter on record. The Sunshine State, famous for its Central Valley fruits, vegetables and wines, is facing increasingly strict water rationing. Other water intensive industries from resorts, to computer chip makers, to nonrenewable powerplants are all feeling the pinch.

Off the coast, a blocking high pressure system — so persistent it has earned the monicker Ridiculously Resilient Ridge (RRR) from weather experts — continues to expand. Wildfires for the region are burning at double their typical rate for Winter and Spring. And the only real hope for a break in the drought will come this winter with a potential strong and perhaps even more disruptive El Nino.
Dwindling Snow Packs and Failing Reservoirs

California Drought April 20 2014California Drought April 20 2015
(Comparison of California snow packs from water-poor 2014 [left frame] to water-poorer 2015 [right frame]. Under continued human-forced warming, snow packs in California may completely disappear during spring and summer by mid-Century. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

But even if a Monster El Nino does emerge to hurl a hellacious, storm-engorged Pineapple Express at California this coming Winter, the state is now facing off against a very water poor Summer and Autumn. April 20 snow packs have dwindled even from their amazingly depleted levels last year (see above comparison) and reservoir levels in many areas are at critical thresholds. At a time when water pools should be brimming full after winter rains, all major state water storage sites are well below historical averages as of April 20 with six out of eleven sites showing levels at less than 39 percent capacity. Exchequer Reservoir, in southern Central Valley, is the driest of a dry bunch — showing a 9 percent capacity.

These low levels come after major consumption reduction policies were put in place by Governor Brown and by numerous municipalities during 2014. Now, critical State water levels are resulting in additional reductions in urban water use of 25 percent statewide. A policy that is causing backlash from the wealthy, businesses, landowners, and other high-volume consumers together with calls for new desalination plants and pipelines to divert Seattle water into Lake Mead (a project that, by itself, would cost about 30 billion dollars). There water levels have gone through a multi-decade free-fall and Monday hit a new, all time, record low level of 1081.10 feet.

California Reservoir Conditions
(Current California reservoir situation map. Image source: The Pacific Institute’s California Drought Page.)

Drought to Worsen at Least Through Autumn

Long-range forecasts through mid-summer show continued extreme dry conditions on tap.The US Seasonal Drought Outlook shows drought worsening through July 31st for a six state section of the US Southwest. A section of increased and record drying which features California at center mass. For this region, strong south-to-north air flows beneath an expanding heat dome will continue to bring much hotter and drier than normal conditions. The heat dome will continue to feed on much hotter Northeastern Pacific water temperatures in the range of +3 to +5 warmer than normal. (A pool of hot water that is also implicated in various ocean creature mass die-offs over the past two years.)

With California already facing the hottest and driest conditions in two millenia, a continuation and intensification of historic heat and drought may well be seen as merciless. And what it means is imminent water shortages and likely conflict over a dwindling supply.

US Drought outlook
(The US Seasonal Drought Outlook provided by NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center shows the ongoing 1200 year California Drought intensifying through at least mid-July.)

Already, businesses are up in arms over a ratcheting water use reduction policy. According to reports from the Los Angeles Times, farmers looking at water reductions in the range of 25 to 30 percent are questioning whether they can continue to produce. Water brokers to desert resorts in Coachella Valley are looking at losses exceeding 10 million dollars. Landscaping, intended to add to home values, is withering, drying up investments and home equity in one blow.
These deep cuts are rippling on down the line to threaten a wide variety of businesses, all dependent on water access. Business policy advocate Valerie Nera noted to the Times:
Beverage manufacturers, bottlers, coffee shops, industries like micro chip processors and food processors for example would be put in jeopardy if 25 percent of their water usage were cut or if they had to pay significantly more for their water.”
All losses that will mount on top of an estimated 2.2 billion dollars in damages from the drought’s impact in 2014 alone. Losses that will, all too likely, continue into 2016 if a potential, very strong, El Nino doesn’t develop and deliver very heavy rains.

A Crisis Without End
But the issue isn’t just one of water impacts for this year and the possible impacts for next. It is an issue of ongoing and worsening water impacts throughout this Century. Impacts set off by an inexorable and ramping of human-caused climate change and highlighted in a new report earlier this month entitled: Risky Business — The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States.

Risky-Business
(Instances of extreme weather become ‘normal’ as global temperatures increase.  Graph from the Risky Business climate report.)

In short, for California, it’s not just an issue of making it through this drought. It’s an issue of making it through the many that will surely follow — decade after decade after decade. Making it through the more intense storms that will break droughts by delivering far more rain in a far shorter time than previously experienced. An issue of dealing with a diminishment and then a loss of snowpack. An issue of dealing with significant property losses from rising sea levels. An issue of dealing with harm to almost every food-producing sector from farming, through drought and increased storm intensity, to fishing, through a major blow to ocean health and vitality.
In such an instance we can read the words Climate Change writ large in the current California drought emergency. Not just because it is the worst drought to affect the state in two millenia. Not just because conflict over water resources is starting to ramp up now. But also because the current crisis is but one in a long succession of similar and worsening disruptions that will surely follow. The terrible result of a ramping heating of the atmosphere set off by human greenhouse gas emissions.
Links:
Hat Tip to Colorado Bob
Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego
Hat Tip to DTLange

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