California droughts worsen as US fears new ‘Dust Bowl’

Experts say farming must change to save the Golden State’s precious groundwater supply

California governor Jerry Brown ordered the state’s first mandatory water cuts on April 1st, the day when the annual measurement of the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which is critical to the state’s water supply, had nothing to measure. Photograph: Michael Nelson/EPA

California governor Jerry Brown ordered the state’s first mandatory water cuts on April 1st, the day when the annual measurement of the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which is critical to the state’s water supply, had nothing to measure. Photograph: Michael Nelson/EPA

 

Rarely has a measuring stick proven so effective at making a point. It was April Fool’s Day but this was no joke. Frank Gehrke, chief snow surveyor at California’s Department of Water Resources, stood in a browned meadow in the Sierra Nevada mountains next to the state’s governor Jerry Brown.

They were there for the annual April 1st measurement of the mountain range’s snowpack, so critical to the state’s water supply and 38 million residents. The first day of April is usually the point when the snow is at its peak. Only, for the first time since officials started checking the snow pack in the 1950s, there was nothing to measure.

Gehrke pointed to a black sticker on the measuring pole, at 27 inches, where the snow reached on the last driest winter on record in 1977. A few inches above that was a yellow sticker marking last year’s measurement, which was 25 per cent of normal levels. A green sticker, at Gehrke’s shoulder, marked the average snow depth and the top of the pole, 150 inches, towering above him was the most ever recorded.

“This is bad news in terms of the state’s water picture,” said Gehrke, expressing what was abundantly obvious from his simple presentation. “Nobody has seen anything like this.”

Melting snow usually accounts for 60 per cent of the state’s water supply as the runoff replenishes California’s reservoirs. Brown used his display to tell the people of the state, now in its fourth year of drought, that he was introducing the first ever mandatory water restrictions: reductions of up to 25 per cent in water use.

More than 44 per cent of California, the country’s most populous state and third largest by area, is classified as being in “exceptional drought”, the worst level. This is the highest percentage the state has seen this year and the worst of any state in the country.

“People should realise we are in a new era,” Brown said. “The idea of your nice little garden grass that gets water every day, that’s going to be a thing of the past.”

It’s hard to synch this with the reality of lifestyles in the sun-drenched Golden State: the sprinkler-filled lawns of Beverly Hills, the undulating vineyards of Napa Valley, the golf courses of desert resort Palm Springs and the manicured campuses of the San Francisco Bay area.

Brown said that nobody would be immune from the restrictions. He warned about cease-and-desist notices and fines to delinquent water users, but said he hoped residents would see this a challenge, not a punishment, describing California as “a pioneering state” that embraced innovation.

For older residents it is a case of back to the future. Brown was governor during the last worst drought in 1977 when the Democrat called for a voluntary 25 per cent reduction in water use amid a two-year drought. This week Brown continued selling his tough measures, telling USA Today the drought was “unprecedented in recorded history” and was evidence of climate change.

California’s state climatologist Michael Anderson backed Brown’s assertions, bluntly telling a presentation on Thursday: “You’re looking on numbers that are right now on par with what was the Dust Bowl.” Back then, dryland farming methods to preserve the top soil from wind erosion were not followed by farmers, eventually forcing them to leave their farms.

The plight of those families was told in John Steinbeck’s 1939 classic The Grapes of Wrath and more recently in Christopher Nolan’s 2014 science fiction film Interstellar which used interviews with real people who recalled the natural disaster to film-makers Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan for their 2012 documentary The Dust Bowl.

Agricultural methods may have to be reconsidered again, in response to California’s crisis, if the “Thirsty West” is to avoid becoming the next Dust Bowl. Farming of water-thirsty crops such as oranges and almonds is draining precious sources of groundwater, as farmers drill below for supplies, jeopardising a precious natural resources in a state that provides more than half the country’s fruit and vegetables.

Agriculture uses about 80 per cent of California’s surface water and the drought is forcing farmers to look underground to feed their crops. Almonds are California’s most lucrative agricultural export, producing 80 per cent of the world’s supply, but the 860,000 acres of almond orchards use 10 per cent of the state’s water supply each year.

Experts warn that strict water limits may have to be extended to groundwater. If not, there may not be a measuring stick long enough to show the damage to a vital source of food for the American people.