People finally are uttering the D-word. The first 10 months of 2013 were the driest on record in California, going back to 1895, according to the National Climatic Data Center.
That record follows two years of dry conditions. McClure Reservoir on the Merced River is down to 23 percent capacity, and New Melones on the Stanislaus is at 43 percent. Don Pedro is probably in the best shape at 50 percent. Still, it’s not good. Farther north, the big federal compound – Lake Shasta – is at 37 percent.
These levels are reminiscent of the 1976-77 drought, during Jerry Brown’s first term as governor. And that explains why everyone from Rep. Jim Costa to state senators Tom Berryhill and Anthony Cannella to Sen. Dianne Feinstein have asked the governor to declare a drought.
Today, 83 percent of the state is in severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Even worse, the Central Valley is in extreme drought.
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Wednesday, Brown named a Drought Management Team to help determine whether a drought declaration is warranted. That’s a start; late, but a start. Brown also needs to get out in front of this and quickly to avoid a water emergency. Hoping for winter storms when none are in the forecasts is not a strategy.
How bad is it already? Two examples suffice.
The fire season usually ends with our wet winters, but not this year. An 800-acre wildfire burned along the Big Sur coast last week. The area, which averaged nearly 45 inches of rain a year between 1981 and 2010, has gotten only 7 inches this year.
In September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared the state a drought disaster area. In 2013, State Water Project allocations were at 35 percent of requested deliveries. The initial allocation for 2014 is 5 percent, the lowest on record.
Farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley have increased groundwater pumping, which causes other problems. We have record low groundwater levels, which is causing the land to sink. That, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, is reducing the capacity of the Delta-Mendota Canal, the California Aqueduct and other canals that deliver water – an issue that will continue to haunt us beyond this year’s dry wet season.
This latest drought should remind us that we have a long-term water imbalance, as Brown cogently said in ending the last drought emergency in 2011: “Drought or no drought, demand for water in California always exceeds supply.”
After the 1976-77 drought, a report on lessons learned concluded that “water is a limited resource, and water conservation and water recycling are practical and must become a way of life.”
We agree conservation is a must, but so is building more storage.