Op-Ed: Just How Bad Is California's Epic Drought?

True progress will require a push for groundwater management.

(Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

James Famiglietti is a professor of earth system science and civil and environmental engineering at University of California, Irvine. He appeared in the documentary film 'Last Call at the Oasis.'

Four years ago, during an interview for the world water crisis documentary Last Call at the Oasis, I was blunt in my analysis of California’s water future. “Let me be abundantly clear about this,” I told the filmmakers. “California faces a water crisis of potentially epic proportions. How we respond today will define who we are tomorrow.”

At the time, the Golden State was at the tail end of a multiyear drought. Beginning in 2006 and continuing through 2010, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin river basins lost more than 30 cubic kilometers of freshwater—nearly equivalent to the volume of Lake Mead at capacity. Two-thirds of this loss resulted from pumping groundwater from beneath the Central Valley to irrigate the crops that supply our state and our nation with food.

So, how far has the state come since 2010? Let’s just say this: My Last Call interview could have been recorded only yesterday.

Fresh off one of the driest years in its history, California is poised to enter its next great epoch of groundwater depletion. The state’s drought is worse than most if not all past ones. State Water Project and Central Valley Project surface water allocations have been slashed to nothing. Farmers are digging more wells. We could easily drive our groundwater levels to historic new lows, with little long-term chance for recovery.

Even if the state legislature passes a $700 million drought relief package proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown earlier this week, the state—as evidenced by new monitoring from NASA’s GRACE satellites—still has a long way to go to mitigate the worst effects of its prolonged drought.

Using the satellites to monitor monthly water levels (snow, rivers, lakes, reservoirs, water in soils, and groundwater) in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins from March 2002 through December 2013, my colleagues and I at the University of California Center for Hydrologic Modeling have discovered three alarming trends.

First, total water storage is at its lowest point since the GRACE satellites began collecting data in 2002.  

Second, in the last few years, total water storage has declined by more than 25 cubic kilometers. On an annual basis, that is more water than all Californians use for domestic, municipal, and industrial needs (or all the water that is not used to grow food or to maintain environmental health).

Third, California is arguably in the midst of a long-term dry spell that stretches at least as long as the 12-year life span of the GRACE mission. It has been punctuated by a few wet years, such as 2006 and 2011, but are we really looking at a long, steady decline in freshwater availability?

For California to make true progress toward securing its water future, it must act today to actively manage groundwater. The $700 million emergency plan proposed by Governor Brown is a much needed step in the right direction, and the state legislature should enact it as soon as possible. Medium- to long-term legislation, however, must be proactive and include significant provision for drought research, including enhanced monitoring and forecasting tools.

It will be easy to become distracted by the good fortune of the next big snowstorm, or even by the occasional wet year.

We need, however, to get something done now, so that in another four years, we don’t look back and question just how far have we come.

Visit James Famiglietti's website to learn more about California's drought.  

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