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California Headed Toward “Worst Drought Ever Recorded”; Governor Declares State Of Emergency

by Jack Rosebro

Mountain snowpack in the Great basin and major water supply basins for California. Source: USDA. Click to enlarge.

Faced with three straight years of drought and an uncertain agricultural water supply, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency Friday, announcing that statewide water rationing could be instituted as early as the end of next month. “Despite the recent rain and snow,” the governor’s office warned, “cumulative water deficit is so large that there is only a 15% chance that California will replenish its water supply this year.

Just 2.47 million acre-feet (MAF) of natural inflows are projected to reach the state’s Shasta Reservoir in 2009, less than half the 6.1 MAF average of the past half century (1956-2005). Major reservoirs such as Oroville, Folsom, and San Luis, as well as Shasta, are already two-thirds or more below capacity.

If dry conditions persist through the spring, California will be facing its worst drought ever recorded. This week’s forecasts for projected runoff suggest tough times ahead.

—Donald Glaser, regional director for US Bureau of Reclamation (BOM) Mid-Pacific Region

Last week, the BOM announced that diminished natural inflows of water in California had triggered predetermined “shortage criteria” which may leave some of the state’s major water users, including as much as two-thirds of farms in California’s Central Valley, with little to no federal water allotments for 2009. Many farms south of the Sacramento Delta are expected to receive no federal water at all unless precipitation increases dramatically over the next two months. Urban areas of the state will also see their water allotments reduced.

More than a million acres (4,000 square kilometers) of farmland may be idled as a result of the restrictions, and UC Davis economist Richard Howitt has estimated that the San Joaquin Valley alone will suffer a loss of approximately 70,000 jobs and US$2 billion in economic activity this year as a result of restrictions on agricultural water. The governor’s office projects the overall loss of statewide economic activity at US $3 billion.

It’s grim news,” remarked Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), whose members represent more than nine-tenths of water delivered in the state. “If this isn’t the bottom, I don't want to be around for the bottom.” Although the Bureau of Reclamation forecast does not include runoff from storms since 1 February, that runoff is not expected to significantly alter its forecast, which the BOM has projected with a 90% confidence rate.

We Have Never Squarely Faced The Future

In an opinion published this week in the Los Angeles Times, oceanography research scientist William Patzert of Jet Propulsion Laboratories and Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District (LA-MWD) Chairman of the Board Timothy E. Brick declared “...the way Californians have been using water is simply not sustainable. We have no choice but to use less and to pay more for it.

Last year, LA-MWD depleted its reserves at a rate of more than half a billion gallons of water per day to meet customer demand. “That can’t go on indefinitely,” wrote Patzert and Brick. “We have never squarely faced the future. Water projects built Southern California. Now we need water stewardship to sustain it.” The Metropolitan Water District gains about 200,000 new customers per year.

Commenting on the Patzert-Brick opinion, Lucinda Sue Crosby of the Indian Wells Valley Water District warned that “decades-long droughts are the tip of the iceberg. Ancient bristlecone pines tell a story through dendrochronlogy about droughts over the past 11,000 years in California and Arizona... Droughts of 30-60 years are not unusual and those of 150 years are not uncommon.

Earlier this month, Energy Secretary Stephen Chu also expressed concern (earlier post) that California’s agriculture industry would not survive a loss of up to nine-tenths of the state’s Sierra Nevada snowpack, coupled with business-as-usual warming, as projected by the end of this century.

A study completed last year by research marine physicist Tim Barnett and climate scientist David Pierce of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, found a 50% chance that Lake Mead, a key source of water for millions of people in the southwestern United States, will be unable to produce hydropower at Hoover Dam by 2017, and be dry by 2021, if climate changes as projected and future water usage is not sharply reduced.

We were stunned at the magnitude of the problem and how fast it was coming at us,” said Barnett. “Make no mistake, this water problem is not a scientific abstraction, but rather one that will impact each and every one of us that live in the Southwest.” Barnett and Pierce used what they consider conservative metrics, assuming that the effects of climate change on the Colorado Basin began in 2007, and using only the last 100 years of riverflow. The average annual flow into what is now Lake Mead, taken over the last 500 years, is even lower.

Last week’s actions taken by the Bureau of Reclamation parallel policy decisions that the Australian government have made in the past regarding its Murray-Darling Basin, a region almost twice as large as California, which provides water for more than 40% of Australia’s agriculture. Farmers served by the MDB saw 2007 water allocations cut by 50 to 100% as a result of extended drought, which the government now regards as semi-permanent.


  • Barnett, T. P., and D. W. Pierce (2008), When will Lake Mead go dry?, Water Resour. Res., doi: 10.1029/2007WR006704



It always baffles me how these states that are RIGHT ON THE OCEAN have water problems. We have the technology for clean desalination; mixing the concentrated seawater with power plant discharge There really is no excuse for Florida, California and some of these other states to be having water problems.


Lived in Cali for twenty years. Always have water concerns and drought is expected as it is mostly semi-arid desert. Last bit of rationing in the 80s resulted in such a huge drop in water usage that the DWP filed a complaint with regulators. They were not able to meet operating costs due to loss of income from water sales! Doh!

ejj is right. Desal should be a major compnent of water usage in Cali. Especially to feed Central Valley agriculture.


Well desalination IS available BUT it also costs a lot of money; both to build them and to run them. Water conservation is cheaper.


Large-scale desalination typically uses large amounts of energy as well as specialized, expensive infrastructure, making it very costly compared to the use of fresh water from rivers or groundwater.

California farms use millions of acre feet of water for farming.
The largest US plant (in Tampa) produces only 25 mgd .
The Shasta Reservoir alone is down 2.47 million acre-feet.
To refill Shasta in 1 year would take 100 Tampa sized plants.
The Tampa Bay Water Desalination project was a private venture started in 1998, delayed by the successive bankruptcies of Poseidon Resources, Stone & Webster, then Covanta (formerly Ogden) and Hydranautics. The Tampa Bay Water agency was forced to purchase and underwrite the project financing under its own credit rating. The project then did not meet required performance tests, and Covanta Tampa Construction filed for bankruptcy. The plant was not fully operational until 2007.
Due partially to it’s voracious appetite for power, it is collocated with Tampa Electric Company’s coal–fired Big Bend Power Station.
These should be combined with nuclear power.



California Farmers,ranchers and growers have been notoriously wasteful in irrigation practices.

I lived in Central CA for nearly 25 years and witnessed the Profligate use of water resources in flatland irrigation. While hilly vinevards in north and costal wine producing areas have been using "drip irrigation" water delivery systems for a couple of decades now, the flatland growers (even around Modesto/Fresno) still use flood irrigation for the most part. Some use sprinkler systems on several types of crops, especially cotton in the south end of the valley. The old "flood the field" irrigation of old Mesopotamia of 4,000 years ago with its canals and gates is little different than what I witnessed over the years.

I recall that the main flood irrigation crops included (but not limited to):
rice, citrus, peaches, almonds, grapes, walnuts, pastures, and alfalfa. Modesto, Turlock and Merced Irrigation Districts manage the delivery of mid sized rivers of water to the flatland users.

Farther south in the central valley, sprinkler systems are used for a variety of vegetable and cotton crops. While this delivery method may more be cost effective and water stingy than flood irrigation, the local weather conditions can really skew the effectiveness of the delivery to the plants. For example, on several occasions driving south on both I5 and H99, I witnessed sprinkler systems running full blast on several tracts in early afternoon with the temperature hovering at 100 degrees and the wind blowing at 15-20 Kts. As anyone knows who lived in the area, a significant amount of the water can be lost to evaporation before it reaches the plant roots, especially when the afternoon relative humidity reaches down below 30%.

We personally had to let our grass die out as everyone else in Conta Costa County many years ago because of similar water shortages. Yet the freeway landscape had plenty of water. And newer freeways especially around urban areas are especially green in the state where most land is technically desert.

They can do something about the waste of water resources, by selection of water stingy hybrid crops and stop the 4,000 year old flood irrigation. UC Davis... Where the H are you???



don't they use reclaimed non potable water for freeway irrigation in cali?

Don't ya'll worry, you can just invade Canada when you run out of water.


Those Canadians must be developing WMD, yellow cake and mobile biological weapons labs just like Iraq under Saddam.

There's reason enough for an invasion.


Unquestionably correct. Look out Mark BC... They're coming for you!


Just try it yank! We've prepare to fight you off; we have squadrons of suicidal geese ready to bring down your aircraft, our Amish army has been equipped with war wagons and our navy has 5 new canoes.


Al_vin, thanks for the chuckle - we can sure use a few of those these days. I'm sure, after the successful test of the geese, we'll have to think things over carefully down here. Blocking out the sun for you guys with treasuries may be an option... ;-)

Its hard to imagine Hoover Dam drying up and not being useful by 2017, its such a landmark...that's not far away. Here's to hoping Mother Nature throws a hail marry and gets Cali through another year - seems like they need to decide if they can economically support desalinization of their crops and if so get moving on it, otherwise say goodbye to farming in the desert.


As Rikki pointed out, CA ag. can be hugely wasteful...especially cotton. Such a waste when there are alternative crops.
As a former san diegan, i recall small rivers running down the curb from lawn sprinklers missing their mark.
Pricing urban water use realistically would solve this quickly.
To their credit, CA has done some great things to reduce water waste. Here in the South east, we should be implementing them.


Concentrated solar thermal desalinization can be done on a large scale to provide water AND electric power to most of California. There is nothing to it but having the WILL to do what is right...which is in short supply with a country filled with people that do not want to pay taxes.


Whatever... california is basically a socialist nation anyway. Cut them loose, should we be providing subsidies to the film industry anyway?

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