February 8, 2012
In 2009, concerns over the lack of water availability in California dramatically escalated—the issue was named by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor at the time, as a statewide emergency. Some even believed that following two “critically dry years,” the year 2009 became the most “severe drought year in California history” (water.ca.gov). However, a winter of persistent snowstorms brought close to 61 feet of snow to the Sierra Nevada’s, 143% of normal levels and the second highest levels the state has ever seen (Huffington Post); the drought was over. Today, it is apparent that we need not focus our immediate concern on the California drought, as California remains in the clear and consistently is a victim of this repetitive drought cycle–our history proves that drought in California is nothing new. Instead of focusing on the dry conditions, it is important that we realize our anxiety is a result of water crisis issues that need our attention: California’s aging water infrastructure, its immensely growing population, and the new prospect of climate change. These issues make up the true water emergency faced daily by Californians.
Looking back at California’s drought history proves several points about the state and droughts. First, California is no stranger to droughts. Over the past 35 years, the state has experienced 3 major droughts, one being the most severe ever recorded. Second, the state has been able to respond strongly to survive a drought through statewide policy and conservation efforts. California’s government has taken the necessary steps and measurements to sustain itself and prepare for future droughts. Third, droughts are a normal phenomenon that should be expected in California. The reason droughts have occurred is due to the climate of the region that tends to fluctuate between wet and dry cycles, meaning droughts are inevitable. Thus, if droughts are to be expected they should not be the biggest concern in California, but rather other issues that influence the water crisis in the state, like its aging water infrastructure.
California’s water infrastructure is critical for supplying water for agriculture, the population, and environmental protection throughout the whole state. Lately, these variables have caused a rise in water demand that the current infrastructure cannot support, mainly because it is aging. The major component of the infrastructure is the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta which has weak, aging levees that, if broken, can drastically jeopardize the state’s water distribution for vital use. If major investments aren’t made to upgrade the aging infrastructure in the future, California won’t be able to sustain itself through drought at a time when climate change and population growth in the state exacerbate the growing water crisis.
California is relentless when it comes to growing population numbers. In 1900, California housed about 1.4 million people, and today, according to the 2010 Census, has close to 38 million people. This immense jump has placed much strain on the infrastructure of the state and contributes to the environmental issues–such as climate change–now plaguing the surrounding ecosystems. The main contributors to climate change are exacerbated by human activities, such as burning fossil fuels to produce carbon dioxide. Climate Change is creating a huge problem for California’s water sources, as seen through changes in sea level, snowpack, and river flows. According to the California Department of Water Resources, scientists predict our Sierra Nevada snowpack, which provides one-third of our water resources, to lose approximately 20 percent of its volume. This, along with the increasing population, will soon become a huge contributing factor to the California drought pattern, and needs to be addressed immediately.
Caroline Smith and Sergio Avelar are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.