February 14, 2012
Climate change may leave California, as we know it, facing drastic reforms. As a result of heat-trapping emissions, not only will the state’s average temperature rise, but precipitation is also more likely to fall as rain rather than snow, and the snow that does fall in the Sierra Nevada’s is likely to melt earlier and more quickly. This will directly impact California residents because the snowpack formed during fall and winter provides the state with a third of its surface water, essential in the Golden State for human consumption and agriculture. The snowpack forms in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the upper regions of the state, but all Californians depend on it as a water source come spring and summer when the demand is at its peak. Although the California drought was declared over in 2011, the relatively dry 2011-2012 winter season has done little to restore confidence in California’s water security.
A severe reduction in snowpack, nature’s generous water storage, could likely result in inevitable major developmental changes across California. Among the most important, California’s current water reservoirs are not equipped to capture or handle larger influxes of rainwater in shorter periods of time. However, the current proposals for the expansion or addition of surface storage facilities would be minimal compared to the already existing capacity, and additional water storage facilities may be both economically and environmentally unsound. Consequently, new technologies such as large-scale rainwater capture or water-recycling plants may eventually need to be developed and implemented to ensure Californians have enough water. Additionally, California may become more reliant on alternate sources of water, increasing costs of transportation.
A water crisis could mean serious economic consequences for California. According to Frank Mittlebach, professor of Economics at UCLA Anderson School of Management, winter tourism in California, “contributed over $3.2 billion in spending in 2000.” Tourism in the mountain resort regions such as Mammoth Mountain, which is dependent on snow to attract visitors for recreational activities, has already decreased markedly this year.
More importantly, however, major water shortages would devastate California’s thriving agricultural industry, the largest in the nation, “which generated $39 billion in revenue in 2007, and which is responsible for more than half of all domestic fruits and vegetables.” One out of six jobs in California is linked to agriculture, and the state is one of the largest producers of milk, grapes, and cotton. According to UC San Diego’s Climate Research Division, the California agriculture industry could lose as much as 25% of the water it needs. Not only would this affect California residents regarding food availability and jobs, but also other states and countries due to California’s large number of exports of agricultural goods.
Overall, water as a commodity will dramatically increase in price due to higher demand and less supply. For a state already in debt, this could lead to devastating consequences unless major preventative changes are made. If California is unable to equip its water infrastructure for the climate changes to come, stricter conservation efforts will need to be put into effect–even if it means the Southern Californians have to sacrifice their evergreen lawns.
Sydney MacEwen and Danielle Tellez are undergraduates in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
September 12, 2011
The Sierra Nevada Snowpack is one of California’s most important natural water reservoirs. The snowpack is formed during the fall and winter and as it melts in the spring and summer (the two seasons when California’s water demand is greatest), slowly releases about 15 million acre-feet of water. Because of its role in the water supply within California, changes in its formation and melting cycles can play a major role in the economy, infrastructure, and land development of the state overall.
The 2011 snowpack made headlines for its large size; over the winter it developed to 165% its average size, momentarily putting Californians at ease about their water demands being met. This good news comes after years of smaller snowpacks and subsequent droughts. Yet even in a year when the snowpack is projected to meet California’s water needs, there is still cause for concern.
Though it is well known that the size of the snow pack varies, recently there have also been changes in the pack’s melting cycle. Research published in 2008 suggests that the rate at which the snowpack melts has been increasing annually. So much so, scientists predict that by 2100 the snowpack will melt completely a full two months earlier than it does now. Current infrastructure, dams and other water storage and transportation facilities, have been built to best deal with the previous predictable cycle of snow melt. As the climate changes and temperatures in the area increase, the sudden burst of water earlier than expected and larger than these structures were built for threatens to overwhelm the storage facilities and threatens to increase the risk of both floods and waters shortages. Uncontrolled floods and the inability to properly store water from a mass runoff endangers development and the economy in that it threatens to damage development, which render the dams and other storage facilities useless, and after the runoff has ended suddenly there is little water left over for the seasons in which it is most desperately needed.
Land in the Sierras has long been considered prime for development. Since 1973, some 800,000 acres of woodland have been converted to new land uses. It has been projected that by 2040 almost 20% of private forests in the area will be affected or altered by even more development. More development would add more greenhouse gas emissions and increase erosion and runoff, all changing the behavior of the snowpack further. Development and industry could also introduce pollutants to the snowpack, as they have in the past.
The ecosystem accounts for approximately $2.2 billion of commodities and services annually. In 2005, agriculture production in California counties using Sierra Nevada water was valued at more than $18 billion. Any change or damage to the Sierra Nevada ecosystem has dramatic repercussions for tourism /recreation, agriculture and resource extraction opportunities. The water resources themselves contribute more than 60% and yield 65% of the developed urban and rural water supplies for California. In addition, the Sierra is also home to one of the greatest areas of biodiversity, and many rare organisms.
The main strategies for preserving the Sierra snowpack recently have been greenhouse gas emission reduction and water conservation and recycling. The fact remains, however, that the population of California continues to grow while their main water supply source does not. The steps proposed by the California Department of Water Resources can only counteract the observed changes in the snowpack’s melting cycle, but even a healthy snowpack will reach a point where it cannot meet California’s growing needs.
About the authors: Makena Crowe and Minda Monteagudo are working towards their bachelor’s degrees in Environmental Studies and Political Science, respectively, in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.