March 1, 2013
The economy of the state of California is one of the largest in the world. In fact, if California were its own country, its economy would rank eighth against other nations. But the economy and development of California are closely tied to various environmental factors, the implications of which can be tremendous. One such factor – the Sierra Nevada snowpack – drives some of the state’s largest sectors: agriculture, tourism and industry. Californians also rely on the snowpack as a major source of domestic water. Decreases in annual snowfall as well as sooner melting times in the year could have drastic effects on the state’s economy and greatly hinder future developments.
As California’s main watershed, the Sierra Nevada plays a major role in water supply and the hydrological system. A normal snowpack/precipitation usage cycle would be one in which water stored in reservoirs would be used during the cold season, while during the hot season water would be supplied by the melting snow. Although reservoirs reach low levels by the end of the warm months, they are soon replenished by snow and precipitation during the wet season. However, this usage cycle is based on the assumption that annual snowpack will melt at approximately the same time every year, and that cold season precipitation will sufficiently replenish water sources to meet annual needs. Rising temperatures have caused disequilibrium in the cycle of the snowpack, forcing the snow to melt earlier (reducing the spring snowpack) and increasing the risk of water shortage during the hot summer months. Increased temperatures also cause for precipitation to fall as rain (instead of snow), meaning more freshwater is lost to runoff.
Volumes of snow on April 1st – when the snowpack normally peaks – have been declining in low elevation areas where increasing temperatures have stronger effects. A survey done in January 2012 from the California Department of Water Resources showed one of the lowest snow levels ever recorded; the snowpack was only to 19% of its capacity. California’s economy is sensitive to any change in the snowpack level since the snowmelt accounts for 1/3 of the state’s water supply.
California’s agricultural sector is worth $30 billion annually, and employs more than one million people. The industry produces a quarter of the nation’s crops. Farmers could face significant economic hardship if the rate of snowmelt in the Sierra Nevadas continues to accelerate. At the height of the recession, The New York Times reported central valley unemployment rates at three to four times the rest of the country, fueled in part by a major water shortage from 2009 to 2011. A study conducted in 2006 analyzing the potential conditions of a group of farmers in the central valley predicted several scenarios caused by lower levels of snowpack and early snowmelt: One was a harsh drought with $2 billion in revenue losses. Additionally, water scarcity followed by drought could create $2.6 billion in revenue losses due to limitations of water usage. These potential scenarios illustrate how sensitive California’s economy is to any fluctuations in water availability.
Changing snow conditions also reduce the moisture in the soil and vegetation of the Sierra Nevada; these conditions promote warmer temperatures with drier air, which combined are the main cause of wildfires that affect Southern California’s economy every year. Forestry and Protection stated that in 2007 the state wildfires cost nearly $300 million, while infrastructure damages comprised about $250 million. Estimations by the Forestry and Protection predict that drier and hotter seasons could increase water scarcity statewide which could create costs up to $500 million annually by 2085.
Though few studies specifically analyze potential threats to California’s tourism economy, the implications of the data on snowpack and melt are worrisome. Winter recreation sports and tourism contribute significantly to the state economy. Diminished snowfall and shorter snow seasons could mean that ski resorts and California ecotourism take a massive financial hit.
Lastly, diminished water supply could take a drastic toll on domestic water use patterns. Especially in drier areas – the Los Angeles area, for example – water rationing policies may be enforced. The expansion and development of newer communities could be prevented due to limited water availability.
Environmentalists and economists alike should take note of the Sierra Nevada’s precarious snowpack situation. Continued declines in annual snowfall and earlier snowmelt could prove devastating to the state economy.
By: Austin Reagan and Beatriz Lopez
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.
February 8, 2012
It’s no secret that California’s relationship with water is a precarious one. Historically, the Golden State—especially its thirsty southern metropolis, Los Angeles—has grappled with the realities of an arid climate and long distances to sufficient water sources. With the development of a complex system of dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts to feed California’s inhabitants and huge agricultural sector came a dependence on the water from the Sierra snowpack, the layers of snow that typically form from December through March in the high mountains to then slowly melt over the spring and summer. But at a time when up to 60% of California’s fresh water supply comes from the Sierra snowpack, large fluctuations in seasonal snowfall are raising concerns about the stability and reliability of a system that so heavily depends on such unpredictable factors. Even in individual years when there is enough water, the erratic changes in precipitation from year to year make for an ongoing problems of water shortage and allotments for different consumers. If we continue to place the same demands on the snowpack going forward, the only way to stabilize the water supply from the Sierras will be to increase the efficiency of water usage on the consumers’ end.
The size fluctuations of California’s snowpack have been drastic in recent years. Following several years of drought, the Sierras received record amounts of snow during the 2010-2011 winter season, leading the state’s two largest reservoirs to nearly reach capacity. Many farmers and water managers rejoiced; for the first time in a while it appeared that California would have ample water for the entire year. But as of January 2012, snow at high Sierra peaks is disturbingly thin: data collection is painting a picture of snowpack water content of at 23% of the normal season total. While reservoirs still hold a large amount of water from the 2011 season, this water cannot fill the place of the gradual summertime snow melt that is responsible for replenishing the water supply and sustaining the state through the drier months. Water suppliers have requested 4 million acre-feet of water this year, and the Department of Water Resources has estimated that it will be able to supply 60% of this amount—down from the 80% promised last year.
Scientists are attributing the wild fluctuations in snowfall to the La Niña phenomenon, in which cooler than normal surface water temperatures in the Pacific cause changes in global weather patterns, resulting in dry conditions in California. While this phenomenon is occurs naturally every few years, some researchers are concerned that increased frequency and intensity of La Niña and shifting weather patterns could be evidence of climate change. Warmer winters in the future could mean precipitation falling as water instead of snow, something that California’s current water infrastructure of dams and reservoirs is not designed to handle and could mean potential flooding. Irregularity in mountain snowfall—whether extremely high or low—also poses threats to California ecosystems, as they may not be able to deal with such drastic changes precipitation.
Whether the city populations and farmers want to hear it or not, though, the truth of the matter is that California’s natural water systems were never designed to support this many people, and that there will be years when the Sierras simply cannot provide the water citizens would ideally like. Aqueducts from the Eastern Sierras pump in 430 million gallons of water per day to Los Angeles alone. Better water management will mean certain sacrifices from all players, but wise consumption of water and preservation of surpluses for the future will be key in permitting California to thrive.
Brittany Cheng and Kali Staniec are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
September 5, 2011
Though Governor Jerry Brown officially declared the three-year California drought to be over on March 30, 2011, water scarcity is still a huge issue for Californians. The drought was declared over because after three very dry winters, this winter resulted in 159% of normal Sierra Nevada snowpack for that time of year. The Sierra Nevada snowpack is a critical source of California water, as “almost two-thirds of the water used to irrigate millions of acres of farmland” and “water supply for 38.8 million people is contained in the Sierra snowpack.” Governor Brown states though, “while this season’s surplus of rain and strong snowpack has clearly ended the dry spell for now, it is critical that Californians continue to conserve water.” If the state of California does not begin to conserve water in this time of dryness, water sources will dry up and agriculture, industry, and residents will all be seriously affected.
In 2008, “Governor Schwarzenegger declared the first statewide drought in seventeen years,” a drought being defined as a prolonged period of abnormally low precipitation resulting in a shortage of water. In this state of emergency, solutions were proposed to alleviate the matter such as rationing of water and huge cutbacks. The drought lasted for three years until the Sierras had above-average snowpack in 2011. In this image, which shows the severity of drought in 2007 across the nation, it is clear that California is one of the most affected regions by drought, ranking in the “extreme category” in much of southern California. The entire state was experiencing dryness to some degree, though the southern half was hardest hit.
California residents on average use 80 to 100 gallons of water each day, and as a state, California was ranked number one, responsible for 11% of all the freshwater use in the United States. These numbers are just simply too high to be sustainable with the limited water resources that California has. “California produces more than half of the nations fruits, vegetables, and nuts” and growing these requires a huge amount of water. This accounts for a major portion of the water use in California. A water shortage would affect all state of the state from the economy with unemployment and overall revenue. There are already many lawsuits in place over distribution of water and water rights by many local farmers.
In 2009, most of California’s major water reservoirs remained below 50% capacity. Lake Shasta, California’s largest reservoir remained at an extreme low of 30% (Dept. CA Water Resources). California’s reservoirs are rapidly draining and are not having enough time to be replenished. We are beginning to see the same situations as the Owen’s and Mono Lake misfortune at many of California’s major reservoirs, where the growing Los Angeles population diverted too much water for expansion and ended up draining the entire reservoir. Not only does this water shortage from drought have a damaging affect on the people, but also the land is becoming more susceptible to dangerous wildfires, which are becoming “some of the costliest and most damaging in U.S. history” (Dept. CA Water Resources).
Even though the drought is officially classified as over, we still need to work hard and find new strategies and technologies for conserving water due to the yearly fluctuations of snowpack and precipitation. Water is one of the most important aspects of life, especially in California where millions of crops are being grown to supply food for the rest of the country. If the water were to decline suddenly, there would be major conflicts within the state. Therefore, we should live using water sparingly in case of another major drought.
About the authors: Sara Bethel and Megan Won are working towards their bachelor’s degrees in Environmental Studies and Biological Sciences, respectively, at USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.