Pacific Institute & the NRDC hold Media Call on California’s Drought

Hydrology, not environmental restrictions, are the reason for the low allocations, plus how the state can prepare for droughts in the future.

by Maven

The Pacific Institute and the NRDC held a media call in anticipation of the final snow survey. During the call, Peter Gleick, director of the Pacific Institute, discussed the science and hydrology of the drought, Doug Obegi, staff attorney with the NRDC discussed the allocations and how water is used in California, and Steve Fleischli with the NRDC discussed actions the state and its residents could be taking to address the currnet drought and prepare for future ones.

The following is a transcript of the media call.

Peter Gleick, Pacific Institute

Dr. Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, Calif.I’m Peter Gleick; I’m director of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California, which is an independent research and policy group working on global water issues. I’m going to talk about the nature of the science and hydrology of the current drought and give a quick overview of where we are.

I am going to make four points. First of all the drought in California is extremely severe and we are now at the end of what we consider the rainy season in California. There may be a few more weeks of some precipitation but we’re in an extreme drought.

The second point is that the drought is not only severe but it’s extensive. One hundred percent of the state is considered to be in some degree of water stress. About three-quarters of the state is in what’s called extreme or extraordinary drought, and it looks like there’s no relief in sight, even with the recent bit of precipitation we’ve seen in the last week or so.

“If you want to ask if climate change caused the current drought, that’s the wrong question. The question really is how is climate change influencing the extremes that California experiences normally. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that has just been released in Yokohama, Japan in the last day or so has indicated, climate change is now influencing our extreme events and will continue to do so.” — Peter Gleick

The third point is drought is measured by many different things in California. In part, it’s a combination of the water that’s available to us and in part it’s a combination of the water that we demand as a society. I would note that even in a normal year, the demand for water exceeds the supply. We’re reaching what I call peak water in California, and by no means is this a normal year. This is an extremely dry year, measured by many different things. Measured by snowpack, measured by reservoir storage levels, measured by soil moisture, measured by the water to be delivered to users, and some of the other speakers will address some of these issues.

But in particular, the snowpack measurement on April 1st, that is tomorrow, is often considered a key measure of where we are. It’s an indication going back many, many years for how much water is available in the spring and the summer. By any measures, our snowpack is low. The current estimate of snowpack is about 30% of normal, one-third of normal. That is, we’ve lost 70% of our normal expected snowpack. It’s possible that number will go up in the next couple of days with the last bit of storms, and we’ll have the exact measurements for April 1st tomorrow, but expect it to be really abnormally low.

Reservoir levels are also very low. This is not the first year of the drought; this is the third year of low precipitation and our major reservoirs are hovering around half of normal. Soil moisture is also extremely low, and all of these things combine to cut deliveries to users, to different degrees, and some of the later speakers will talk about the differences in deliveries to different kinds of users.

And my fourth point is a quick comment about climate change. We know that climate change is contributing to the current drought in the following ways: Not only has precipitation has been low, but we’ve experienced very high temperatures in California in the last several years, and higher temperatures alone mean higher evaporative loss from our reservoirs, more evaporative loss from our soils, more demand for water by vegetation, and decreases in snowpack and increases in rain – a change in the ratio, so higher temperatures have affected that. We’ve seen higher sea levels over the last century that push more salt into the Delta; that requires that we push more fresh water into the Delta to keep salinity levels low so that water agencies can get higher quality water, and that’s going to be a challenge that’s growing in coming years.