California Struggles with Groundwater Depletion Following End of Drought

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  February 6, 2017

California Struggles with Groundwater Depletion Following End of Drought

Climate change will result in more rainfall and less snowfall, leading to flooding in the winter and shortages in the summer, says Pacific Institute's Heather Cooley
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KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Kim Brown in Baltimore.

Perhaps a bit of good news on the climate change front? Although does it come at a cost. Recent California storms dramatically eased the State's years long drought by replenishing depleted reservoirs. The State, which has been parched by its worst drought on record, was inundated with floods after a brutal storm that lashed the West coast in mid-January.

Now, although headlines read, that "California Drought is Almost Over", the storms alleviated about 42% of the State's extreme drought. And according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, environmentalists, farmers and scientists, are still concerned over fresh water scarcity issues in California. And in other parts of the country, and indeed, in and around the world.

And to discuss this further, we're joined with Heather Cooley. She is the Water Program Director at the Pacific Institute, where she conducts and oversees research on an array of water issues, such as sustainable water use and management, and the impacts of climate change on water resources.

In 2009 she received the Outstanding Achievement Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for her work on agricultural water efficiency. Welcome Heather, we appreciate you being here.

HEATHER COOLEY: Thanks for having me.

KIM BROWN: So, the U.S. Drought Monitor announced the following widespread heavy precipitation across many of the nation's areas impacted by drought, including in California, were greatly alleviated through this most recent round of heavy storms. So, let's take a look at the animation of recent areas affected in California... So, has California, and in fact, much of the country bounced back from drought conditions, at least to a large degree?

HEATHER COOLEY: Well, the recent rains brought very welcome relief, and they've helped to replenish our reservoirs and our snowpack. But when we think about water resources in California, there's really three components. In addition to reservoirs and snowpack, groundwater is a very important source. So, while we're seeing recovery of reservoirs and snowpack, our groundwater levels will take much longer to recover, if they ever recover.

We draw down groundwater quite heavily during droughts, and unfortunately, we don't always let them recover. And so, what we've seen in the long-term, is a steady decline in groundwater levels throughout the State. It's lead to major challenges, both in drought years and non-drought years.

KIM BROWN: So, Heather, talk a bit about the toll that the storms in California took, from mass evacuation, to loss, and damage across the State.

HEATHER COOLEY: Yes, so what we've seen, just in these past couple of years, is extremes. And California is known for extremes. We have both very wet years and very dry years. What we're seeing though, is that these extremes are becoming more intense, due to climate change. The rains that we've seen have caused flooding in some areas, and it's made managing water challenging. It's an opportunity though, for us to capture some of that water, help us to reduce the impacts of the drought.

But it's going to be a long road. Just even one year, one or two wet years, is not going to be enough to restore, or address, the deficit that we've had over these past five years. So, you know, it's been helpful. It's brought welcome relief, but our challenges are not over. I think it's important to realize too, that California has challenges in non-drought years. We have a lot of demands on water throughout the State, and in many cases, our rivers, streams, groundwater aquifers, are over-allocated, meaning we're taking more out than they can sustainably provide.

So, even as drought conditions ease, we still have a number of challenges to better manage water resources throughout the State.

KIM BROWN: So, Heather, help us out here. Explain to us how the extreme storms, along with the extreme drought -- how are these both consistent with climate change?

HEATHER COOLEY: Well, California is an interesting place. It has the most variable climate in North America, and a few wet storms going either north or south makes the difference between a very wet year and a very dry year. What the projections are for climate change is, that on average, rainfall or precipitation will probably not change much, but we'll see more of these extreme years. These very, very dry years, and these very, very wet years.

In addition, what the climate models agree, and what we're already seeing, is that the temperatures are warming. And the snowpack is a very important resource for California. And as the temperatures warm, we're seeing more of the precipitation fall as rain, rather than snow. What that does is, that it causes much more severe winter flooding because that precipitation comes all at once, and then in the summertime, the spring and summer, when we need that water, it's not there, because it's already sort of run off.

So, as we look and think about climate change, we're likely to see these extreme events happen more frequently. And in addition, the temperatures are going to exacerbate some of the challenges we have in managing water.

KIM BROWN: There is largely a public perception in the U.S. that our fresh water supply is boundless, with lakes, rivers, underground aquifers, and the snowpack, as you mentioned. So, are there limits to fresh water? And who is being most affected, or who could be most affected, in the future with water scarcity?

HEATHER COOLEY: There are absolutely limits on water, and that's been one of the key challenges, is the belief or the thought that it's limitless. But it is a resource that we have to manage efficiently and effectively in wet and dry years. Something we're getting better at, but we're not quite there yet. We have a long way to go. But resources are limited.

When we look at who's being impacted, we look broadly across the board, frankly. When we look at this drought, we see tremendous impacts on ecosystems, and on some of the disadvantaged communities, some of the most vulnerable communities in parts of the State. So, we're seeing communities and households that have run out of water, that are having to rely on bottled water, or reliant on the State to help them dig deeper wells. So, that obviously, is a major challenge.

Ecosystems, you know, we're seeing them collapse. We're seeing salmon populations -- especially were hard hit during this drought, with, in some cases, some parts of the run experiencing mortality of over 90%. So, there are impacts across the State, and really a further sign that we need to do a better job of managing resources, and managing water in particular.

KIM BROWN: So, what are some of the solutions that you have looked at that are most equitable to prevent a water crisis?

HEATHER COOLEY: Well, I think one of the key pieces is around looking at our uses of water. And assuring we're using water efficiently. We don't have enough water to use it as wastefully as we currently do. We have significant opportunities in cities, and on farms, to be using water more efficiently. And again, you're seeing communities already adopt some of these, but we have a long way to go.

So, it's things like, replacing water intensive lawns with less water intensive landscapes, low water use plants, native plants, for example. Switching out your toilets, your old toilets and clothes washers and showerheads, and putting in much more efficient models. And on farms, it's moving away from flood irrigation, towards drip, and micro-sprinklers. Looking at the weather as an indicator of when to irrigate, as well as provide some opportunities.

So, we have a lot of opportunities across California to better manage our water resources and reduce the demands. In addition, we have some pretty interesting and innovative ways of boosting supplies. Recycling and reusing water, for example, much of the wastewater that we use in this State still is treated and sent down stream. In some cases discharged into the ocean. We could be capturing that water and using it multiple times. In addition, storm water capture potential.

As you noted, this was a very wet year. And a lot of that water fell on areas that are paved, and it runs off, and it pollutes rivers and streams and our oceans. There's an opportunity to be capturing that water, recharging ground water, and then using it later when we don't have the water available.

KIM BROWN: So, are you concerned at all about the prospective of cutting of regulations that protect clean water or clean air, as well as, limiting the access of scientific data from governmental agencies, such as the EPA, by the new Administration? And if so, what can we do about it?

HEATHER COOLEY: Well, there's absolutely concerns about rolling back some of the protections we have, both for the environment, and for ensuring safe access, affordable access to water. You know, the regulations that the Federal government has, does establish drinking water standards, ensuring that we're drinking safe water. Those are critical for ensuring human and environmental health. And so, the threat of rolling some of those back is a major concern.

Similarly, the environmental protections that are in place help to ensure that, you know, we don't completely destroy our environment in order to meet human demands for water. And so, you know, we have to be thinking in a much more balanced perspective, looking at how we can both have a healthy environment, and a healthy ecosystem, and meet the needs for people.

And I do think it's possible. We have a lot of solutions. A lot of places are already moving in that direction, and so, the threat of a rollback is a real one.

KIM BROWN: Indeed. We've been speaking with Heather Cooley. She is the Water Program Director at the Pacific Institute, where she conducts and oversees research on an array of water issues, such as sustainable water use and management, and the impacts of climate change on water resources.

We've been discussing California's recent drought, which has seen a bit of a respite during some winter storms. But, California's absolutely not out of the woods, so to speak. So, Heather, we appreciate your time and your analysis today. Thank you.


KIM BROWN: And thanks for watching The Real News Network.




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