While the Midwest and Northeast dug their cars out from under the polar vortex this past week, much of California roasted. Ski resort owners nervously eyed their brown, bare mountains. Catholic Bishops called on parishioners to pray for rain. And Mendocino County, just north of San Francisco, declared a state of emergency, citing an “imminent threat of disaster.” For the third year in row, California is suffering through drought conditions that are anything but trivial. The state relies on snowmelt for around one third of its public water supply, and snow conditions look increasingly bleak. The first snow survey of the winter showed that in the Sierra Nevada, snowpack levels are dwindling at 20 percent of normal. That’s the same reading scientists got in 2012, making both years the driest ever recorded.
And it’s not just snow. Rain is a huge problem, too. In Los Angeles, where it usually rains only 15 inches per year, a mere 3.6 inches reached the ground throughout all of 2013. To put that number into perspective, New Orleans usually sees 3.5 inches of rainfall in October alone – its driest month of the year.
For California’s 38 million people and 45 billion-dollar agriculture industry, continued drought could spell disaster. So Governor Jerry Brown now faces an important decision. Pressure is mounting—from state lawmakers, farmers, and local water districts—for the governor to declare a state of drought emergency.
But what would an emergency declaration do?
As the Sacramento Bee reports, historically, there haven’t been clear guidelines on when to declare a drought, or what happens afterward. A drought declaration would force federal officials to pay attention to the crisis, potentially accelerating federal relief. But some speculate that a drought declaration would send a message of economic hardship, and Governor Brown has so far sidestepped the question.
Growing up in Southern California, I remember the conservation measures we had to take during the drought of the late 80s and early 90s. “If it’s yellow, let it mellow” became a popular model in our San Diego home. In Los Angeles, the mayor implemented mandatory water rationing, slapping big penalties on anyone who wasted water. And in Santa Barbara, residents applied green paint to their dried out lawns.
But the reality is that even with a tremendous drought every decade or two (and several smaller droughts in between), most Californians hardly ever have to consider the state’s water problems. In San Diego—where our climate is often reminiscent of the Anza Borrego desert—luscious lawns and golf courses are still the norm. We may have low-flow toilets, but rarely can I remember anyone talking about taking shorter showers during non-drought times, or making sure not to waste water while washing the dishes or brushing one’s teeth.
It’s time for all Californians, and residents in other drought-stricken states, to realize that having enough water is a luxury that may not be around for long. After all, climate change is threatening to make our water shortages even worse. A report from the Natural Resources Defense Council shows that, due to climate change, around one third of all U.S. counties will face higher risks of water shortages by 2050.
As Governor Brown considers declaring a drought emergency, perhaps he should look to his own citizens as his audience. A drought declaration would not only draw the attention of federal officials. It would also serve as a wake-up call for Californians, underscoring the crisis at hand. It’s time we get serious about water conservation in the long term. A drought declaration could be the first step to real, sustainable lifestyle changes that keep both our water use and our water crises under control.