The state of California formally declared a drought emergency today due to a lack of winter rainfall and water reserves at only 20 percent of normal levels. This is the third year of dry conditions across California, which poses a threat to the state’s economy and environment.
Last year was declared the driest year in recorded history in California and Gov. Jerry Brown recently described the state’s current condition as “a mega-drought.”
“The current historically dry weather is a bellwether of what is to come in California, with increasing periods of drought expected with climate change," said Juliet Christian-Smith, climate scientist in the California office of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Because increasing demand and drought are straining our water resources, we need to adopt policies that address both the causes and consequences of climate change."
With the drought declaration in place, the state can ease certain environmental protections and create more flexibility within the system to allow for changes in water diversions based on critical needs. The declaration also raises public awareness about the urgent need to conserve water.
"The entire Southwest U.S. is gripped in an extended drought, including Southern California, all of which depends on flows from the Colorado River," said Gary Wockner at Save the Colorado River Campaign. "If this is the 'new normal' of climate change, then we need to develop a likewise 'new normal' of water conservation and efficiency that also focuses on keeping our rivers—as well as our communities—healthy and thriving."
This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) designated portions of 11 western and central states as primary natural disaster areas because of a drought, including 27 California counties. The disaster designation allows eligible farmers to qualify for low-interest emergency loans from the USDA.
In addition to concerns about having an adequate water supply for food production, Californians are worried about Gov. Brown's plan to increase fracking as oil companies are gearing up to frack large reservoirs of unconventional shale oil in the Monterey Shale.
“The Governor’s drought declaration should be the final straw for fracking in the state. To frack for oil in California is to deny the facts of climate change, which tell us we have to leave this oil in the ground if we want a safe future," said David Turnbull, campaigns director for Oil Change International and the BigOilBrown.org campaign. "Our state cannot afford to waste more water digging up oil causing the very climate changes that will lead to more droughts like these in the future.”
Fracking wells generally consume between 2 and 10 million gallons of water in their lifetime. If every potential well in California identified by the U.S. Energy Information Agency were to be fracked, some 5 billion gallons of water would be required, according to Oil Change International.
"While Governor Brown cannot make it rain, he can prevent wasteful and harmful use of our water by placing an immediate moratorium on fracking and other extreme methods of oil and gas extraction," said Adam Scow, Food & Water Watch California campaign director.