Santa Clara county, the home of Silicon Valley, issued mandatory water restrictions this week during a severe drought that has already reached historic levels.
The move was championed by analysts and researchers who have pushed for more conservation efforts across California amid concerns that the state will fall deeper into a drought disaster through the hot, dry summer and autumn.
“We are indeed in a dire situation,” said Rick Callender, the CEO of the water district serving Santa Clara county, during a public hearing Wednesday. “When you see a storm about to hit your community, the responsibility of government is not to wait until the storm hits to call for emergency action. The responsibility of government, as we all know, is to act before the storm can actually cause the devastation.”
Across California, drought conditions are intensifying as climbing temperatures obliterate the diminished snowpack and reservoirs see record-low inflows. Spurred by the climate crisis, the state’s dry years are becoming drier and the parched landscape is setting the stage for another season of devastating fires. Fields will have to be fallowed, freshwater ecosystems are facing catastrophe, and some communities are bracing for water shortages that will further reduce already limited water supplies for drinking and sanitation.
Nearly 95% of the state is now experiencing “severe drought”, as classified by the US drought monitor, but some areas are bearing the brunt more than others, and responses have varied.
The California governor, Gavin Newsom, has declared a drought emergency in 41 of California’s 58 counties and has proposed a $5.1bn investment into water infrastructure and resilience. But he has resisted pressure to expand the declaration statewide, perhaps anticipating the potential for political blowback in the midst of a recall election.
Water has long been a localized issue in California, and the Newsom administration has to tread carefully, according to the water policy expert Felicia Marcus, who previously served as chair of the California state water resources control board.
“The history of water governance in California is not a top-down one,” says Marcus. “It’s local control. There’s a cultural political norm and we are heavily fragmented.”
Valley Water, the county district board that doubles as both policymaker and wholesale water provider in Santa Clara county, called on the cities and companies it serves to cut 15% from their 2019 levels. Much of the cuts focus on curbing outdoor urban water use, which sucks up roughly half of the water distributed to communities and is wasted on lush green lawns or clean cars and driveways.Jim Jensen, a rancher, walks by a pond with low water levels in Tomales, Marin county. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Further north, Marin county was the first to declare a water shortage emergency in April, imposing mandatory restrictions on residents aiming to reduce use by 40% across the district. Meanwhile, their neighbors in the East Bay, which includes the cities of Oakland and Berkeley, won’t be forced to conserve but they could see higher rates. The East Bay municipal utility district said that the water it relies on wasn’t yet in enough danger of depletion to merit mandatory reductions and that users had already conserved 13% more than in 2013.
“For urban water conservation, we have started to see some municipalities issue drought messaging,” says Cora Kammeyer, a senior researcher at the Pacific Institute. “But there is a sense that a lot of the municipalities feel decently good about their storage and ability to weather the drought.”
Californians have learned key lessons from the last dry period, during which the state experienced the driest four years since officials began logging precipitation levels, and residents are using less water than they were then.
Urban areas have invested in programs to recycle and reuse water and bolstered their ability to capture stormwater. Even as the state’s population has increased, adding nearly 10 million more people over the last three decades, cities use about the same amount of water they did in the 1990s, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
But, according to researchers and water policy experts, more needs to be done. The climate crisis will make the dry times drier and California’s ecosystems are already facing catastrophe.
“It is during a drought that we see how unsustainable our water use is in California,” says Jon Rosenfield, a senior scientist with San Francisco Baykeeper, an advocacy organization that works to protect the Bay and its tributaries, adding that he thinks the Newsom administration has been “abysmal on water policy”. The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“In order to get beyond the old dichotomies, we all need to use less water. Not meaning drink less water, not meaning skipping showers – but we have to get a grip on our agricultural use and cities can do more,” he says. “Yes, there need to be local solutions, but really we need a statewide solution.”
California grows roughly two-thirds of the fruits and nuts in the US and supplies more than a third of the country’s vegetables. Farmers and ranchers in the state are already feeling the impact of the drought and a crunch on their expected water deliveries from federal and state agencies, culling crops and unearthing orchards, as roughly 500,000 acres are expected to be fallowed.
But the sector also wields a lot of power, claiming roughly four times as much water as urban areas. And, as the Los Angeles Times reported at the end of the last drought in 2017, water shortages did little to slow the sector’s revenue, which reached record heights in 2012, 2013, and 2014.
Meanwhile, rural residents – especially in communities of color – saw their wells go dry. Roughly half of the state’s water systems are currently at risk or potentially at risk of failing, according to a recently released analysis by the state water resources control board. Also, a quarter of California native freshwater fish, which are essential to aquatic ecosystem health, are now threatened or endangered due to lack of flows.
“People keep thinking: surely it will rain next year,” Marcus says. “We are wired to hope for the best and we don’t always plan for the worst.” But, she adds, “any dry year can be the first year of a 10-year drought”.
Even if the winter brings a rainy reprieve, scientists fear the snowpack will never fully recover in a hotter environment. “Folks aren’t grappling with the enormity of the risk to our infrastructure and ecosystems,” Marcus says. “We are going to lose some species – if we haven’t already lost them – if we don’t realize that we have got to give nature more of its due,” she adds. “Because this is just a taste of what’s to come.”