Delta Stewardship consultant says state is in a 500-year drought
by Gene Beley, Delta Correspondent

March 30, 2014 9:01pm
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•  Warns 15-17 communities will be out of water by June – and then it could get worse

•  “Is this the new normal?”


Audience listens to Ms. Davis
(Photo by Gene Beley)

"Even with the February rains, we're essentially in the grip of a drought that is a 500 year drought," Martha Davis, a senior policy advisor for the Delta Stewardship Council and who led the fight to save Mono Lake, told people at an Environmental Justice Project public meeting Saturday morning.

Ms. Davis was the first of two speakers on the agenda, whose assignment was to explain the water issues in California in simple language that the general public can understand. Prayers before and after the speeches seemed effective, because, just as the last prayer ended, the first of two rain storms let loose with a cloud burst outside the Catholic school near downtown Stockton.

"Do you think the rain is ending the drought?" Ms. Davis asked the small audience.

"No," they said. Later in her speech, she told the audience that 15-17 California communities said they would be out of water by June. If there isn't enough rainfall, she said that figure might swell to 60 or more communities.

"2012 was a dry year," continued Ms. Davis. "There were a couple of good storms towards the end of the year so we were pretty optimistic as we entered 2013 that there would be more water. And then the water stopped. 2013 was a record-breaking drought. We went into summer and people were really optimistic. 2014 has broken every single record that we have on the books since the 1850s when we really started settling California. It's breath-taking in terms of how little water we've had,” she said.

"If you go through tree ring analysis and look at Yosemite or Tahoe or the high Alpine lakes, there are tree stumps that are this big," she said, stretching her arms wide, "because we've had times in historic where we've had 10 year droughts."

Ms. Davis said that part of the discussion is how to have a sensible conversation about the realities of water in California when there has been tremendously variable rainfall and the source of water is from rainfall.

She said it’s time Californians made peace with each other over the water issues facing the state and work with the resources that are available.

“This is a very serious drought. A lot of conversations this spring are going to be how different sectors of California are going to be impacted by it,” she said.

Those using water from the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project are facing the prospects of a full growing season with a zero allocation while some of the ranches in Northern California, even those with senior water rights, are looking at potentially a 50 percent reduction.

She said the other big thing to keep in mind is how rapidly groundwater is being depleted by pumping.

"Groundwater is 40 percent of our water supplies across the state,” she said. “In some areas of the state, the groundwater has been plummeting by feet per year. There are sections of the state where there are hundreds of feet of subsidence, collapsing the surface and losing that capacity to store water," she said.

Ms. Davis said California also could expect to see water quality problems.

"If the water doesn't have a lot of water pushing salt out, there will be sea water intrusion into the Delta. In past eras, we've had seawater intrusion going up as far as the Sacramento area. It has a direct impact on water supplies, agriculture, and it's part of the balancing act,” Ms. Davis said.

And she said California might not even have enough electricity if this summer is abnormally hot, since the reservoirs won't have enough water to produce hydro- electricity sufficient enough to meet peak demands.

Ecosystems are also affected, she continued. She said in the high country, fir trees and white pine are vulnerable to the pine beetle during droughts. "And then there's the problem with fires," she added. "It doesn't take much to set off a catastrophic fire. The question is, 'is this the new normal?'"

"I think this drought is a wakeup call. Humans have choice. A lot of critters that we share this planet with don't. We can make decisions on how to manage water resources,” she said.

"There may be a time some day where we have no choice but to make a hard decision between the survival of the species and our communities for water. But I think we should hold ourselves to the highest standard before we make these choices," she said.

Ms. Davis is “on loan” to the Delta Stewardship Council from the Inland Empire Utility Agency, a water agency in Southern California where she's responsible for green issues and water resource management. When she led the fight to save Mono Lake, she was executive director of the Mono Lake Committee. Her Stockton speech was sponsored by the Environmental Justice Project, a part of the Catholic Charities Diocese.


Watch the video here:

Delta Stewardship Council's Martha Davis Predicts a 500 Year Drought in California from Gene Beley on Vimeo.

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