California’s Cup Runneth Empty

The Golden State contemplates a dry future. Welcome to the club.

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

The stakes are getting higher as the West continues to get drier. Not only has Southern Nevada received precious little rain over the past two months, but California Governor Jerry Brown last week declared that the Golden State could be in the midst of a “mega-drought.” How bad are things in California? Here are the numbers:

  • California’s statewide average rainfall was 7.38 inches in 2013, the lowest figure since the state began keeping records in 1895.
  • Only 1.53 inches of rain were recorded from October through December, also the lowest aggregate total for that stretch in recorded history.
  • The Sierra Nevada snowpack in Northern California is only 12 percent of its average for this time of year.
  • The State Water Project, which supplies water for about 25 million Californians and irrigates about 750,000 acres of farmland, announced that it will halt all deliveries for 2014 until further notice, the first time water allocation has been cut entirely in the Project’s 54-year history.
  • The California Department of Public Health says 17 rural communities could face severe water shortages in 60 to 100 days.

Reservoirs in the north and central parts of California are more depleted than in Southern California, where municipalities say they have enough stored water reserves for 2014, but Brown has asked residents and businesses statewide to voluntarily reduce their water consumption by 20 percent.

The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation last week that would ease federal environmental protections in California, allowing farmers to increase pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The bill, which has been criticized by Brown and both of California’s U.S. senators, will likely be shot down in the Senate, but it highlights the state’s dependence on water for farming. Agriculture makes up only 2 percent of California’s economy, yet farmers use 80 percent of the water consumed by people and businesses in an average year, according to the state Department of Water Resources. California either needs to be weaned off of its farm economy or find ways to become less water reliant.

Some parts of California are already rewarding residents for taking water-saving measures. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a consortium of 26 cities and water districts that serves nearly 19 million people, offers monetary incentives for conservation. Through its SoCal WaterSmart program, high-efficiency toilets earn $50 per toilet; high-efficiency clothes washers earn an $85 rebate; having 50-gallon rain barrels brings a $75 rebate; and weather-based irrigation controllers, which measure soil moisture, bring $80 for areas less than one acre or $25 per irrigation station for sites larger than one acre.

In Southern Nevada, water conservation has been a point of emphasis for two decades now. We’ve ripped out our lush lawns in favor of desert landscaping, restricted the days and times when we can run our sprinklers, started using recycled water to irrigate parks and golf courses, and nearly all the water used indoors is treated and returned to Lake Mead. In fact, despite the Valley’s population growing by 25 percent since 2002, our water consumption has decreased by 33 percent. We must be doing things right. How else to account for the news that construction has resumed on the Cowabunga Bay Water Park in Henderson? The 23-acre project near Galleria Drive and Gibson Road is scheduled to open on May 24.

So does that mean Nevada is winning the water war? Hardly. The Colorado River is experiencing 14 years of drought unmatched in 1,250 years, and federal authorities this year will for the first time decrease the flow of water from Lake Powell into Lake Mead, which currently is 1,106 feet above sea level and expected to drop 20 feet this year. That reduction would put us dangerously close to 1,075 feet, which would trigger a federal water shortage declaration and cut supply for Nevada and Arizona. Projections show the lake could dip below that mark by April 2015.

If Lake Mead drops below 1,050 feet, the first of the lake’s two intake pipes would no longer be functional; the second would run dry if the lake hits 1,000 feet. A third, deeper straw is scheduled for completion by July 2015. One would hope it would be an emergency backup; instead it may become a necessity. But we seem to be ahead of our California neighbors in some ways, so raise a cool glass of H2O to celebrate. Drink fast, before the well runs dry.

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