January 17, 2014

Drought Emergency Declared in California

Statement by Juliet Christian-Smith, California climate scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists

BERKELEY (Jan. 17, 2014)—The state of California has formally declared a drought emergency due to a lack of winter rainfall and water reserves at only 20 percent of normal levels.

With 2013 the driest year in recorded history in California and no significant rainfall in the forecast, Gov. Jerry Brown recently described the state’s current condition as “a mega-drought.” This is the third year of dry conditions across California and poses a threat to the state’s economy and environment.

The drought declaration allows the state to ease certain environmental protections and create more flexibility within the system to allow for changes in water diversions based on critical needs. It also raises public awareness about the urgent need to conserve water.

Also this week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated portions of 11 western and central states as primary natural disaster areas because of a drought, including 27 California counties. The disaster designation means eligible farmers can qualify for low-interest emergency loans from the USDA.

Below is a statement by Juliet Christian-Smith, climate scientist in the California office of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS):

“The current historically dry weather is a bellwether of what is to come in California, with increasing periods of drought expected with climate change. 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.

“A recent survey of the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains revealed that we are already experiencing the impacts of global warming. Snowpack is California’s largest water storage system and has been declining over the last century, and particularly over the past 50 years.
 
“Water scarcity, a consequence of a warming climate, is a challenge we need to face now because it threatens our economic well-being. Drought declarations and other short-term, crisis-driven responses, while helpful in the short term, are not sufficient to address this long-term problem. To make California more resilient to more frequent or severe droughts, we need to adopt greater conservation measures, better groundwater storage, and more efficient agricultural water uses.

“Investing in 21st century water management solutions that address a range of climate conditions will help improve water reliability for Californians, especially in dry years.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.