Barren mountainsides around Donner Lake in late February. (Joanne Elgart Jennings)
Barren mountainsides around Donner Lake in late February. (Joanne Elgart Jennings)

We are officially in uncharted territory — in more ways than one.

The Sierra Nevada snowpack, which typically supplies nearly a third of California’s water, is showing the lowest water content on record: 6 percent of the long-term average for April 1. That doesn’t just set a new record, it shatters the old low-water mark of 25 percent, which happens to have been last year’s reading (tied with 1977).

Things are so bad that Governor Jerry Brown decided to slog into the field for the manual snow survey on Wednesday morning. He didn’t need snowshoes but he did bring along a first-ever executive order mandating statewide water reductions.

“We’re in a historic drought and that demands unprecedented action,” he told reporters who made it to the Sierra survey site off of Highway 50.

The 31-point program is wide-ranging, though direct actions are focused on urban water consumption, aiming for a “mandatory” 25 percent reduction compared to 2013 levels. It will be up to the State Water Resources Control Board and more than 400 local water agencies to work out how to implement and enforce the mandates.

The initiative also includes new incentives for replacing lawns with drought-friendly landscaping, consumer rebates for water-saving appliances, and special assistance for residents whose wells have run dry.

While the state’s Department of Water Resources does monthly snow surveys during the winter season, the April 1 survey is the benchmark for assessing the season as a whole. That’s when snowfall is reckoned to have peaked and the runoff season gets underway. Six percent on April 1 is essentially saying there’s next-to-nothing to show for an entire winter’s snow accumulation.

PrintThe snowpack has now seen four years of steady decline. 2013 was California’s driest year on record. 2014 was dry too, but also the warmest on record, which combined for a one-two punch to California’s water supply. In March, for example, both Sacramento and Redding logged average temperatures more than 10 degrees above normal, according to consulting meteorologist Jan Null of Golden Gate Weather Services.

“There will be consequences,” says Mark Cowin, who heads DWR.

More than 400,000 acres of farmland were fallowed last year because of scarce water. Credible sources have estimated that figure could double this year.

“More impacts to farms where supplies will be shorted,” predicts Cowin, “more local communities where wells will run dry, and we’ll have to help assist them in some sort of emergency response, and more impacts to fish & wildlife, which is of course, very important.”

Groundwater resources will be stressed even more, as water-constrained farmers turn up the pumps to offset cuts in allocations from state and federal water projects.

Though Cowin hastens to add that “the vast majority of our citizens will not run out of water,” some already have, mostly in rural areas where wells have gone dry.

“I hope that this will continue to be a wake-up call for people that things are different,” says Lester Snow, a former DWR chief who now heads the non-partisan California Water Foundation.

“And not only is it gonna be bad this year but let’s not pretend that next year’s gonna be a lot better,” he added. “This drought has revealed fundamental weaknesses in our drought management system, and we need to start addressing those weaknesses.”

Other impacts from the paltry snowpack will be more subtle, such as the loss of hydroelectric power. Less runoff coming down the hill, turning hydropower turbines means that utilities have to replace the electricity, which they usually do with natural gas-fired power plants. That wields a bigger carbon footprint and adds to Californians’ electric bills — $1.4 billion since 2012, by one estimate.

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  • cruzyogadude

    Well, agriculture only accounts for five percent of economic activity, they say, and takes 80 percent of the water.

    What’s the obvious move? If things go on like this, all the political contributions on earth won’t make it less obvious.

    • incog99

      Get ready to pay a LOT more for lettuce, celery and artichokes to name just a few. Oh, and I forgot Avocados.

      • panhead20

        Farmers need to move their farms to where the water is. California is a desert.

      • cruzyogadude

        It’s a big country. Somewhere, there’ll be the rain for these things.

        And besides, who says traditional dirt farming for vegetables is the be-all and end-all. Go to Google new right now and enter the search term “aquaponics,” a sustainable high-productivity method of growing vegetables for 5-10 percent of the water usage of the field method. You won’t find many stories in the big papers, but hundreds in the small ones.

        Joe Agro’s going to have some competition.

    • Robs
  • John Nicoletti

    It’s a shame. Too many people live there. Many, most, are east coasters. They grew up where water was free and easy. California is a desert, and, people have abused that for 50+ years. They keep their 8 minute showers, dishwashers, lawn stuff. My friend Mike Kenyon, who has now passed, taught me well. How we cleaned dishes, took showers….this was Mill Valley 1988. He grew up in Bolinas, and knew, what fell from the skies, it all you had. And constantly mentioned that. And Couple that with low precipitation, this is what happens. Good luck out there.

    • panhead20

      Farmers use 80%+ of the water growing water intensive crops.. Farmers have been abusing that for 50+ years.

  • panhead20

    We can no longer grow water intensive crops in California. It is time for farmers to move their farms to where the water is. No more multiple growing seasons. Fallow the fields and wait for the rain to return.

    • Da_Neutral_Observer

      Clearly, this is the right thing to do. Since nearly all farm labor is done by illegal immigrants anyway, what is the problem with moving these farms OUT of Cali? It might actually result in farm owners being FORCED to hire U.S. citizens for the first time in nearly a century.

  • Robyn Myers

    How about even a mandatory 2% cut for Ag water users? Even that small percent would have a huge impact on water savings. It is wrong to lay the burden on cities and towns without requiring Ag and Industry to make even a small reduction.

  • lewis b puller

    earth first and the international communist party will never permit the hon. moonbeam to build desalination plants in California. earth first hates desal more than they hate dams and humans. the hon. moonbeam will always obstruct and sandbag desal plant construction.

  • lewis b puller

    the hon. moonbeam will obey earth first in lockstep until our California mass extinction of homo erectus is accomplished . in a couple years, all our problems will be moot and academic when we follow the hualapi and Anasazi tribes into extinction. the difference will be that our modern extinction will be suicidal courtesy of earth first and our senile, fatalistic guvnor.

  • DonWood

    This is where it may get tricky. The governor can order mandated cuts in water use statewide, but how does he propose to enforce that order? At the local level, residents water is supplied by hundreds of unregulated water districts and agencies who are not under the control of the state. Those agencies get their revenue based on how much water their customers buy. Any reduction in water purchases equals lower revenues needed to pay off billions of dollars in water infrastructure bonds. Unless those local
    agencies take action to force or help their customers reduce their water usage, all the jawboning by the governor may not make much difference.

  • redroksaz

    This is a joke, right? $660 million to shore up flood protection structures. Please don’t insult your “intelligence” by saying this is needed because if it ever does rain it will create huge mudslides. Please, if there is anybody living in California that has any sense left, get out now.

    You have 1.000 miles of shoreline. You are out of water. Little Israel that is half desert gets 80% of their potable water from desalination of the Mediterranean Sea. They have been exporting their technology around the globe for years. And your answer to what is a Biblical drought is to shore up your “flood” protection structures? This is the height of PC idiocy.

    • Robs

      Though desalinization may end up being one of the strategies used to provide water to California, it has it’s own issues. Highly energy intensive and not inconsiderable environmental impacts. Using Israel and other middle eastern countries as examples needs to consider the differences in size and economies. Israel has a population of just under 8 million…California’s is almost 40 million (LA County alone is around 10 million).

      • redroksaz

        Your comment proves my point. You obviously speak out of ignorance. In regards to environmental impact you know very little about desalination. They have even used the brine from the desalination plants to create salt water fish farms in the middle of the desert.

        You talk about environmental impact…have you looked at pictures of your dried up state of California lately? Pal, because of the ignorance and PC that engulfs your state, you have no hope. Oh! But spend $660 million on flood protection structures. Get out! Anyone left with any sense…

        Who has been feeding you with the stupidity that because California has 40 million citizens, that desalination is impracticable? Israel also has a coastline that is a fraction of California’s coastline. Their technology has been exported to nations larger than California’s population. America should have been on the forefront of this technology. To talk about the stupidity of environmental impact while you are about to die of thirst….go hug a tree with your green buddies. You guys are beyond help. Get out! Anybody listening?

  • alison

    Does anyone know the link/website, etc where I can find the exact water saving rules for the City of Santa Clara, or just Santa Clara county? Thanks


Craig Miller

Craig is KQED's science editor, specializing in weather, climate, water & energy issues, with a little seismology thrown in just to shake things up. Prior to his current position, he launched and led the station's award-winning multimedia project, Climate Watch. Craig is also an accomplished writer/producer of television documentaries, with a focus on natural resource issues.

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