As temperatures continue to reach new levels of intense heat, extreme droughts and water shortages have caused panic along the West Coast. What does this mean for the environment and people living in these Western states?
It has been the 2nd driest year in California’s history. Reservoir levels continue to drop and water restrictions keep increasing. It isn’t just Californians that are worried. Toward Oregon, federally managed lakes are depleted and farmers who rely on irrigation aren’t getting any water. Additionally, Native American Tribes watch helplessly as fish that are crucial to their culture die.
Not only are residents of these states suffering from extreme heatwaves and water restrictions, they now need to worry about water thieves. These thieves are tapping into fire hydrants, rivers, small farms and even homes to steal billions of gallons of water. Theft is becoming more common with the record breaking droughts and is seemingly used for illegal marijuana crops.
What do these extreme droughts and water shortages mean for the environment and people living in these affected areas?
What Causes a Drought?
A drought is often the result of less than normal rainfall. When conditions are drier and hotter, the moisture that is available from the soil is evaporated. Air circulation can also lead to a drought. Weather patterns move the water in the air around and is constantly changing. Additionally, water can become a supply and demand issue. In areas that are growing quickly, demand exceeds the supply. In combination with weather patterns, rising temperatures and excessive irrigation, these areas are pushed further into the drought.
Environmental Impract From Droughts & Water Shortages
A drought is when there is a prolonged shortages in water supply. It can last anywhere from months to years and is often declared after 15 days. Droughts can lead to decrease in water levels in reservoirs, lakes, ponds as well as rivers. Droughts and water shortages don’t just affect humans, they impact the environment as a whole. Here are some of the impacts of droughts:
- Fish & Animals – Habitats are reduced or destroyed and there is a lack of drinking water for wildlife and livestock.
- Land – Decrease in soil quality and increase in quantity of dust.
- Water Sources – Lower water levels in lakes, ponds, rivers and reservoirs.
- Plant Communities – Decrease in soil quality and death of vegetation/trees.
The lack of water from droughts impedes on food production, drinking water and often results in endangered species as well as loss of biodiversity.
How Bad Is The Drought and Water Shortages?
California’s most important watershed is the Northern Sierra. It normally fills the state’s major reservoirs but the past 2 years have been the driest since 1921. Moreover, San Jose is experiencing their driest year in 128 years, only gaining 5.3 inches of rain from July 1st to July 30th. San Francisco is on their 3rd driest year since 1849. However, Southern California is fairing some what better. In Los Angeles there was 73% more rainfall than average in the last 2 years.
Droughts and fires are part of the California’s history, although climate change has made them increasingly more intense. Last year, 4.3 million acres of land in California was destroyed. The majority of Californians believe climate change is contributing the worsening droughts and fires.
The droughts and water shortages are affecting more than just residents, but farmers and wildlife as well. Lead Fisheries technician for the Yurok Tribe, Jamie Holt said in a statement “When I first started this job 23 years ago, extinction wasn’t part of the conversation. If we have another year like we’re seeing now, extinction is what we’re talking about.”
Don Gentry, Klamath Tribes chairman said in a statement “I don’t think our leaders, when they signed the treaties, thought we’d wind up in a place like this. We though we’d have fish forever. Agriculture should be based on what’s sustainable. There’s too many people after too little water.”
Solutions To Droughts and Water Shortages
As climate changes accelerates and droughts become more common, searching for solutions is a priority. Most people living on the West Coast don’t view climate change as an abstract concept, it is real and happening right now.
Desalination is the process of taking the minerals and salts out of seawater in order to make it drinkable. It seems like a great idea especially during times of droughts and water shortages. However, there are high costs and environmental impacts that come with the desalination process.
It is the most expensive option, it requires huge amounts of energy and it contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, it has major affects on marine life. Although it produces fresh water, it generates brine which is a highly concentrated salt water mixture that is put back into the ocean. Although most marine life can handle a range of salt, that brine creates a highly unstable environment that most marine life can’t survive in.
Water Management & Conservation
Water conservation is the preservation, control and development of water resources. This involves surface and ground water as well as the prevention of pollution. Water management and conservation is the cheapest solution to ensure there isn’t a water shortage. In reservoirs when the levels continue to decrease, instead of drawing the same amounts, they decrease to avoid entering a “dead zone”. A Dead Zone is when the water levels go below the pumps, so despite there still being water, there isn’t enough to pump out.
The biggest issue regarding water management and conservation is that it requires everyone’s input. If things continue on like business as usual, there won’t be enough water for residents. The Governor encourages people to use less water at home. This means less lawn and garden maintenance, shorter showers and using appliances properly.
As climate change accelerates we are seeing worsening droughts, wildfires and heatwaves. This is only the beginning too. If we continue to ignore and carry on the way we have, the devastation will persist. It isn’t just residents who feel the affects of these droughts and heatwaves. The agricultural industry, local Native American Tribes and especially wildlife is impacted.
There are solutions to solving the droughts and water shortages issues. However, some are expensive and have negative side affects. Desalination is an option for emergencies, it is the process of taking seawater and turning it into drinking water. It’s extreme cost and negative impacts make it a last resort. Additionally, there is water management and conservation that is the ideal option. It takes all of us to make changes in order to serve the greater good. Reduce the amount of water you use in your home so future generations aren’t stuck with high water bills due to shortages.Stay Connected