By COLIN GAMM (3/6/2016)

CLAREMONT, Calif. – As California endures its fourth year of a historic drought and the promise of heavy El Niño rains fade, residents are confronting the possibility that climate change may be making a state of severe drought the new normal.

While the drought is a product of natural weather patterns, the effect of climate change on temperature has intensified its severity by 15 to 20 percent, according to a study published last year. By 2060, the study projects that climate change will drive California into a state of constant drought.

“California has experienced extensive drought in the past,” said Brinda Sarathy, director of the Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability. “What we haven’t seen in the geological record is the types of temperature we’re having coupled with limited precipitation.”

Water conservation has already become a fact of many Californians’ lives. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown instituted the first mandatory urban water rationing in state history. Thousands of municipal residents have torn out their grass lawns, many encouraged by rebate programs that incentivize transitions to drought-resistant landscapes.

Rising utility prices have played a role as well.

“They’ve just about doubled the price of water,” said Freeman Allen, a retired Pomona College professor.

While rationing has affected urban areas throughout the state, some regions are enduring harsher conditions. The Central Valley, California’s agricultural heartland, is running dry, with serious consequences for its residents and the cash crops that usually flourish there.

Many households depend on wells, which have been running dry for years. Low groundwater levels have also increased the concentration of pollutants in the wells, making many of them unsafe for consumption. Sarathy put the number of people without access to safe drinking water in California at approximately 2 million.

The crisis has been devastating for local communities, according to Kristin Dobbin, a regional coordinator for the Community Water Center in the Central Valley. Providing emergency relief is “hugely expensive” for taxpayers, she noted.

“We are spending, just in Tulare County alone, more than $150,000 a week providing emergency drought assistance to people whose wells have gone dry,” Dobbin said. “And that’s not even counting bottled water for people who have contaminated water.”

Many hoped that an El Niño winter would bring the precipitation necessary to replenish California’s aquifers, reservoirs and snowpack. But rains have been inconsistent, and a dry and hot February – the second warmest ever recorded in Los Angeles – have frustrated these hopes. Snowpack was only 84 percent of normal at the end of February, even with the bolstering effects of El Niño.

El Niño still bears substantial promise, however: the phenomenon can continue well into May, and a series of much-needed storms are already projected to hit California next week.

Tim Constantine, a retired schoolteacher who now works at a community farm in Ontario, expressed a feeling about the weather common in Southern California.

“We’re like everyone else; we’re hoping it rains tomorrow,” he said.

“Even though the farmer has done a lot of things to increase crop production and to try to get more control,” he continued, “it still comes down to mother nature. You can’t do anything about the weather.”

For Constantine, whose fruit farm depends on a local well, a drier future is cause for major concern.

“If the well goes dry, then you’d be out of farming,” he said. “There’s going to be change. I just don’t know how fast that change is going to come.”

In Los Angeles, the long reach of the city has compounded water insecurity, as pavement blocks precipitation from infiltrating the ground and replenishing groundwater stores. This water has instead been directed into the ocean through the city’s flood control system.

“Wherever there’s sprawl, there’s pavement,” said Lance Neckar, a professor of environmental analysis at Pitzer College. “And wherever there’s pavement, there’s channelization of the water to the ocean.”

With the effects of climate change, experts are cautioning that conservation measures may need to become standard practice. As steadily increasing temperatures draw water from the ground and air, droughts will become more frequent and extreme.

With stronger efforts to conserve, however, they believe that Californians can make the efforts necessary to live sustainably in a changing climate.

“We can do a lot more in terms of household water use,” said Sarathy. She pointed to irrigated landscaping, which accounts for about 70 percent of urban water use, as an obvious starting point for conservation.

Despite Gov. Brown’s mandate and incentives to install drought-tolerant landscapes, green lawns continue to populate many neighborhoods. Sarathy suggested that local governments could pass ordinances to ban them, as has been done in Arizona, but politicians may not be ready to undertake such an initiative.

Sarathy and Neckar both cited Australia, where citizens consume less than half as much water as Californians, as a model for further progress. Yet as Sarathy noted, Australia’s conservation practices came in response to a 10-year drought, and Neckar was dubious about the prospect for such efforts in California.

“Californians are in total denial about this,” he said.

(Written by Colin Gamm; March 6, 2016)

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