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Catastrophe Looming? 'Mega-Drought' Panic Sweeps California

Amid historic drought, farmers in nation's largest food-producing state pushed to unsustainable tapping of groundwater reserves

- Lauren McCauley, staff writer

(Photo: kool_skatkat/ cc via Flickr)As an 'exceptional' drought continues its assault on California's croplands, new information released this week has put many in a panic over what these historic water lows mean for the ecosytem, agricultural production and people across the state.

"California is losing water reserves as if through a sieve," reports Circle of Blue, a water resources news site.

According to satellite data published Monday, the state has been unsustainably "guzzling" key groundwater reserves in the farming region in the Central Valley.

Analysis of NASA satellite data by researchers at the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling reveals that "from when the current drought began in November 2011 through November 2013, the amount of water stored in the Sacramento-San Joaquin watershed, the state’s largest, and in the Central Valley has dropped by 20 billion cubic meters (5.3 trillion gallons)."

Further, almost no rain or snow has fallen during the 2013-14 wet season, leaving snow pack at just 12 percent of normal levels, which Circle of Blue reports, means "there is little snow in the mountains to replenish depleted reservoirs during the spring melt."

Reacting to the news of the state's groundwater lows, 350.org founder Bill McKibben tweeted, "this is really bad news."

"It's scary," Anthony Willcutt, resident of the Brooktrails Township—one of the 17 communities officials estimate will run out of water in 100 days or less—told USA Today.

Further taxing groundwater resources, on Jan. 31, the state Water Resources Department announced that it was not allocating any water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to 29 local water agencies serving 25 million people—the first time in state history—and was slashing deliveries to agricultural districts by half.

The LA Times reports that without these allocations, ranchers and farmers in the state are being pushed to tap groundwater resources "whose quality is rapidly deteriorating from overuse and a lack of rainfall to replenish them."

Further, the lack of water is forcing many to "liquidate herds" and leave hundreds of thousands of farmland acres fallow.

As USA Today reported Wednesday:

A foreboding is seeping across the state as Californians gaze on rain-starved reservoirs, parched pastures and arid orchards at the start of what could be the worst year of drought since the mid-1970s. Most at risk is the Golden State's $45 billion-a-year agriculture industry, producer of nearly half of U.S.-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables. Farmers plan to plant fewer acres and some farmworkers are leaving for greener fields. Other financial effects are piling up. Ranchers are thinning cattle herds. Ski resorts have laid off workers. The state's Forestry Department says forest fire calls were up sixfold last month from past Januarys.

Governor Jerry Brown warned last week that this spell may amount to one of history's great "mega-droughts."

"It's a borderline catastrophe," Ryan Jacobsen, chief executive of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, told the LA Times. "The impact is going to be very traumatic."

The U.S. Drought Monitor reported last week that 'exceptional drought'—the most severe category—now covered 9 percent of the state.

This graph shows cumulative groundwater losses (measured in cubic kilometers and million acre-feet) in California’s Central Valley since 1962. The red line shows data from the U.S. Geological Survey’s calibrated groundwater model simulations from 1962-2003. The green line shows satellite-based estimates of groundwater storage losses produced by the UCCHM at UC Irvine. Background colors represent periods of drought (white), of variable to dry conditions (gray), of variable to wet conditions (light blue) and wet conditions (dark blue). Groundwater depletion mostly occurs during drought, and progressive droughts are lowering groundwater storage to unsustainable levels. (Image courtesy of UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling)

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