Michael F. Haverluck
Amid the drought across the western United States, disgruntled Southern California residents are fed up with government agencies that break the very water-use rules that homeowners must strictly follow or pay costly fines.
Already this year, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has received more than 4,000 complaints from residents about government agencies wasting water in violation of the rules, spokeswoman Michelle Vargas told the Los Angeles Times.
There were just 375 such complaints last year.
Vargas said the surge is because of water conservation consciousness.
Aspiring filmmaker Matt Chapman captured on video a gushing stream of water from a broken sprinkler, with the runoff forming a marsh. And “Department of Water and Power, City of Los Angeles, Receiving Station K” is emblazoned on the building in the background.
“Whether it’s a violation or not is kind of a technicality,” Chapman told the paper. “The point is they were very clearly wasting water. If they’re trying to hold citizens responsible financially for wasting water on their homes, then certainly I hope somebody is being held responsible at the DWP for wasting water like that.”
His video is not the only one to take government to task on the issue. Others reveal government employees watering public grassy areas into virtual swamps and city park sprinklers turning on at mid-day.
A 2009 Southern California Edison study found 10 percent of California’s water supply was lost just through leaking pipes, amounting to billions of gallons per year. Twenty million gallons alone were lost several months ago when a 100-year-old pipe ruptured at UCLA, flooding the John Wooden Center and parts of the campus. Nearly 10,000 gallons per minute were lost when a West Hollywood water main broke last week.
After California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency earlier this year, steep fines were set up — $500 a day for residents and up to$10,000 a day for companies — to save water, as 99.8 percent of the state is experiencing severe drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
To squeeze the nozzle even tighter, Brown signed legislation this month mandating that agencies detail the amount of water loss in all water management plans made for the city in the future. His ultimate goal is to cut water use across the state by 20 percent.
Furthermore, it was recently announced that L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti will issue an executive order by next week that will require city departments to use even less water through stricter regulations. Many residents believe this is only fair, as more and more are giving up their beloved lawns for expensive drought-resistant landscaping to avoid fines.
And with water becoming more scarce as the state’s dry spell is forecast to continue into next year, tensions between the government and homeowners are only expected to escalate.
Climatologists drop ‘megadrought’ bomb
California is not alone, as states across the American West are experiencing one of the worst droughts in history.
Its epic proportions have prompted several scientists to use the term “megadrought,” because not only is the surface dry, underground water tables are being depleted.
“The western U.S. is undergoing one of its most severe droughts in the last 115 years,” National Climatic Data Center Climatologist Richard Heim told WND in an exclusive interview. “Based on the Palmer Drought Index, which has been computed based on climate data going back to January 1900, 47.8 percent of the Western U.S. (from the Rocky Mountains to the West Coast) was experiencing moderate to extreme drought as of the end of August 2014.”
Experts warn the long-term dry spell is reaching the point of no return.
One Ivy League bioclimatologist working out of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York said the drought is greater than anything seen in the West for more than 850 years. He made the determination by analyzing the “proxy data” left by tree rings and lake sediment.
“More area in the West has persistently been in drought during the past 15 years than in any other 15-year period since the 1150s and 1160s,” stressed Columbia University Professor Park Williams, according to USA Today. “When considering the West as a whole, we are currently in the midst of a historically relevant megadrought.”
A fellow Ivy League scientist concurs and warns that conditions jeopardize life and civilization.
“[Megadroughts are the] great white sharks of climate: powerful, dangerous and hard to detect before it’s too late,” Cornell University’s Toby Ault said at this year’s American Geophysical Union conference. “They have happened in the past, and they are still out there, lurking in what is possible for the future, even without climate change.”
See the water run:
Water law enforcement:
Heim, a climate expert working out of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s NCDC headquarters in Asheville, North Carolina, is also aware that things can very well get worse. He noted that just a couple months ago, 69.2 percent of the West was drought-plagued, with 81 percent of the region being stricken in March 2012.
Within the last century, a couple of severe droughts took over even larger proportions of the American West but at times when the region’s water supply had tens of millions fewer people to sustain.
“The Western U.S. has experienced extensive drought during other periods in the 20th century,” said Heim. “The droughts of the 1930s and 1970s covered a larger percentage of the West at their peak: 93.7 percent during July 1934 and 87.3 percent during April 1977, based on the Palmer Drought Index.”
‘California here I go’
The record-setting arid conditions, compounded by unparalleled heat, however, could be the ingredients that send California and the West into its worst conditions ever. Helm explains that these two factors together make up the Standardized Precipitation-Evapotranspiration Index (SPEI), and over the past 12-, 24- and 36-month periods, California has registered the most extreme SPEI in recorded history.
“The last three years have seen record dryness, with California having the driest September-to-August 36-month period (September 2011-August 2014) in the 1895-2014 record,” Helm noted. “In fact, the unusually warm temperatures in California for the last 20 years have been unprecedented in the 1895-2014 record. Parts of California have had the worst drought in the last 115 years, as measured by the Palmer Hydrological Drought Index.”
One result is an economic toll. A recent study conducted by the University of California-Davis projected that one of the greatest hits will be taken by the agricultural industry, which is expected to sustain losses in the neighborhood of $2.2 billion. This research also forecasts that the drought will cost California’s agricultural industry thousands of jobs, as 80 percent of the state’s water is routed to irrigate its 400 crops.
Adding the direct and indirect costs, according to Farm Water Coalition Executive Director Mike Wade, totals $7.48 billion. It takes a whopping 17 percent bite out of California’s $44.7 billion agricultural industry.
Included are the 20,000 jobs lost because some 1,250 square miles of farmland is idle.
Vegetables and fruits are being hit hard, but the losses don’t stop there. There are related trucking industry and processing plant reductions.
Then there are the lost corn crops from Texas, Nebraska, Wyoming and New Mexico; the wheat in Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah and Montana; and potatoes in Idaho and Nevada.
The U.S. Drought Monitor, which is co-authored by Heim, reports that as of Aug. 28, 100 percent of California is in drought status with 58 percent of the state experiencing an “exceptional” drought, which is the worst level possible. His National Climatic Data Center notes California is in the midst of its hottest year since records began back in 1895.
Just as Brown was declaring an emergency this year, records showed reservoir storage levels were 60 percent blow average.
For consumers, it’s meant rules against hosing down sidewalks or driveways, watering lawns and landscapes.
Wells also have been drying up, and forest fires have been erupting.
Getting worse in the West?
Heim said New Mexico, too, has experienced its driest 12-, 18-, 24- and 36-month periods (ending in May 2013).
“The drought has reduced water supplies in many western reservoirs … forcing California and other states to continue to deplete groundwater supplies, caus[ing] some groundwater wells to reach record low levels,” Heim asserts. “Wildfires and water shortages were common in the West during the last 15 years when drought expanded and intensified. As noted by the National Drought Mitigation Center, during August 2014, West Coast states battled wildfires and faced tightened water restrictions, and Lake Mead [located on the borders of southeastern Nevada and northwestern Arizona] reached the lowest levels since it was filled [at the creation of the Hoover Dam] in the 1930s.”
And because 70 million Americans now populate the West, experts say that that the consequences of a megadrought are much more ominous today.
“We are simply much more vulnerable today than at any time in the past,” says climatologist Mark Svoboda of the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. “People can’t just pick up and leave to the degree they did in the past.”
Just how vulnerable? The condition of two of the nation’s largest underground natural water storage regions might give a clue. The critically low levels of the massive aquifers in the Colorado River Basin and the southern Great Plains are of major concern.
Providing water for 40 million residents in seven states (Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico), the groundwater under the Colorado River Basin is being depleted at an alarming rate. To put it in perspective, NASA and the University of California-Irvine recently conducted a satellite study revealing that the Colorado River Basin contained 15.6 cubic miles less water in 2013 than it did in 2004, or double the amount of water contained in America’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead.
The other major groundwater source in the West is one of the largest aquifers on the planet — the Ogallala Aquifer. Spanning eight states — Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, New Mexico, Wyoming and Colorado, covering an underground area of about 174,000 square miles — this water system in the Great Plains nourishes 82 percent of the 2.3 million residents in the area, but the demand for drinking and irrigation is lowering it.
Research conducted by Kansas State University suggests within five decades only about 30 percent of the Ogallala Aquifer will be left.
“If you think the water crisis can’t get worse, wait until the aquifers are drained,” said National Geographic’s Dennis Dimick. “We’re pumping irreplaceable groundwater to counter the drought. When it’s gone, the real crisis begins.”