January 30, 2009

California May Be Facing Worst Drought In History

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said on Thursday a new survey of California winter snows showed the most populous state is facing one of the worst droughts in its history.

California produces about half of the United States' vegetables and fruit but is now in its third year of drought. Scientists said its main system supplying water to cities and farms may only be able to fulfill 15 percent of requests.

A survey by the state Department of Water Resources shows that the snowpack on California's mountains is carrying only 61 percent of the water of normal years. The snowpack held 111 percent of the normal amount of water last year, but the spring has now reached a record dry spell.

Schwarzenegger issued a statement saying: "California is headed toward one of the worst water crises in its history, underscoring the need to upgrade our water infrastructure by increasing water storage, improving conveyance, protecting the (Sacramento) Delta's ecosystem and promoting greater water conservation."

Water Resources Director Lester Snow also added that the state might be at the start of the worst drought in modern history.

Environmentalists have opposed many of Schwarzenegger's suggested measures for new dams and reservoirs to catch melting snow that feeds rivers. The Sierra snowpack alone provides two thirds of California's water supply.

So far, the Sierra has only received one third of its expected annual snowfall from December through January"”which are typically the wettest months.

Elissa Lynn, a meteorologist with the state, said a third of normal is devastating. "January is the biggest month for precipitation in the Sierra."

She said climate change does indicate the possibility of more frequent droughts, but it's hard to tell over a short time span.

The La Nina weather system has made ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific cooler than normal this year"”which means less precipitation in northern California. Last year was also a La Nina year, but precipitation didn't slow until March and April.

Lynn suggested it could result in a crisis situation. "In addition to conservation and rationing we could be paying higher prices for produce."

Some farmers have left fields unplanted based on expected lack of water, she added.

Growers were told on Wednesday to brace for zero water supply this year, according to Westlands Water, the state's largest irrigation district.

Westlands Water spokeswoman Sarah Woolf told Reuters on Thursday they thought it was a critical time to tell growers, being that it is time for planting tomatoes and a lot of other crops.

"They need to make decisions right now whether they put seeds in the ground."

Rationing mandates have already been initiated with 25 local water agencies.

The state Department of Water Resources is arranging water transfers through its Drought Water Bank program and expects to release a full snowpack runoff forecast in two weeks.


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