The rainy spring and summer that we have enjoyed in the Kansas City area this year mask the devastation that people have endured on the West Coast.
The normally lush landscape that my partner Bette and I’ve seen when visiting her Bay Area family was brown and dry this month. California is facing one of the most severe droughts in its history.
Climate change is one likely cause. The grip that it has on California could become what states such as Kansas have to contend with soon. Fresh water is a scarce resource.
California Gov. Jerry Brown in January declared a drought state of emergency because of extreme water shortages. The nation’s most heavily populated state with 39 million residents is in its fourth year of severe drought. January through March didn’t produce the snowfall in the mountains needed to fill reservoirs from which much of the state gets its drinking water. They were the driest winter months since record-keeping began in the 1800s.
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It has forced people in this state to become super-serious about water conservation. Water use dropped in June by 27.3 percent ahead of the governor’s 25 percent mandate for new emergency conservation.
In the Bay Area, lawns were lifeless. Parks and hillsides were tinder dry. Some car washes were operating, but many people chose to let their vehicles stay dirty to save water. Water districts have imposed fines of up to $500 on residents and businesses for wasting water. That can include watering lawns, hosing off sidewalks and driveways, washing cars and using water in fountains.
Our drive into the wine country presented a different water picture. The vineyards were green. The state’s agriculture industry grows more than half the fruits and vegetables in the U.S. Farms consume about 80 percent of California’s fresh water. Water rights dating to the early 1900s are involved in new state efforts to try to get farmers to stop pulling water from drought-starved rivers and streams.
Some farmers with ground water supplies haven’t been affected. But Kansans because of the Ogallala Aquifer know that’s not an endless resource.
We drove into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where the dry landscape is threatened by wildfires. They have been occurring throughout the state. At least two U.S. Forest Service firefighters have been killed in California since the summer wildfire season started.
Californians every day face news of the drought, fires and water rationing. We hardly see any of it in the Midwest. But these are national concerns.
The National Forest Service for the first time in its 110-year history is spending more than half its budget on fire related activity. In 1995, fire activities consumed only 16 percent of the Forest Service’s budget.
By 2025, officials project that fire-sparked spending will eat up more than 67 percent of the budget. The National Interagency Fire Center reports that so far in 2015, 36,959 fires have consumed 5.9 million acres. That’s three times as many acres that fires consumed in the same period in 2014. California leads the pack.
Again, blame it on climate change, which is causing areas like California to suffer. Consider that only 2.5 percent of the Earth’s water is fresh water. The fewresources.org website, or Food Energy Water, says 30.1 percent of fresh water is deep beneath the Earth’s surface; 68.6 percent is stored in glaciers and polar icecaps while only 1.3 percent is in streams, lakes and rivers. Fewresources.org reports that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will experience water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world will live under water-stressed conditions. By 2030 half of the world’s population will be under conditions of high water stress.
The time to combat the water shortage problem is now. President Barack Obama’s clean air plan to sharply limit greenhouse gas production from coal-fired power plants will help, although climate change deniers’ efforts are expected to kill it.
Concrete action will likely only follow after California’s water shortage and wildfire problems spread to other states so that no one can deny the biggest threat to the country and the planet anymore.