The California Megadrought

By: NATALIA PATTERSON

It’s easy to look around at the green hills in Benicia during spring and forget that California is still not out of its drought. In the past few years, especially this year, our region has been exceptionally dry. According to the California Department of Water Resources, this year’s accumulation of snow in California’s mountains is 41% below average. The precipitation levels of the state are low as well, with only 30% to 70% of the rain received in the average year. Due to this, NASA senior scientist Jay Famiglietti has made a shocking prediction that the water in California’s reservoirs will run out only one year from now. The ongoing condition of dryness in our state is even called a “megadrought” by some scientists.

Could this extreme climate change just be a natural effect? Many scientists don’t think so, attributing the recent megadrought to the effects of human activity. A study conducted by the journal “Science” confirms this. The study was conducted by viewing the ring records of trees across America’s west coast and analyzing them for soil moisture over time. The results indicated that the years 2000 through 2018 were the driest years since a previous megadrought back in the 1500s. This led scientists to believe that humans’ increased water use and greenhouse gas emissions have worsened the drought. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average American family uses about 300 gallons of water each day. Although this amount may not seem like much, considering 70% of the world is made up of water, only 0.3% of Earth’s water is freshwater that is usable by humans.

While humans clearly play a big role in water shortage and the drought’s severity, many scientists claim that natural issues are also at play. This includes marine heatwaves, which are caused by abnormally warm ocean water near the coast. Unusual weather patterns and high atmospheric pressure prevent storms from coming over the area of warm water, and without the storms, the heated water remains close to the coast. In recent years, there have been several marine heatwaves along the coast of California, including one lasting from September 2019 to January 2020, and another from May 2020 to September 2020. These heat waves also impact precipitation. Snow helps prevent water shortage during droughts better than rain does, as the snow buildup in the mountains melts into runoff that fills California’s underground water supplies. With the marine heatwave, though, rain is more likely to occur than snow, due to the higher water temperature.

Whatever is to blame for the megadrought, its environmental effects are the same. For example, wildlife that lives in rivers is highly affected by water shortages. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife was forced to monitor water levels and hold fish rescues during these last several years. Even with all their efforts, salmon are now an endangered species in California. Also, with less rainfall and snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas, plants are drying up as well. In dry conditions, wildfires spread much more easily. Officials have stated that the 2021 fire season has already started, and they are concerned that the dry conditions are now equivalent to those in July in an average year. They also worry that this year’s fire season could be especially destructive.

While some of the causes and effects of droughts may be out of our control, we can still take measures to waste as little water as possible. One of the most important things to do to save water is to make sure to fix pipes that contain leaks, as pipe leaks are responsible for about 10,000 gallons of wasted water per year, according to the EPA. Reducing your shower time to under 5 minutes is also helpful. In addition, turning the tap off while brushing your teeth can reduce the amount of water normally used by 80%. Also, washing dishes in a partially filled sink rather than letting the water run from the tap can save some of the water used. Even better, you can place your dishes in the dishwasher, as this uses less water than hand-washing them. If everyone takes these simple steps to prevent water shortage, a significant amount of water can be saved. And anyway, with social distancing, now is a great time to cut back on that extra shower!

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