California Climate/Ecological Disaster Zone by William Church

Climate Change is not a future problem in California; it is here today. Governor Brown finally declared a water emergency on January 17, 2014, but California’s problems are more systemic than reduced rain.


The 35,000 feet view of California’s problems reveals the following:  long-term weather patterns have reduced water flow in the Colorado River, shorter term rain patterns have drastically depleted the state’s reservoirs, dry conditions and unplanted fields have spawned an airborne fungus producing an epidemic of Valley Fever, increased temperature and air patterns have produced Air Quality Readings of AQI 150 plus (Unhealthy) in the San Joaquin Valley, San Bernardino, and Riverside Counties on a consistent basis, reduced water to farms have led to the reduction of farm jobs with unemployment rates of 14 percent in Stockton, 12 percent in San Joaquin County, the groundwater of the  Central Valley is dangerously polluted from industrial and farm chemicals. Finally, California is facing an unprecedented fire season with extremely dry forests and resources stretched thin because of an extended season, and it is now proven that the massive array of forest fires from last season have the potential to establish their own weather patterns and significantly add to the Unhealthy AQI.


The above conditions have the potential to produce a human security disaster of significant scale starting in the next five years and peaking in 20 years. The Los Angeles Area, San Francisco Bay Area and possible the state of Washington will likely be the destination of half a million or more refugees from the San Joaquin Climate Disaster. These refugees will largely be Hispanic, low income farm-workers and general laborers. They will stress the education systems, housing stock, and health system like the great Dust Bowl of the 1930’s.


State of the Water

The following chart depicts the water sources of Los Angeles:

Courtesy of LAWP


This chart shows that Los Angeles receives about half of its water from the Metropolitan Water District, which is Colorado River supplied, and the other half from the LA Aqueduct, which is supplied from snowpack and rain in Northern California.  The important point is that over the last few decades Los Angeles has shifted from water largely supplied by Northern California to a 50-50 split.


Colorado River

This has turned out to be double trouble for Los Angeles because both sources of water are now significantly reduced. The Colorado River is in a 14-year drought, which has been reduced it to a brown trickle of water in some locations.  The Colorado River is the source of water for Lake Powell, which then fills Lake Mead, which feeds water to Arizona, Nevada and California.


Because of the Colorado River drought Lake Mead has fallen over 100 feet in the last 14 years and today is at 39 percent of capacity, sitting at around 1100 feet above sea level.  At 1075 feet, the first round of rationing kicks in which should be around 2015, if the Colorado River continues to follow its 14-year trend.  At 1050 feet a more drastic round of rationing starts and the upper most intake value for the city of Las Vegas goes dry, and this should happen between 2016 or 2017.  At 1025 feet, stronger rationing starts, and finally at 1000 feet the second intake valve for Las Vegas shuts down.


Hopefully, the third intake value, which was started in 2009, will be finished and it will hit the lake at 850 feet above sea level (the bottom of the lake is at 650 feet above sea level).  However, by then Arizona and Las Vegas will be struggling on half water rations as part of the drastic reduction methods.


During this period, according to current regulations, California’s water supply cannot be reduced; however, very few observers expect that the current agreement will withstand judicial, social and political pressures and by 2016 it is expect that the water provided to Los Angeles will also be rationed.


If California water is not reduced and Arizona and Nevada water takes the full impact of the drought, California and Washington should brace itself for at least an estimated 250,000 climate refugees from Nevada and Arizona in two or three decades, which will put further stress on California water. This deadline could be extended in Nevada because of successful conservation and reuse efforts that has allowed Las Vegas to grow 25 percent in population without increased water use and this has allowed them to “bank” their water allotment for future use.  Regardless, if this is a decades long trend affected by the increased CO2 in the atmosphere, then it is just a matter of time for the effects to be realized within current lifetimes.


If the drought affecting the Colorado River is a very long term pattern based on Climate Change or other factors, it will only be a matter of two decades or less before the final water intake valve for Las Vegas is breached at 850 feet, and all the reuse and conservation methods will not make any difference with no water supply. In other words, a child born today in Las Vegas or Arizona has at least a 50-50 (most federal estimates of severe rationing) chance of being a climate refugee by the time they become an adult.


Northern California Snowpack and Rainfall Water

California’s rainfall pattern is largely affected by both the El Nino and La Nina; however, it is uncertain the exact impact of Climate Change on these cycles.  For the past year, there has been a high-pressure ridge in North Pacific, which has sustained the La Nina and lengthened the drought.


As the chart shows, the other half of Southern California’s water is delivered from the north via an aqueduct as snowpack and rain sourced. However, this second source is under significant stress also.  California is in the third year of a drought and its reservoirs are at an all time low.


The following chart shows current rainfall levels.


This has lead to a record low level in California reservoirs, which feed the LA Area. These reservoirs are at an average capacity of 20 percent, which is dangerously low.  In addition, snowpack to the north was reported at the end of January at 12 percent of normal. California is half way through this rainy season with very little precipitation forecasted, but that does not rule out a heavy March or April rain cycle, which has happened before and could save the season.


This leaves Southern California with the option of increasing conservation and reuse, which will buy more time but if the drought is long-term driven by Climate Change there are no current models that accurately predict the future of California.


However, California can look to Eastern Australia, which also has a La Nina relationship. Australia had nearly a decade long drought and then two years of heavy rain.  Then it slipped back into drought and now faces the loss of half of its beef production-it is third in the world-loss of cotton production, and mass evacuation of many towns.


The same thing happened in Iran.  It had a severe drought for nearly five years and then it stopped in 2010 but the rain did not return in sufficient volume to replace the depleted reservoirs, and today it is faced with civil unrest in West and East over diverted water supplies.


San Joaquin Valley Climate and Ecology Issues

The problems facing the large population centers of Los Angeles and San Diego appear trivial to problems facing the Central Valley of California. This area produces some 15 percent of the nation’s food supply overall and for some specific crops, it is as high as 50 percent. Agriculture is the backbone of this area and it has been hit by a wide range of Climate Change/Ecological disasters.


The Central Valley’s water supply has three main issues.  First, it was reduced by a federal mandate about concerns of depleting Sacramento Delta’s water supply, which the farmers call a federally mandated drought, and second because of drought conditions it has not been able to increase its supply of water from the aqueduct system.  Third, it is quickly reducing its groundwater supply as it tries to compensate for water supply loses from the first two sources.  The following graph shows the rapid depletion of groundwater.


The Westlands Water District in the Central Valley estimates that between 200,000 to 600,000 acres of farmland will not be planted this year because of no or reduced allocation of surface water, as the valley quickly depletes its ground water. This has had a drastic affect on employment in the valley, which is now twice the national average in most locations.


Recently, the State Water Project recently cut off water to the San Joaquin Valley, suggesting that the affected areas look to local reservoirs and groundwater. Based on the above chart, further depletion of San Joaquin groundwater could push it to disastrous level with no point of return, if this is a long-term climate event.


The last point of futile hope is a current bill in Congress that seeks to overturn the cuts of water to San Joaquin Valley from the Sacramento Delta.  Since the cuts were mandated as an environmental move to preserve the fish stocks and wildlife of the natural marsh area, the farmers have cast it as a struggle of “Save People Not Fish”, but in reality saving fish is a small part of the story.


The Suisun Marsh serves as a natural freshwater aquifer for the entire state of California, and today it stands at historic levels of salinity because of increased sea level rise-nearly eight inches in the last century and is projected to rise a total of 55 inches by 2100.  Although there is active debate about the cause, sea level rise is non-debatable because it is currently happening and measurable in most coastal areas of the United States.


Rising sea levels will encroach on the Suisun Marsh and if the flow of fresh water is reduced, by diverting water to the farmers of the valley, it will further increase the salinity.  All of that considered, the other factor causing increased salinity is the amount of rain.  A casual study of the salinity levels show that it increases in summer and reduces during rainy season.  If there is no or a limited rainy season, salinity shoots to newer and higher levels and then contaminates the state’s natural aquifer.  Without freshwater land subsistence will increase and that will accelerate the collapse of the levees that hold back the rising seawater. Once again that would put California at the risk of reaching a point of no return.


There is very little chance that the current water bill will pass the Senate or be signed by President Obama, considering both California Senators and Governor Brown are against it. They prefer building a tunnel under the delta to deliver snowpack water directly, but once again, if this is a long term climate event, then there is no promise that snowpack will return to previous levels.  Regardless, the tunnel approach is decades away in terms of approval, construction and operation and by then the long term damage will have taken hold.


There is a call for desalination for non-agricultural water but it is important to note that residential and commercial uses are not the ones with the big thirst.  Farming uses some 80 percent of the state’s water, but desalination could free up water for the farmers.  It would, however, raise the practical question if residential users will bear the total cost or will it be shared with the farmer.  Some of them in the north end of the valley, just pay a flat fee for their water and it is not even metered by cost.


However, desalination is simply not practical unless it is in an emergency situation. Water production costs could be as high as five times normal water costs, and desalination uses massive amounts of energy and considering that 19 percent of the state’s energy is already used to move water through the complex canal system, this might be the final stressor on energy production.


Unfortunately, if this is a long term climate event, which it seems to be, there is little chance that San Joaquin Valley farmers will receive enough water to maintain farming and save jobs. Migration from the valley is inevitable under most scenarios not even consider the other factors.


Valley Health Issues

Another consequence is the extremely dry soil conditions have spawned a lung fungus infection called Valley Fever with a reported 850 percent increase of reported cases in the last decade and over 20,000 reported in 2011, which causes serious respiratory problems, skin lesions, and other problems. The problem has become so acute that a federal judge has mandated over 3,000 inmates transferred from California state prisons in the Central Valley because they have a higher risk factor to be vulnerable to Valley Fever.


Air pollution is another factor of reduced Human Security in the Central Valley. Because of a combined ecological and climate factors the Central Valley on most days holds most of the top 10 worst air quality spots in the United States, with an Unhealthy rating of AQI of 150 plus not uncommon.  In January 2014 alone 22 days were recorded as being above federal state acceptable levels. In the Central Valley city of Fresno, children are diagnosed with asthma at twice the rate of California cities not in the valley.  In addition, on high ozone days hospital admissions for asthma increase by 50 percent.


Unfortunately, the Central Valley’s ecological disaster is not limited to air borne disease and air pollution. Its ground water is also contaminated. Because of the heavy agriculture base of the San Joaquin Valley studies show that nitrates from fertilizers have seeped in the groundwater supply producing significant health risks for 1.3 million residents. The State Water Board sampled 181 domestic wells in Tulare County in 2006 and found that 40 percent of those tested had nitrate levels above the legal limit and some 92 drinking water systems in the Central Valley had nitrate levels also above the legal limits from 2005 to 2008.


Uncontrolled Wildfires in California

With California in its third year of drought, its summer wildfire season has become a year-round threat with fires in both Northern and Southern California during December 2013 and January 2014.  Two of the top three most destructive wildfires have happened in the last two years, and the 2012 Rim fire only missed the top spot by two thousand acres.


Traditionally, winters in California are the wet season, which reduces the risk of fires from year to year.  However, today after three years of limited rain California is experiencing a record number of fires.


The immediate effect, beyond property loss and damage, is the increased air pollution from the fires, which already adds to some of the worst air in the United States. A forest fire can easily throw the AQI into the Unhealthy range and beyond when combined with the already high levels of pollution in counties like Riverside and San Bernardino, which are surrounded by tinder dry state and national forests.


In addition, fires of the current magnitude add a deforestation effect during with the rainwater running off quickly and not allowed to slowly seep into the aquifer. In urban areas, it will add to the possibility of severe landslides in the hills surrounding urban development, which will cause further loss of property and life.


Based on current conditions, without significant rain this current season, it is reasonable to predict that the 2014 fire season has already started with the January 2014 Colby fire and will be a bumper year for wildfires.


Interestingly, scientists are just now starting to study the effects of wildfires on weather patterns. Most recently this was noticed in California’s Rim fire, which inhibited cloud formations. In addition, wildfires add more CO2 to the atmosphere adding to the overall Climate Change trend.


A Systemic Problem

California’s problems are inter-related, with one problem feeding off another.  UCLA researchers report that 95-degree days will be common in downtown Los Angeles by 2041 and may actually triple from the current level.  Even today, in the middle of winter, Los Angeles is seeing temperatures in the high 80’s.


The increased temperature forecasted in the Central Valley will reduce the irrigation efficiency rate.  A study of Iran and Australia’s current droughts demonstrates the coordinated effect.  Reduced irrigation efficiency means more water lost to evaporation and unless the Central Valley immediately switches to in-ground drip irrigation it could see efficiency rates match Iran’s of 38 percent.   All of this will spike increased demand for water that simply will not exist.


None of this should be a surprise to Californians. Of the last 40 years there have been three major multi-year droughts.  The truth quickly emerging is that the Central Valley and Southern California may be transitioning from semi-arid to arid or desert like conditions.


Without rain and strong winds to clean the air of the Central Valley and the Los Angeles area, AQI levels will increasingly hover in the Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups level as happened much of late December 2013 and January 2014, when motorist driving through the Central Valley were met with Chinese level smog visible in the air.


After years of progress reducing ozone levels to below federal limits, the increased temperature will bake auto emissions and produce higher levels of ground ozone, which kills faster than particle pollution. Just last September, during a late year heat wave, the ground ozone was visible from downtown Los Angeles to Phoenix.  This could easily become the area’s future.


Finally, the problem will come full circle.  Each forest fire further degrades the air quality in terms of particle pollution and this combined with the increased ground ozone will send Los Angeles backwards in terms of air pollution control.  Los Angeles will join the ranks of the San Joaquin Valley Air Quality Board who bluntly told the Environmental Protection Agency last summer that it should not be held accountable any longer because they had done everything possible.  In other words, there was nothing left to do.


On the other hand, the variables are unknowable at this stage.  Meteorologists are still stumped by what has caused the large high pressure mountain off the United States Northwest coast for the last 14 months, which has blocked much needed rain from California and sent it north to be trapped by an Arctic dominated jet stream that produced a bitter cold winter in the Eastern United States.


The line from the movie Dirty Harry best sums it up:  Does California feel lucky today?  It has happened before.  March could be a door buster rain month.  All 18 to 36 inches needed to recover could fall that month.  It has happened before.


It happened in Iran and Australia.  After a long drought, they were hit by buckets of rain. A long-term drought was broken for a season or two. Both countries resumed their water use and waste and failed to see it was part of a long-term event like in Africa’s Sahel and East Africa, where over 400,000 people are dying from hunger and thirst.


Some people might find it odd that the State Water Project (SWP) cut off deliveries of water two weeks ago and not a word of alarm was sounded in the cities.  Basically, it said to Californians the future is very uncertain so they need to hold whatever state water is left.


The SWP completed what certain politicians have been trying to do for decades and that is divide California into manageable pieces. The water Southern California has today, which luckily has the only nearly full reservoirs in the state, belongs to Southern California and no further water is coming, except for the Colorado River, which is running low by the way. Northern California with nearly empty reservoirs needs to make other plans, and the San Joaquin Valley might just become a depopulated place without water that people drive through with their windows rolled up avoiding the pollution, dust storms, and Valley Fever.


Is that far-fetched?  It is happening in Eastern Australia today.


About William Church

William Church’s articles have appeared in publications that range from Wired, International Journal of the Red Cross, to the Sudan Tribune, and has been quoted extensively in publications like Voice of America, and the BBC.

During the 1990s he contributed foreign threat assessments to President Clinton’s Critical Infrastructure Protection Commission, and became a well-known expert on information warfare and advised the United Nations Security Council in Africa.





One Response to California Climate/Ecological Disaster Zone by William Church

  1. Great article, thank you. It is very comprehensive and well-researched. The subjects in my core areas of professional expertise are extremely accurate, which gives me confidence in your research in the areas I know less about. Some people may find the article alarmist, but actually it is a very good snapshot of our current condition and not all exaggerated.

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