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Online Journal Explores Lessons From the Drought

July 2014

If you’re seeking both scientific and political context for California’s persistent drought, the latest issue of the online science journal, supported by the Delta Stewardship Council, provides just that.

In addition to the regular feature of peer-reviewed science research articles, the June 2014 edition of San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science (SFEWS) is dedicating a large section to three essays authored by individuals whose careers have led them to have intimate knowledge of California’s periodic droughts.

The SFEWS is published jointly by the Council and the U.C. Davis John Muir Institute of the Environment.

Dr. Samuel Luoma, editor-in-chief of SFEWS, says the goal of the essays “was to use the present crisis to discuss what is needed both in the long-term and the short-term to address our vulnerabilities to drought, and perhaps to build from our past experiences with such situations. The essays unanimously emphasize that addressing California’s water issues will require tenacious attention to long-term solutions.”

The first, authored by Delta Stewardship Council Vice Chair Phil Isenberg, is entitled The Current Drought Exposes – Not Creates – Long-Standing Water Problems: Can Policymakers and Scientists Learn From This?

The article begins by listing what Isenberg calls “long-standing water problems.” He focuses on man-made occurrences that seemingly force the hand of nature to produce an annually consistent supply of water. Included in his list: converting almost 700,000 acres of flooded Delta wetlands to agricultural production thereby eliminating habitat for fish and wildlife; and, almost a century of groundwater overuse in the Tulare Basin.

“Unless we acknowledge that water supplies are limited, and act to temper our water use, we will limp toward the next drought, and act surprised when it happens,” Isenberg writes. “Historically, we have acted as if nature will supply whatever water humans’ demand.”

He considers the general management of California’s water problems, even during the wet years, as “managing mess” saying “a drought does focus the attention of the public and policymakers, if only for a brief period of time.”

Isenberg does not believe this “mess” is insurmountable as long as all the parties involved come to understand some basic conclusions of the National Research Council. Two examples are: “There is not enough water in California to meet all desired uses everywhere and at all times;” and, “California is not running out of water, but we should stop over-promising what can be delivered.”

The second essay is authored by former California Natural Resources Agency Deputy Secretary Dr. Jerry Meral who, until his retirement earlier this year, oversaw development of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) for Governor Jerry Brown. His article is entitled Dry Years: Political and Other Impacts on the California Delta.

In it he reflects on how the attributes of the BDCP may be overshadowed by the monetary challenges caused by an enduring drought. “It is always harder to commit to expensive programs (such as the BDCP) during times of economic stress.”

Still, he believes the drought makes clear the need for an alternative conveyance delivering a sustainable supply of fresh water. “The drought is bringing higher levels of salinity into the Delta. If an earthquake caused multiple levee failures this year, water project operators would be faced with a very difficult choice: allow the Delta to become salty and hope that exports could resume after large winter flows next year, or use precious remaining water in reservoirs to flush the Delta and expose the system to devastating salinity if next year is dry.”

Generally, Dr. Meral hopes that despite the drought Californians will continue to look at the big picture and not focus only on the here-and-now. “The main benefit of the drought may be increased public awareness of the complexity in California’s water management, and, in particular, the limitations of the Delta water supply. The main detriment…has been to take attention away from long-term solutions, and increase rancor between water and environmental interest groups.”

The third essay, authored by Dr. Michael Dettinger with the U.S. Geological Society and Dr. Daniel Cayan with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, is entitled Drought and the California Delta – a Matter of Extremes.

The article offers the reader deeper, scientific information not often found in the mainstream media. For instance, the two scientists say that accumulated data reveal, “Precipitation in the Delta’s catchment (the area that catches water) shows drought episodes about every 15 years throughout the 20th century, with the current drought falling more or less ‘on schedule.’”

They continue by stating there is strong evidence suggesting the region has endured “several 60 to 100-year long and extremely severe ‘mega-droughts’ during the past 2,000 years…that the Delta’s 20th Century drought regime was more benign than in almost any comparable length of time during the past two millennia. Thus, they say, it appears that the droughts California has managed historically have only been examples of ‘the easy stuff.’”

The pair advocates more research of these regularly occurring phenomena in particular because they believe climate change will add a variable to the equation that will only exacerbate the problems for future Californians. “More precipitation is already falling as rain rather than snow, and snow packs are melting earlier in the year. These warming-induced changes alone are propelling us into a future with more runoff arriving during cool seasons and less runoff in warm seasons. Thus, warming alone would be enough to aggravate California’s potential for…drought impacts.”

The June 2014 edition of San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science (SFEWS), which can be viewed for free, also has the regular feature of peer-reviewed science research articles including:

Impounded Marshes on Subsided Islands
Distribution and Invasion of Potential of Non-native Sea Lavenders
Examining the Causes & Consequences of Hybridization During Chinook Salmon Reintroductions

Coequal goals

The Delta Stewardship Council was created in legislation to achieve the state mandated coequal goals for the Delta. "'Coequal goals' means the two goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem. The coequal goals shall be achieved in a manner that protects and enhances the unique cultural, recreational, natural resource, and agricultural values of the Delta as an evolving place." (CA Water Code §85054)