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When the rains are not enough
In a region where scientists are projecting a coming permanent drought, how do we meet the demand for dwindling water resources?

Date: 01/30/2008

When record-breaking winter rains pounded the parched Central Coast, sighs of relief quickly turned to chagrin, then alarm at their intensity. The reaction was much like it felt last fall in Southern California, when the Santa Ana winds arrived as a warm breeze on the back of the neck, turned blistering, then fueled firestorms that raged through summer-baked forests and cities.

Welcome to the era of climate change, when global warming can mean extreme drought--and also extreme rains--produced by rising planetary temperatures.

After the rains:
Workers returned to the fields outside Guadalupe after heavy rains pounded the Central Coast. Will the rains make a difference?
Despite extreme rains, some scientists project California and the West are on the verge of a permanent drought.

The first reports published late last year in Science, and also by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), predicted the already semi-arid West can expect 10 percent to 20 percent less rainfall by the middle of this century.

The study,Best Replica Watches led by researchers at Columbia University and based on 18 computer models, predicted a permanent drought, which was defined as permanently dry condition, by 2050 throughout the Southwest and West. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also has issued reports suggesting a similar future.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a compilation of data from several federal agencies that is updated weekly, most of California and all of the Central Coast currently is experiencing a moderate to severe drought.

So what does this mean right now for the rain-soaked--and drought-stricken--Central Coast?

"I'll be the first to admit that we don't know if this rainfall or the drought that preceded it are directly tied to global warming," said William Preston, a professor of geography at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

"We can say for sure that the demand for water is growing. We can say for sure that temperatures generally are increasing, which will add to the pressure," Preston said.

Christine Tague, an assistant professor of hydrology in the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UC Santa Barbara, would have rather seen a steady rain than the downpour she watched fill drains and streets of Santa Barbara and become ocean runoff.

"When you get a lot of rain, unless that rain falls as snow, you lose a lot of it as runoff," Tague said.

She pays closer attention to the Sierra Nevada range. "What really matters is what's happening in the Sierras, because that's where most of California gets its water," she said.

The recent heavy rains also meant record snows in the Sierras, but that represents one event in one month, Tague said.

"Any one year doesn't tell you anything," she said. "It's really trends through time."

Heat and water:
William Preston, a geography professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, said rising temperatures are adding to the pressures on California's water resources. "Temperatures are one of the most determining elements of any kind for the study of climate," said Preston. His students tracked a trend of rising average temperatures in San Luis Obispo over the past century.
And, regardless of the recent heavy snowfall, the snowpack is undergoing a gradual decline, she said.

"Right now, the trends are still subtle," Tague said--but people are paying attention.

"Last summer, we had a big meeting here at the Bren School on energy and water, and we got a lot of policy makers from Sacramento. People are recognizing that climate change is impacting water. The awareness is there," she said.

Preston, of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, is paying closer attention to temperatures.

"Even if we got all the rain we needed right now, most of that water is going to run off into the sea and fill the reservoirs," Preston said.

One of his students studied the average temperatures of San Luis Obispo for the past 100 years and found they had risen 3 degrees Fahrenheit.

"Temperatures are one of the most determining elements of any kind for the study of climate," he said.

Temperatures affect the winds and how much water the air and soil can hold, he said. A few degrees of difference in temperatures can be beneficial to some crops and disadvantageous for others, he said. He added that the rule of thumb is that for every rise of 1 degree in temperature, agriculture moves 60 miles north.

Demands for water

"The one common denominator we can assume is that it puts additional pressure on water because there's more evaporation. And with higher temperatures, plants--be they natural or domesticated plants--usually work harder, so they need more water," Preston said.

"I would find it necessary to also factor in that we have more demand for water. The Central Coast is growing in population," Preston said. "What the future holds for us is that the demand upon water is going to increase because we have more demand for it."

His student's homework on San Luis Obispo temperatures mirrors the findings released this winter by a team of scientists from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, UC Merced, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Scientists from those agencies report an increase of more than 2.1 degrees Fahrenheit between 1915 and 2000 in California.

A report from the nonprofit group Environment America this winter projected less frequent but heavier storms throughout most of the Western states. It reflects reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other organizations on the anticipation of extreme downpours and also extreme drought conditions ahead.

The heavier rains are the result of warming temperatures because of the rapid formation of heavy clouds from faster evaporation of water over land and oceans.

Protecting the future of agriculture:
Kari Campbell-Bohard (left) of Rancho Laguna and Laguna Produce Sales and Lisa Bodrogi, a land use planner for Teixeira Farms, are co-presidents of the Santa Maria Chapter of California Women for Agriculture. "We are our environment. We must take care of it," Campbell-Bohard said.
Reports of a gradual decline in snowpacks in the Sierras and in the Rocky Mountains have a direct impact on California, since the Sierras provide much of the water for Northern California through snowmelt to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The Rockies feed the Colorado River, which provides water to much of Southern California. Currently, the flow of the Colorado River is the lowest it's been in more than 80 years.

This has become the stuff of fierce political debates that, for example, currently are pitting California and other states against the federal government in a lawsuit to force federal agencies to help states mandate lower carbon dioxide emissions. Those emissions, mostly from automobiles, contribute to the warming trend.

Closer to home, conversations don't revolve around the theories of climate change so much as how much water is on hand.

Cities like Santa Maria are doing just fine, some say, while communities such as Nipomo a few miles up the road are in dire straits.


In Santa Maria, "We've had droughts, although we have what I consider to be a very good groundwater basin in Santa Maria," said Richard Quandt, president and general counsel of the Grower-Shipper Vegetable Association of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties.

"I've been here 29 years, and I've seen cycles when Twitchell Reservoir was full, and other years when it was empty," Quandt said. "The last time there were droughts, when the rest of California was on rationing, Santa Maria was not," he said.

The scramble for more

Just a few miles up Highway 101, Nipomo is using words like "alarming" in recent reports from the Nipomo Community Services District describing its rapidly dwindling potable groundwater supplies. The community might run out within the next 12 years, the district recently reported.

The district's board in December agreed to pursue two potential answers: buying water from Santa Maria at a cost of $15 million or more, and building a desalination plant that would remove the salt from seawater as a long-term option for $100 million-plus.

"The short-term solution is buying water from Santa Maria. We're still working out all the details on that," Peter Sevcik, a Nipomo Community Services District engineer, said.

Desalination seems to be the only readily available drought-proof answer.

"It's still expensive, but when the option is no water, it's a viable option," Sevcik said.

The specter of permanent droughts has made the topic of turning ocean water into tap water suddenly more popular, especially following a court ruling in December that will restrict the amount of water pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Santa Barbara built its desalination plant after the state's last five-year drought, which ended in 1991. The cost to run it was prohibitive, and it was essentially mothballed, but not dismantled.

"In the interim it serves as a sort of insurance policy," the city of Santa Barbara website states about the Charles Meyer Desalination Facility.

In Southern California, proponents of a massive $300 million desalination plant announced preliminary plans to break ground later this year on a facility just north of San Diego. Opponents, meanwhile, have filed lawsuits over potential threats to ocean life and concerns over the high amount of energy needed to operate it.

Then there's the "toilet-to-tap" option that suddenly is not appearing as distasteful as it once was.

The Orange County Water District in January started up the world's largest plant for turning treated sewage into drinking water. The district plans to inject the treated water into its groundwater basin to stave off the threat of saltwater intrusion and also have an extra supply of drinking water on hand, according to that water district's reports.

Also studying proposals to recycle wastewater are Los Angeles and San Diego in Southern California, and San Jose and the Santa Clara Valley Water District in Northern California.

Thinking locally

The recent heavy rains didn't postpone what has become an increase in attention to the local role in global climate change.

In San Luis Obispo County, low-flow toilets and other smaller-scale water conservation measures will be on the agenda when the local Sierra Club chapter and other local environmental organizations host a series of meetings with water district officials in San Luis Obispo and Los Osos during the first week of February.

UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo are hosting "Focus the Nation" workshops featuring a roster of climate change and water conservation experts who will discuss how to develop local strategies to cope with climate change. A "Day of Youth Climate Action" is scheduled Feb. 2 at UC Santa Barbara.

In Santa Maria, agriculture interests welcomed the winter rains and spoke cautiously about whether another dry summer is ahead, following what the California Department of Water Resources called a "dry" 2007 and a "wet" 2006 for the state.

"It is too early for forecasters to make bold projections with regard to drought conditions, even though we had a dry winter," said Ruth Jensen, a national board member of American Agri-Women and immediate past president of the Santa Maria Chapter of California Women for Agriculture.

"One dry year does not constitute a drought for most California water users," she said following a meeting of the California Women for Agriculture on a day of heavy rainstorms in late January.

"It's unfortunate we don't have more above-ground storage to capture the rain that's coming down now," Jensen said.

Inside the Santa Maria hotel where they met, members of the local chapter of California Women for Agriculture removed their wet coats and settled in to discuss how to support the next generation of students of agriculture with scholarships and to increase public outreach.

Everyone who eats has a stake in agriculture, said chapter co-presidents Kari Campbell-Bohard of Rancho Laguna/Laguna Produce Sales, and Lisa Bodrogi, a land use planner for Teixeira Farms.

Taking care of the land

Campbell-Bohard said farmers have become much more sophisticated in the use of water-saving irrigation and other practices. "We are our environment. We must take care of it," she said.

More reservoirs to capture and store winter rains would seem an obvious answer to increase water resources for agriculture in dry months, but not if "you face opposition from people who live downriver. It's a very hard balancing act," Campbell-Bohard said. "There really isn't a simple solution to it."

Preston, of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, has studied the results of another time in the state's distant history when California suffered extreme wet periods and extreme dry periods--but mostly extreme dry periods---from about 900 to 1350.

"The native Californians were hit hard," Preston said. "They had to change village sites to where there was permanent water. The stature of Californians went down about four inches, which archaeologists said was the consequence of poor economic conditions and disease.

"Humans had nothing to do with that. That's what nature has in store," he said.

Now, the new factor is the accelerating impact of humans and their technologies on climate changes that once were blamed only on Mother Nature.

"For those of us who are concerned about the future, about our children's future, I would like local government to entertain the possibilities of some of these scenarios playing out, not necessarily to rush into it, but to do studies and make suggestions," Preston said.

"What I like about it is most of the things that have been discussed that might help us absorb climate change have a multiplicity of benefits," he said. "It's kind of a no-regrets policy."

Reducing emissions would improve the "health of the air," he said. Protecting marginal lands would protect the watersheds. "We ought to protect the soils as much as we can," he said. "Soils are a buffer to climate change, as well."

And climate change is occurring, he said.

"Can we know how much of the change is natural and how much is human? Not for sure. It doesn't matter," he said. "The argument about what's the cause is less important to me than that it is occurring, and we damn well better start to adjust to it."

Contact Editor Renee Haines at

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