The punishing drought that has swept California is now threatening the state’s drinking water supply.
With no sign of rain, 17 rural communities providing water to 40,000 people are in danger of running out of water within 60 to 120 days.
California’s State Water Project, the main municipal water distribution system, announced on Friday last week that it did not have enough water to supplement the dwindling supplies of local agencies that provide water to an additional 25 million people. It is first time the project has turned off its spigot in its 54-year history.
California officials said they were moving to put emergency plans in place. In the worst scenario, they said drinking water would have to be brought by truck into parched communities and additional wells would have to be drilled to draw on groundwater. The deteriorating situation would likely mean imposing mandatory water-conservation measures on homeowners and businesses, who have already been asked to voluntarily reduce their water use by 20 percent.
“Every day this drought goes on we are going to have to tighten the screws on what people are doing” said California Governor Jerry Brown, who was governor during the last major drought here, in 1976 and 1977.
This latest development has underscored the urgency of a drought that has already produced parched fields, starving livestock and pockets of smog.
“We are on track for having the worst drought in 500 years,” said B. Lynn Ingram, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at the University of California, Berkeley.
Already the drought, technically in its third year, is forcing big shifts in behavior. Farmers in Nevada said they had given up on planting, while ranchers in Northern California and New Mexico said they were being forced to sell cattle as fields that should be 1.2m high in grass are a blanket of brown and stunted stalks.
Fishing and camping in much of California has been outlawed to protect endangered salmon and to guard against fires. Many people said they had begun to cut back drastically on taking showers, washing their car and watering their lawns.
Rain and snow showers brought relief in parts of the state at week’s end — people emerging from a movie theater in West Hollywood on Thursday evening broke into applause upon seeing rain splattering the sidewalk — but they were nowhere near enough to make up for record-long dry stretches, officials said.
“I have experienced a really long career in this area, and my ‘worry meter’ has never been this high,” said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, a statewide coalition.
“We are talking historical drought conditions, no supplies of water in many parts of the state. My industry’s job is to try to make sure that these kind of things never happen. And they are happening,” he said.
US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in an interview that his agency’s ability to help farmers absorb the shock had been undercut by the long deadlock in the US Congress over extending the farm bill, which finally seemed to be resolved last week.
Vilsack called the drought in California a “deep concern,” and a warning sign of trouble ahead for much of the western US.
“That’s why it’s important for us to take climate change seriously,” he said.
“If we don’t do the research, if we don’t have the financial assistance, if we don’t have the conservation resources, there’s very little we can do to help these farmers,” Vilsack said.