Old Water Ways

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Satellite images of California. Source: NOAA

Satellite images of California.
Source: NOAA/Washington Post

These satellite images show winter snow levels in California in early 2013, when the state was already experiencing drought conditions, and in 2014, when the state is officially in the worst drought on record. Much of the annual fresh water in the state is the result of snow melt.

California is no stranger to the challenges of access to fresh water. The state was practically built on water conflict – too little in the south, enough in the north (or at least, until recently). Anyone who grew up there, as I did, knows about water scarcity – or at least they should, since it is one of California’s defining characteristics.

Now, with several counties and communities on the brink of running completely dry, drastic action is being called for. Desalination technology, an expensive proposition, is looking like the more affordable alternative to parched earth.

But none of this is new. People have known for decades which way the river flows. In the midst of this, there are California farmers using water imported from the Colorado River to grow hay for export to China, a place that has far outpaced its own water resources.

Based on data from the MODIS instrument aboard both the Terra and Aqua satellites, this map contrasts plant health from Jan. 17 to Feb. 1, 2014, against average conditions for the same period over the past decade. Source: NASA Earth Observatory / Discovery

Based on data from the MODIS instrument aboard both the Terra and Aqua satellites, this map contrasts plant health from Jan. 17 to Feb. 1, 2014, against average conditions for the same period over the past decade.
Source: NASA Earth Observatory / Discover Magazine

Even with some of the most progressive environmental laws in the United States, water was always going to be the fly in the ointment for further expansion in the state. Climate change hasn’t helped matters.

Back in 1977, California went through a long drought, its worst before the current dry spell. I remember it well. The normally lush green hills of winter were the color of straw. By spring, the fire season had begun, months early. I used to drive by a local Marin County water resource, the Nicasio Reservoir. Usually it was full of glittering blue water, but by 1978 it was all cracked soil.

There was an old road that once ran through what is now the bottom of the reservoir. It was lost with the building in 1961 of the Seeger dam, a past path submerged beneath the sweet vision of plentiful water that dams and wet years always bring. The drought of 1977-79 – and the current drought – have exposed it again, a defunct road with neither a beginning nor an end.

Nicasio Reservoir, California. December 2013. Photo: Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal

Nicasio Reservoir, California. December 2013.
Photo: Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal

 

 

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