California’s snowpack is now so low that when Gov. Jerry Brown visited a measurement station on Wednesday, there was no snow to measure. “We are standing on dry grass, and we should be standing on five feet of snow,” he said. The low snowpack — at 6 percent of normal — is further evidence of the seriousness of the state’s drought as well as another reminder of the excruciating choices facing California’s citizens and policy makers as they struggle to cope with it.
The governor’s executive order imposing mandatory water use reductions of 25 percent on California’s cities and towns will help. But those restrictions don’t apply to California’s giant agriculture industry, which accounts for 80 percent of the state’s water use. The order expands planning and reporting requirements for agricultural water use, but it does not impose specific cuts.
Farms in California draw water from three sources: federal and state water projects, waterways they have the right to divert and groundwater reserves. Two of these sources have been compromised by the drought. This year, the state water project will deliver only one-fifth of the amount requested by users; the federal water project will deliver zero. And farms with newer water rights have been told to stop drawing from the state’s waterways; some farms with older water rights have so far avoided such directives, though they may be affected in the future.
But there are no restrictions on tapping groundwater, and the state says it has no immediate plans to impose them. Officials say that groundwater reserves are meant to be a resource in a drought. That’s all well and good if the drought ends relatively soon, but prolonged tapping of groundwater can cause the land to sink, increasing flood risk and impairing the soil’s ability to store groundwater in the future. A 2013 report by the United States Geological Survey found that one area in central California had already subsided more than 20 inches between 2008 and 2010. And the tapping of groundwater even during nondrought years has made the problem worse.
A law passed in September requires local agencies to develop plans for groundwater sustainability, but it does not require them to actually achieve sustainability until 2040.