Two Stanford experts have been widely quoted on issues related to the ongoing California drought this Spring: Noah Diffenbaugh, an associate professor of Earth system science and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, and Leon Szeptycki, executive director of Stanford’s Water in the West program and a Woods professor of the practice specializing in water law.
Stanford News Service recently interviewed Diffenbaugh and Szeptycki about why California’s snowpack is in decline, and what it means for water management in the state. Some of their thoughts on the situation does not make happy reading.
This is the kind of extreme event that falls outside our historical experience. This is not only a low April 1 snowpack, but it is muchlower than the previous record low. California’s water infrastructure and management system relies on natural water storage from snowpack, which accumulates during the cool season and melts gradually into reservoirs and streams during the warm season. April 1 is typically the fulcrum between the snow accumulation season and the snowmelt season. Because we have such little snow right now, what is in the reservoirs is essentially what we will have between now and the next rainy season, which typically doesn’t start until the autumn. Even in a normal summer without pre-existing drought conditions, it would be stressful to have essentially no snow supply. But we are already in severe drought conditions with record high temperatures so far this year, meaning this drought is very likely to worsen during the summer.
In terms of impact on people and the environment, California’s federally operated reservoir system will likely not provide any water to agricultural users for the second year in a row – an unprecedented situation. Urban water providers are expected to get 25 percent of their allocated water. Similarly, the state-operated reservoir system is currently expecting to provide 20 percent of water deliveries to the majority of its users. Snowmelt runoff plays an important role for fish and other aquatic species because it is the primary source of summertime flow for many of our rivers and streams. The lack of snowpack will mean acutely low flows for these streams, and many of them will run dry. The impacts on aquatic life and ecosystems is potentially staggering.