Promises of El Niño rains may fall through

California is currently in the fourth year of its most severe drought on record, as water levels continue to drop dangerously fast and the promise of El Niño’s torrential rains are still in doubt.

According to Forrest Melton, associate program manager for water resources with NASA’s Applied Sciences Program, the average level of California’s reservoirs is at 54 percent the capacity they usually hold at this time of year.

“Fortunately, on the Central Coast we rely primarily on groundwater to meet our water needs for residential, agricultural and commercial uses,” Melton continues, “and we have adequate supplies for at least the next few years.”

AP Environmental Science teacher Jason Maas-Baldwin explains why groundwater may not be a reliable fallback.

“We’re dipping into our water savings bank,” he says. “Groundwater is kind of a nonrenewable resource. It takes centuries to replenish aquifers.”

In some areas there isn’t enough groundwater available now to supply running water for homes, Maas-Baldwin adds. In these communities bottled water has to be trucked in to accommodate the citizens.

The National Climatic Data Center provides data showing a constant downward trend of rainfall in California in the past ten years.

Melton points out that some places in the American Southwest are already experiencing a full-blown crisis: “Another year or two of drought is very likely to increase the number of farms and towns acutely affected by rapidly declining groundwater levels and failing wells.”

NASA satellite data reports that it would take 11 trillion gallons of water to replenish the water lost during the California drought.

Recently, there has been much discussion as well as high expectations that this coming winter will be an El Niño year. According to Maas-Baldwin, during an El Niño year, ocean waters are warmer due to subsided trade winds, therefore causing an increase in precipitation, although he’s unsure we can count on heavy rains come the end of fall.

Melton agrees, pointing out, “There is now a 95 percent chance that El Niño will persist through the winter, but El Niño has been associated with both our driest years, in 1976-1977, and some of our wettest years, 1997-1998.”

So what can the average person do to decrease personal water usage?

Behind agriculture, the second biggest consumer of water on a national level is the water used in thermoelectric power, reports the U.S. Geological Survey.

And Maas-Baldwin explains that, on a domestic level, landscaping by far uses the most water, so rip out your lawns and turn off your lights to keep California afloat until the next big rain.
-Anna Gumberg