It was hotter in the city than in the suburb - 90 degrees F. This was due to urban heat island effect, but temperatures so far are California's hottest on record. The evidence of climate change and global warming was all too real, and too much for me to ignore. Compelled to act, I was attending the climate march to network with others and help build the movement.
Going across the country from coast-to-coast via mass transit was going to be awesome, with a carbon footprint a fraction that of travel by taxi and airplane. But first, the journey would take me through Central California with a private bus company offering express service from Los Angeles to Oakland. The luxury bus was almost full when we pulled out of the sweltering Union Station at noon, and I was glad to be inside the air-conditioned vehicle. Halfway on the 8-hour trip, we arrived in Bakersfield for lunch. Two hours later, the bus stopped in San Jose, where mostly students got off, and after another hour, in San Francisco, where most of the passengers exited. An hour later, we made our final stop in Oakland.
From Abnormally Dry to Extreme Drought in Three Years
Along the route, where ever I looked, I saw how dry and parched the earth was. That was apparent as soon as we left the artificially irrigated landscapes of Los Angeles. Statewide, it's been three years since we've had any decent rain. Towns in the north, where it typically rains a lot, are running out of water, and reservoirs are ever-dwindling. Tulare Lake, once the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi, is now dried up. Four rivers once fed Tulare Lake, but with rainfall sporadic at best, no water flows through there anymore. More than 80% of California is in extreme drought and the state's condition isn't expected to improve in the near future.
Thousands of Californians have lost their farming jobs, and the drought is expected to cost the state $2.2 billion because of its impact on agriculture. The farms was not nearly as busy as I saw on my previous trips, and everywhere, the people and economy seemed depressed. The price of fruit, nuts and vegetables has gone up as supplies have diminished because of the drought.
The problems of the drought has been exacerbated by inaction and mismanagement by the state's top officials. As early as 2011, major parts of the state was "Abnormally Dry", and by 2012, most of the state was "Abnormally Dry", or in "Moderate" and "Severe Drought", as recorded by Drought Monitor's maps. By mid-August 2013, almost the entire state was in "Severe" or "Extreme Drought", yet only in January 2014 was a drought State of Emergency declared throughout the entire state. More than half a million people live in Bakersfield, which this year has experienced worse drought than any other city in America, yet the city did not impose restrictions on water use until August.
In the coastal desert of Southern California, where I live, even native, drought-tolerant foliage appear brown and stunted. But none of this prepared me for what I was about to see in California's Central Valley - a large stretch of farmland that is the country's fruit basket, salad bowl, and dairy case. Half of the country's produce comes from California, and it is a major source for livestock production. However, California's agriculture and livestock productivity is water-intensive, and therein lies its weakness. I saw firsthand how much the drought was affecting agriculture in the state, and how much precious water was being wasted.
Water Use and MisUse
Agriculture accounts for 80% of the water used in California, and for a long time environmental groups have been critical of the unsustainable, over-use of the state's limited water resources for farming in dry areas. Due to poor planning, water mismanagement, and short-sighted and inappropriate development, many of the state's agriculture fields and groves are now parched, and nearly half a million acres of crops have been left fallowed and unplanted.
We stopped for lunch in the Central Valley, and I saw why this area was unsuitable for large-scale agriculture. Bakersfield was 100 degrees F - the heat felt stifling in the shade and the sun was like a flame on my skin. The air was stifling hot and uncomfortably dry. My body was drained of moisture quickly, and walking for five minutes in the sun was oppressive and exhausting.
On the highway that runs through the Central Valley, on both sides of the road, there were huge farms stretching all the way into the far distance. On a previous trip I took three years ago, most all the farms were lush and filled with crops. Now half were completely dry, and empty except for the occasional tumbleweed. Vast fruit groves of mature trees lay dead, dying and abandoned.
Citrus growers, who produce eighty per cent of the country's citrus, have been losing acres of trees, as the amount of water available for crops has been reduced by two-thirds. Many pistachio and almond farmers saw their trees wither this year. In Fresno County, almonds are the primary crop, worth more than a billion dollars. But seventy per cent of almond farmers in the area only have access to groundwater for irrigation, which is rapidly drying up.
During the three-year drought, state governments delayed and took little action to avert problems affecting biodiversity and industry caused by water shortages. Early in 2014, the state began to restrict the flow of irrigation water to farms, partly to protect endangered species and wildlife in deltas and wetlands. However, as the drought progressed, rather than tighten them, the state soon eased water restrictions due to intense lobbying from the industry.
Satellite images show there has been a drastic loss of groundwater over the last dozen years. Underground aquifers are California's largest water source, and California uses more groundwater than any state, relying on it for 40% of its total water supply in most years and 60% in dry years. Decades of intense pumping have dropped water tables dangerously low, causing 1200 square miles of California to sink as much as a foot a year, according to one study.
Worst hit are the Sacramento River and San Joaquin River basins, where water has been pumped out to support agriculture in the Central Valley and elsewhere. Since 2011, the amount of water removed from these river basins each year added up to 4 trillion gallons, an amount far greater than California's 38 million residents use in cities and homes annually. With wells running dry all over the Central Valley and elsewhere, only in September 2014 was the Governor compelled to signed bills that limited the amount of groundwater farmers can pump.