By R.J. Heckelman and Max Wolf-Johnson
California is facing its worst drought in recorded history. Reservoirs are dry, entire communities are in danger of running out of water, and Governor Brown has declared a state of emergency. We need more rain, that much is obvious, but what may not be so obvious to most residents of Marin is the scale and impact of this year’s dry spell. Since 1895 the National Weather Service has been recording and tracking rainfall in California. To date, 2013 was the lowest amount of rainfall in recorded history, at less than two inches in some areas of California.
Although the recent storms have brought a few inches of rain to Marin, the county is still suffering from the drought and needs more rain. California’s snowpack also needs to increase to meet future demands. Normally by this time of year the state has around 15 inches of rainfall. The last storm brought only 4 inches.
In Marin County alone, the annual rainfall is down to approximately a fifth of the previous year’s averages. For a county that receives the majority of its water from reservoirs, as opposed to snowpack, this is particularly worrisome. As a result, Marin may enact mandatory water rationing as soon as mid-February, if the drought continues.
According to marinwater.org, the informational website of MMWD, “As of January 21, the MMWD has passed a resolution requesting 25 percent voluntary water use reductions by all water users,” in Marin. This would be the first proposed water rationing in over 20 years.
Where this lack of rain is most obvious is in the reservoir system, which Marin relies on for its fresh water supply. Our reservoir system in Marin is vast and includes, Bon Tempe Lake, Alpine Lake, Kent Lake, Lake Lagunitas, and Phoenix Lake in central Marin, as well as Nicasio reservoir, Soulajoule reservoir, and Stafford Lake in West and North Marin.
The total reservoir system, according to Marin Municipal Water District, is at 55 percent of capacity, and on average at this time of year is usually at or above 75 percent of full capacity. This may not seem like such a big deal until you start doing the math. That 20 percent of water equates to more than 4 billion gallons of water less than average. In all our reservoir system has the potential to hold over 23 billion gallons of water. However, as of January 16, our reservoirs had less than 13 billion gallons of water.
Reservoirs are not the only source of fresh water, snowpack is also a major factor in providing freshwater for the state. As of February 3, the total snowpack for California is at 16 percent of normal, according to the California Department of Water Resources. State officials are also wary because of the unusually hot weather which has started melting the already diminished snowpack.
Around this time last year, the state was already at only 50 percent of normal snowpack. Many scientists speculate that climate change is having a major impact on the snowpack. Looking at California’s past, it is easy to see why experts are worried. According to the Department of Geographical and Environmental Studies, in medieval times, California has experienced periods of drought lasting over 100 years.
An additional and very serious issue caused by the drought is the threat of fires. Particularly during this time of the year, California’s rain season, wildfire danger is usually low, but this year fires have reached unprecedented levels of severity. According to Doug Carlson, a representative of the California Department of Water Resources, “The biggest threat to public health is the wild fire threat.”
Perhaps most notable has been the Rim Fire, a massive wildfire that erupted around mid-August near Yosemite, and charred over 250 thousand acres, making it the third largest wildfire in California history. This fire was able to reach such enormity because of the extreme speed at which it grew. When discovered, it had only burnt roughly 40 acres, but after just 10 days the blaze had grown to nearly 180 thousand acres.
Daniel Berlant, a spokesman from The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, explained what has made this, and other major fires of the past year so volatile: “The grass and the brush are at critically dry levels, and unlike most of the large fires that we’ve had within our state’s history that are wind driven, these now become driven by terrain.” In addition to creating moist conditions that slow down the growth of fires, the rain California typically experiences during this time of the year usually prevents fires from occurring.
The drought has not only caused wildfires to become more extreme, they’ve also been far more numerous. According to Berlant, Cal Fire has already responded to over 400 wildfires this year, whereas typically they would respond to about 70.
As a result the state agency has brought 125 seasonal firefighters to Northern California to augment their usual staff, a form of added help that typically isn’t needed until around May, when fire season normally begins. Also, in order to extinguish the increased number of fires, firefighters have needed to further tap into California’s already scarce water supply.
The County of Marin has been no exception to the statewide increase in fire activity. One local Battalion chief commented that, “Typically fire season in Marin ends around the middle to the end of October. This year we have never left fire season.” He added that in the last month alone the Marin County Fire Department has had to put out 10-12 fires, whereas in January they typically see no fire activity.
Cal Fire has urged California citizens to take certain precautions around their property, particularly to create a buffer zone of 30 feet between their house and surrounding trees or bushes. More information can be found on their website: readyforwildfire.org.
There are simple things that all residents can do to help reduce the effect of the drought. The Marin Municipal Water District challenges Marin County residents to use 20 gallons of water per person per day.
Simple things like saving your shower water to use for plants, or reducing shower-time can shave gallons off of water usage. Reducing the amount of times your toilet is flushed can also make a huge difference on water usage.
Rain is on the forecast for February, but Marin County still needs 15 inches of rain to get back to normal. Only time will tell if the forecast will pan out, or dry up.