Tag Archives: drought

Less than zero

So some states are double counting their water supplies which you now, leads to problems like they are having now.

Yet California and Arizona — the two states water experts say are facing the most severe water crises — continue to count and regulate groundwater and surface water as if they were entirely separate.

“States have their own take on this. Or they choose to not address it at all,” said Stanley Leake, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and a leading expert on properly accounting for the connection between ground and surface waters in the West. “In some cases they pretend that there is no connection.”

Leaders in California and Arizona acknowledge that their states have done this, at least in part to avoid the grim reckoning that emanates from doing the math accurately. There is even less water available than residents have been led to believe.

If these states stopped effectively double-counting their resources, they would have to change laws, upend traditional water rights and likely force farmers and cities to accept even more dramatic cuts than they already face — a political third rail.

“The politics of water are more challenging than any other issue the state faces,” said Fran Pavley, a California state senator who helped draft a much-praised package of state laws passed last year regulating groundwater withdrawals for the first time.

Tucked into Pavley’s package was a little-noticed provision that explicitly prohibits California state regulators from addressing the interconnection between groundwater and surface water in local water plans until 2025, a compromise meant to give local water agencies a leisurely runway to adjust to a new way of counting.

Pavley said the prospect of more immediately acknowledging the overlap between ground and surface waters threatened to derail the legislation entirely, triggering fierce opposition from the Agricultural Council of California, the California Chamber of Commerce and other industry groups.

So politics is getting in the way of science.  Basically by draining rivers, you drain aquifers.  By draining aquifers, you cause rivers to dry up.

The West has consumed these resources ravenously, as if they were bottomless. By 1965, scientists measured that parts of the aquifer beneath Las Vegas had dropped by more than 75 feet. Arizona officials estimated the state’s aquifers had dropped by as much as 500 feet by 1980. By 2004, USGS scientists estimated — based on modeling — that the region south of Denver had drawn down water levels by more than 900 vertical feet.

In some places, so much water has been drained from underground, the effects can be seen with the naked eye. A USGS scientist’s 1977 photograph near the town of Mendota in central California uses a telephone pole to show how the ground had effectively collapsed, sinking some 30 feet.

Anyone who recognized these telltale signs would worry that the West’s groundwater was approaching a state of crisis. But even as the drought began and then worsened, with surface water vanishing, the West dug in and doubled down — replacing dwindling reservoirs with new water pumped from underground.

Today, the Colorado River states consume more than 21 billion gallons of groundwater each day — adding up to 1 1/2 times the flow of the Colorado River itself each year.

In 2009, Jay Famiglietti, now a scientist researching underground water in partnership with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, set out to quantify just how much groundwater had been lost over time.

NASA had a pair of satellites that gathered data on subtle changes in the Earth’s mass by measuring almost indiscernible shifts in gravitational forces during orbit. Famiglietti and his team of doctoral students at the University of California Irvine, where he also teaches, thought they could tease out which parts of those gravitational shifts were due to a changing volume of water inside the Earth’s crust.

The team determined that aquifers were shrinking at an astonishing rate in Asia, North Africa and across the globe. The western United States stood out.

“It was among the worst in the world,” Famiglietti said. “The rate of decline is much steeper than the rate of decline of the reservoirs. While everyone is looking at the surface water, no one is looking at the groundwater, and it’s disappearing at a rapid clip.”

Famiglietti and his team determined that some 13 trillion gallons of water had been lost from underground reservoirs in the Colorado River basin since the NASA satellites began collecting data in late 2004. To put that figure in perspective, it’s nearly 1 1/2 times the total capacity of Lake Mead — the nation’s largest reservoir and the West’s most important — and as much water as the state of Arizona uses in six years.

The research suggested the seven-state Colorado River basin region was actually using about one-third more water each year than its river budget alone allowed. In separate research Famiglietti looked at California’s aquifers — which lay outside the Colorado River basin — and found that they had also been severely diminished, having dropped by about 7 trillion gallons since just 2011.

The U.S. is screwed.  Of course those aquifers also come into western Canada so it’s going to have an impact on all of us.

Could the southwest of the U.S. be in for a megadrought?

From Mother Jones

A new study by Cornell University, the University of Arizona, and the US Geological Survey researchers, looked at the deep-historical record (tree rings, etc.) and the latest climate change models to estimate the likelihood of major droughts in the Southwest over the next century. The results are as soothing as a thick wool sweater on mid-summer desert hike. 

The researchers concluded that odds of a decade-long drought are “at least 80 percent.” The chances of a “mega-drought,” one lasting 35 or more years, stands at somewhere between 20 percent and 50 percent, depending on how severe climate change turns out to be. And the prospects for an “unprecedented 50-year megadrought”—one “worse than anything seen during the last 2000 years”­—checks in at a non-trivial 5 percent to 10 percent.

It gets worse

his (paradoxically) chilling assessment comes on the heels of another study (study; my summary), this one released in early August by University of California-Irvine and NASA researchers, on the Colorado River, the lifeblood of a vast chunk of the Southwest. As many as 40 million people rely on the Colorado for drinking water, including residents of Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, and San Diego. It also irrigates the highly productive winter farms of California’s Imperial Valley and Arizona’s Yuma County, which produce upwards of 80 percent of the nation’s winter vegetables.

The researchers analyzed satellite measurements of the Earth’s mass and found that the region’s aquifers had undergone a much-larger-than-expected drawdown over the past decade—the region’s farms and municipalities responded to drought-reduced flows from the Colorado River by dropping wells and tapping almost 53 million acre-feet of underground water between December 2004 and November 2013—equal to about 1.5 full Lake Meads, drained off in just nine years, a rate the study’s lead researcher, Jay Famiglietti, calls “alarming.”

Considering how much of the Colorado River Basin, which encompasses swaths of Utah, Colorado, California, Arizona, and New Mexico, are desert, it’s probably not wise to rapidly drain aquifers, since there’s little prospect that they’ll refill anytime soon. And when you consider that that the region faces high odds of a coming mega-drought, the results are even more frightening. (Just before Labor Day, over fierce opposition from farm interests, the California legislature passed legislation that would regulate groundwater pumping—something that has never been done on a state-wide basis in California before. Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign it into law.)

Saskatoon’s Watering Restrictions

This summer I bought and then blended the idea combination of grass seed for my drive way.  We have a large tree right in the middle of it which means paving it, putting in paving stones or really doing anything with it isn’t going to happen.  Instead I decided to copy my neighbour across the street, bring the grass into the driveway along the sides and the middle leaving two gravel paths to drive in on, something like an English pathway.

To give the grass seed something to grow on, I put down a combination of topsoil, peat moss and compost and seeded away.  Then the city came out with it’s mandatory water restrictions due to record high levels on the South Saskatchewan River and the resulting silt problems at the water treatment plant.  Eventually they loosened them up and I could water from 9 p.m. to midnight on newly seeded grass.  It was early enough in the seeding and hot enough during the day that I knew that wasn’t going to work so I left it to mother nature and some seed made it (due to some timely showers).

The South Saskatchewan River at the Weir

What has been interesting in all of this is that when we moved into our house 12 years ago, the lawn was horrible and there was no topsoil to speak of at all.  Our boulevards were worse.  Water would just run off them like you were watering concrete.  The grass was horrible and think, fertilizer and weed and feed did nothing and because of the abandoned lot in behind us, I have always had a hard time with noxious weeds (that Killex doesn’t kill).

If I had more sense and money, I should have rototilled the entire lawn and put down truckloads of compost and soil but I didn’t.  Instead what I did:

  • I stopped picking up the grass with the mower and mulched instead.  This saved me some time, energy and most importantly, gave some organic matter back to the soil (as well as saved me on watering).
  • We compost everything.  Some things compost better than others (corn cobs, pumpkins don’t break down very quickly) and something I regret putting in there.  We compost most of our food scraps and we do some grass although I tend to let it dry out first and use it as brown matter rather than green.  It eliminates the smell.  When we stopped putting grass clippings in there, it actually decomposes faster than we can fill it. 
  • After the compost is ready, it gets spread on the lawn to give it some more organic matter to use.  I will also purchase some compost as well as some renewable peat moss to put out on it.
  • We have started to make and use compost tea after seeing a segment on This Old House on it’s impact at Harvard University.  Harvard’s maintenance department has a great website on how they make and use compost tea.
  • Following some advice from the owner of the Spiritwood Golf Club, I started to buy grass seed from Early’s Farm and Garden Centre.  It’s local seeds, clearly labelled for how it’s grown and what it will look like when mature, and what kind of care it needs.  Partly because I have two boys and 1.3 dogs running around the lawn, I have gone with a hardier grass seed when seeding.

The end result was interesting to look at during the water rationing.  The areas that had compost and organic matter spread out on them did quite well.  While the mast couple of days have been hot and they have been scorched a little bit, they still were doing fine.  The boulevards looked okay as well, especially the one that I put a lot of effort into bringing back (it had a footpath worn through it when we moved in and that has grown back and has disappeared).  The only are that has taken a beating is actually a design flaw of the yard (my fault) and I have all of the foot traffic from the deck/patio area hits this spot as you move to the yard.  If it isn’t watered and/fertilized, it starts to deteriorate.  I to pull the sod out and put a proper path in that transition area.

We have a lot of lawn.  We have a small house on a double-wide corner lot.  I like my lawn but this has shown me that with some proper techniques, it can survive a couple of weeks without watering and do okay (we did get some rain during that time).

Melbourne, Australia has been in a drought since 1970.  They even have a website that updates the public on the status of their water storage.  On their water conservation website, they have a series of tips on how to save water in your lawn and garden.

Add plenty of organic matter such as compost and manure to the soil to improve water retention, plant health and soil structure. This is one of the most important steps in making your garden drought-tolerant. Remember, the healthier your plants are, the more likely they are to withstand drought conditions.

Remove weeds regularly from garden beds because weeds compete with other plants for water.

Before planting a new garden bed, condition clay soils with powdered or liquid gypsum to improve water penetration.

I know living on a river we don’t think that much about water supply and drought but I was shocked at how much less a city like Melbourne, a city with a similar economic profile as Saskatoon does uses per capita.  Canadians rank second only to the United States in terms of highest per capita water use in the developed world while Melbourne uses a fraction of what we do.  There is room for us to improve.

You may also want to check out the report on water conservation presented to the City of Saskatoon which actually recommends that the city adopt a full time outdoor watering schedule.  It’s a good first step.  Now since I am an odd numbered house, I am off to do a bit of watering under my one of my maples that doesn’t allow a lot of rain water to penetrate under.

Drought is back on the Prairies

From the Globe and Mail

All across western Saskatchewan and southern Alberta, farmers are scanning crop-insurance policies and calculating how short they’ll be on payments this year as one of the worst droughts on record parches their land and their bank accounts.

The dry conditions are also wreaking havoc on local wildlife, prompting watering bans and spoiling Canada Day parties.

While some regions have seen the driest June on Environment Canada records, researchers who’ve studied longer periods of prairie weather say this could be the start of something worse.

“When you look at a thousand-year record, we’ve been pretty lucky since the West was settled,” said Dave Sauchyn, a University of Regina geography professor and research co-ordinator for the Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative. “We’ve had quite a favourable climate, largely avoiding the extremely dry conditions we’ve seen in the past.”

Dr. Sauchyn put together the thousand-year record of prairie water levels using tree rings. Judging by the rings, the prairie climate could easily plunge into an extended drought similar to that of the 1790s, when the North Saskatchewan River went dry.

Climate models suggest that history may soon repeat. The region has experienced the two driest seasons on record – the last one coming in 2001-2002 at a $5.8-billion hit to the national economy – all inside the past 10 years.

“We can’t possibly say with any certainty that this is a sign of global warming, but it’s entirely consistent with global climate model projections,” said Dr. Sauchyn. “All this means is it’s highly probable we haven’t seen the worst of it yet.”

Already nine counties in Alberta have declared states of emergency due to extreme dryness. The province banned all private Canada Day fireworks celebrations. Restrictions on fires and watering have been instituted all over the region.

It hasn’t been easy on the animal world, either. Parks officials have noted a large migration of beavers away from dry areas and into riverfront parkland in Edmonton.

Some dry areas have sponged up a few inches of rain since municipalities first started declaring states of emergency two weeks ago, but Environment Canada’s Drought Watch map still shows a red stain of extreme aridity covering Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer and stretching east towards Rosetown and Swift Current.