Invasive species and decades of disruption from massive land and water developments are partly responsible for the continued decline of California’s native species, experts told the California Water Commission on Nov. 16. In addition, rural communities, many of which have lower incomes and depend on privately owned wells, are disproportionately struggling with contamination and water scarcity amid recurring cycles of droughts, experts said.
Although droughts in California date back to prehistoric times, the state’s modern water problems are the fallout from decades of decisions, said Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis.
“Many of our environmental problems today are really legacy,” he said. We are seeing “the dynamics of past impacts and past changes taking place and our inability – both in terms of regulatory policy and economics, and practically in some cases with some invasive species – to manage that reproduction of legacy impacts.”
Groundwater and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta are also among the sectors most vulnerable to drought, according to Lund, who stressed that although cities and agriculture are relatively prepared and well insulated from drought impacts, l Irrigated agriculture must shrink in half a year from millions to 2 million acres to be sustainable.
About 5.5 million of California’s nearly 40 million people live in rural counties, which make up more than half of the state’s land area. While urban areas like Los Angeles are under mandatory drought restrictions to reduce pressure on state watersheds, many rural residents who depend on groundwater wells are without water. Compounding the problem is water accessibility and a lack of safe drinking water, particularly in the Central Valley and Central Coast.
“We know these challenges disproportionately impact low-income and Latino communities,” said Justine Massey, policy manager and attorney at the Community Water Center. “People who rely on private wells, in particular, are significantly impacted because they often don’t know if their water is safe to drink since there is no other entity testing the water, and neither are they aware until they start having problems with pumping that they couldn’t get close to water levels that will render their well inoperative.
While state legislation like the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is meant to regulate water availability and help mitigate water scarcity in an increasingly arid California, thousands of people and delicate ecosystems will fall through the cracks.
A 2020 study commissioned by the Water Foundation found that under SGMA’s floor water plans, between 4,000 and 12,000 wells will dry up partially or completely by 2040 in the San Joaquin Valley alone, affecting an estimated 46,000 to 127,000 Californians who could lose access to their current water supply.
“We really urge all the decision makers involved… to look at worst case scenarios and really plan for them, because that’s what we’re experiencing so far – worst case after worst case after worst case,” said Massey. “And the people who are most affected are the ones who have contributed the least to the problem.”
Climate change is increasingly recognized as a “threat multiplier” that will accelerate and exacerbate instability and insecurity around the world. In drought-stricken California, as groundwater levels drop due to less rainfall and excessive pumping, contaminant concentrations in the water rise, Massey said.
The current and future health of California’s ecosystems is also at stake.
The mild, short-term impacts of drought can result in reduced plant growth, but when dry periods are longer and more severe and groundwater depletion is more severe, widespread mortality of habitats and species can occur, said Melissa M. Rohde, director of Rohde Environmental Consulting, LLC.
“If groundwater demand is high, groundwater can quickly become out of reach of plant roots and rivers because these ecosystems depend on shallow groundwater,” he said.
Rhode referred to the Nature Conservancy’s Shallow Groundwater Estimation Tool, which found that 44 percent of ecosystems across the state were affected by a significant long-term decline in groundwater between 1985 and 2019. Two decades,” he said.
Under SGMA, 87 percent of ecosystems and 40 percent of groundwater-dependent wells exist outside the legislation, Rhode said, and “one of the most puzzling aspects of this is that … these ecosystems are often the ultimate refuge for federal and threatened and endangered species. They are very important biological hotspots and if we are not doing what we can to protect them under SGMA, we are not safeguarding our most vulnerable species.”
Drought conditions and extreme heat fueled by climate change have also pushed the Chinese salmon on the verge of extinction.
The fish – which once traveled up the Sacramento River to spawn in its frigid waters before the completion of the Shasta Dam in 1945 – has struggled to survive even with government intervention. Last year, the water flowing from the Shasta Dam was so hot that most of the spawn and smolt died.
Fires, droughts and bark beetle infestations are also destroying the forests of the southern Sierra Nevadawhich could have dire consequences for protected species such as spotted owls and Pacific fishermen who depend on the canopies of mature trees for their habitats.
But refusing to accept these changes is futile, Lund said. “Resistance is futile. We will have a future that will be different” and learning how to reconcile our ecosystems with human activity will be an ongoing challenge. “How you manage your native species when everything else is changing will be a big puzzle for all our agencies and all the people trying to do that,” he said.
So what can we do about it? For ecosystems, it will be critical to integrate them into water policies, identify ecological oases and manage groundwater to ensure species have access to it during dry spells, Rhode said.
As for rural communities, Lund suggested examining how and why urban and agricultural spaces have responded most effectively to droughts: are their missions focused; have reliable sources of funding; they have organized authority and competence; and they have accountability through voters, regulators and taxpayers.
“The state has a responsibility to make sure that clean water needs are protected and not viewed as a business cost or set aside as something too difficult or inconvenient to deal with,” Massey said.
“Climate change is testing and exceeding our limits and our normal flexibility,” he added. “The margin for error is getting narrower. That margin for error is already extremely small, and what’s at stake is Californians’ access to a vital resource.