As I travel California to interview farmers, talk with researchers and take photos of crop harvest, the signs of drought are everywhere. Dead trees, fallowed fields and even lighted signs on Highway 99 tell us to “limit outdoor watering” because of the drought.
As bad as things are out there – and they’re bad – there are also signs of success and perseverance. Row crops are still being irrigated with overhead sprinklers. Orchard trees look pretty good to the untrained eye and grapes – yes, there are still lots of those growing in the Golden State.
Then there are the things that just don’t make sense.
As low as some lakes are in the state, the one that gets much of the attention – Shasta Lake in northern California – is not all that bad all things considered. After all, here we are in a fourth year of drought and the pond is over half full.
While that’s still a lot of water, let’s compare it to the last big drought.
At this time of the year in 1977, the reservoir was under one million acre feet of total storage. By August, it dwindled to 578,000 acre feet of storage, or about 12 percent of capacity.
Compare this to 2015. As of early June, the lake held over 2.3 million acre feet in storage, almost 2.5 times what it did at the same time in 1977, and yet contractors on the Central Valley Project had irrigation deliveries – not much but they had surface irrigation water.
I remember Shasta Lake in 1977. My father drove us to Shasta Dam that summer and we dropped rocks off the back of the dam to see if we could hear them hit the dirt 300 feet below. All that effectively remained of Shasta Lake at the time was the trickle of water in the old Sacramento River channel.
What wasn’t visible because it wasn’t built yet was the cold-water structure on the back of the dam which today is used to regulate the water temperature released from the reservoir. It would be built decades later.
Back then, even with the drought, salmon runs on the Sacramento were awesome. Anglers caught '40 pounders' at Red Bluff with regularity. I know because we enjoyed some of those fish.
Yet today we hear from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife that Sacramento River salmon runs have “collapsed.” It seems a bit easy and naïve to think that agriculture is the sole cause of this when you have issues including treated effluent discharged into the Bay-Delta by various cities, known populations of predatory fish that feed on young salmon and smelt, and other factors that may not be fully understood.
Let’s not forget the doubling of California’s population since the ’77 drought with no added water infrastructure or storage built to accommodate the new population. Common sense suggests disasters such as this will be more common for a state more interested in bullet trains than dams.