Water drips from a faucet near boat docks sitting on dry land at the Browns Ravine Cove area of drought-stricken Folsom Lake, currently at 37% of its normal capacity, in Folsom, Calif., Saturday.
AP Photo/Josh Edelson
Melissa Harris-Perry: Summer has not even officially gotten underway yet, but dozens of cities across the country are already seeing record high temperatures for early June. In California, officials are scrambling in response to the dry conditions that have pushed 93% of California and the Southwest into drought this year. In April and May, California governor, Gavin Newsom announced emergency drought declarations for 41 of his state's 58 counties. Here he is speaking about recent conditions on May 10th.
Governor Gavin Newsom: Let me just talk about the last three-plus weeks. In the last few weeks, we've lost roughly 500,000 acre-feet of runoff compared to what we had anticipated, which, put into language that I hope people can understand, is the equivalent of 1 million households receiving water for a year. That's just in the last number of weeks in the state of California.
Melissa Harris-Perry: California was previously in a drought from 2012 to 2016, and some experts believe that drought never truly ended for the state. The people who are likely to be hardest hit by the current water crisis are the same ones who were most negatively affected the last time around; Latino farmworkers living in rural areas.
A report issued this year by California’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office notes that many of these communities lost access to safe drinking water during the last drought. They also lost out on work when low water supplies made it harder to grow crops. For more, I'm joined now by Gabrielle Canon, a reporter, covering fires, drought, and the American West for The Guardian. Thank you for being here, Gabrielle.
Gabrielle Canon: Wonderful. Good to be with you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Maybe we can just start with this. What is it that constitutes drought?
Gabrielle Canon: Sure. It's a creeping trend. We'll see these dry conditions, and then once that starts to really impact systems, starts to impact people, starts to impact ecosystems, that's where these drought declarations start to come into play.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, what are some of the conditions that lead up to this particular drought that so much of California is currently in?
Gabrielle Canon: Sure. It's a combination of things. Some bad luck, and certainly climate change. I think one of the biggest is these rising temperatures that you mentioned. What that does is it diminishes the snowpack, it makes it actually less snow and more rain, and it literally bakes moisture out of the environment. Even when you have these wet years, you really retain a lot less of the water. What we're seeing this year is the snowpack diminished incredibly quickly, and now we're pretty much at zero.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There was this moment early on during the pandemic when we were getting what felt like good environmental news from around the world as though all of the human staying at home was actually improving conditions, and yet, that doesn't seem to be where we are now.
Gabrielle Canon: Yes. It's unfortunately true. We're seeing these record-high numbers that are really scary. With the drought, I think it's, again, something that's been long term, it's been something that this climate is prone to dry conditions. California, of course, is definitely not new to drought, but climate change is going to make these things a lot worse.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, California is certainly no stranger to drough, but we aren't in the hottest months of the year yet. What are California's water supply systems looking like right now?
Gabrielle Canon: It's looking rough. Across the state, you're seeing these reservoirs with just these big bathtub rings. They're incredibly low. Overall, the water supply is less than half of what it normally would be. Some of our biggest reservoirs are much lower than that. You've seen areas where boats have had to be removed, and Gavin Newsome himself did a press conference from the dusty footprint of what used to be an important reservoir and lake. Yes, it's looking really grim, but that being said, we don't know what's going to happen this winter.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What might happen that could make some of these conditions more bearable?
Gabrielle Canon: Sure. If we get a wet year, get another wet year winter, certainly, we're going to be in better shape. I think one of the things that is important to consider, of course, is like I said with these rising temperatures, what's really going to be important though, is that snowpack. If that snowpack can't recover, it puts a lot more pressure on the systems. That's the best way that California can reserve its water. You get this lovely snow that melts into the reservoirs, into the streams, into the creeks.
There's two things that happens there. First, starting out with less of it is a problem and then, of course, if the runoff isn't usable, it melts into the ground. We're seeing that happen, both of those things happen this year. Researchers are hopeful that this will be something that isn't as long term, but of course, it's hard to know for sure.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Latino farmworkers are hit hardest, at least certainly we're in the last drought. How proactive is the state being to help those communities this time around?
Gabrielle Canon: I think it's still incredibly worrisome. I think there are areas in California that still haven't recovered from that. More than a million people in the state don't have access to clean drinking water. It's incredibly horrifying to hear about, but Newsome has tried to invest in this particular problem. Part of his new budget is budgeted to increase infrastructure and to try to get water into the areas that may have scarcity issues. Then there's also long-term plans to try to mitigate some of the things that lead to those scarcity issues.
One of the biggest changes is going to be this Groundwater Management Act that was passed in 2014, so it's been in play for a little while. The problem is that the way that it works is it asks communities to come up with their own resilience plans or reduction plan for pumping out that groundwater. What that is, is of course the water that- the reserves, a lot of communities use it for wells, and when farmers and ranchers and growers don't get the water that they need, they often turn to that to pump it right out of the ground.
In the last drought, you see the ground sinks dramatically. The Groundwater Management Act is going to require these communities to stop pumping that groundwater at levels that is not sustainable, but a lot of that isn't really going to be implemented until a few years down the line, even just last year is when these communities were submitting their plans and proposals.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It seems to me that asking local communities to come up with their own plans, I see the reasons that that could be empowering, I can see why that would make sense, given the idea that communities are quite different from one another, but it also seems to me that environmental management is the classic collective action problem. It actually needs more centralized decision-making. Do we see any more centralized decision-making, not only in California but maybe nationally to address an issue like this?
Gabrielle Canon: Yes. I think that there has been a lot of work here. It's certainly not in the place that a lot of folks would like to see it. Again, this is one of those issues that's incredibly complicated. There are so many different groups and even ecosystems that rely on this really scarce water, so distributing it is something that's become- create a lot of tension. I think that that's something that, like you said, there needs to be more direction and needs to be more discussion around how to equitably distribute that essential resource.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The other disaster that we talked so much about last year in California was wildfire season and the horrifying and destructive wildfires we saw last year, what do these current drought conditions mean for the upcoming wildfire season?
Gabrielle Canon: It's getting scary. We're seeing incredibly low moisture and field content that's vegetation. Of course, drought leads to dead trees, that leads to parched land. Any of that is going to make fires a lot riskier. As you said, we've had these record-breaking fire years, last year was 4.1 million acres. I think officials are getting ready. Communities are trying to be prepared, but it's going to be really high risk for the next- through the end of the year, I would say.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's say I don't live in California, and I'll say I don't, I do have a daughter who's in college in California, which is part of why I was watching wildfires so closely, but if I don't live in California, tell me why I should care about droughts and wildfires in a state where I don't live.
Gabrielle Canon: Absolutely. The first thing to take away is, of course, California is one of the biggest breadbaskets in the country. There's a third of the vegetables, two-thirds of fruits and nuts are grown here. Agriculture is an important aspect of our economy, and that's going to be impacted by all of this.
The other thing is, this is drought, and then, of course, when you layer wildfires on top of that, is one of the most expensive disasters classified by the federal government, and that's of course going to tap resources. As climate change gets worse, there are going to be more disasters everywhere. More natural disasters. We're going to see worsening weather patterns. We're going to see hurricanes, all these things that are going to be impacting people across the country, and resources are going to be tight.
I think there's been examples in the past when you have federal resources being invested into helping folks who are in these disaster areas during fire season, and then once that turns over into hurricanes or tornadoes or any of these other issues that are going to happen at the same time, that's really going to put a damper on the federal government's ability to handle some of these huge catastrophes.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Gabrielle Canon is the reporter covering fires, drought, and the American West for The Guardian. Gabrielle, thank you so much for being here and helping us to see how all of these questions are deeply connected.
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