How extensive is California’s drought?

A snake-like trickle of water flows underneath Lake Oroville's Enterprise Bridge — just one striking example of how much California's chronic drought is affecting the state's lakes and reservoirs.

Situated at the foot of the Sierra Nevadas in Butte County, Lake Oroville is one of the largest reservoirs in California, second only to Shasta Lake. After enduring three straight years of drought, the lake is currently only filled to 32 percent of its capacity.

In any case, the drought in California is getting serious. Phase 2 of Los Angeles' mandatory water conservation ordinance is now in effect, which means a team of water-use inspectors are tasked with enforcing water restrictions and fining water wasters. If the drought continues through fall and winter, the ordinance will move to Phase 3, which entails even stricter rules and some prohibitions.

To get a better idea of the dire situation in the Golden State, continue below for a photo comparison of water levels taken in 2011 and 2014, looking at Lake Oroville and Folsom Lake, another major California reservoir located in Sacramento County that is now filled at 40 percent of its capacity.

Bidwell Marina, Lake Oroville

Folsam Dam, Folsom Lake

Enterprise Bridge, Lake Oroville

 

Wednesday’s rainfall a ‘once in a 200-year’ weather event, climatologists say

Several weather records were broken Wednesday after 13.27 inches of rain fell at Islip Town's Long Island MacArthur Airport in what the Northeast Regional Climate Center calls a 24-hour 200-year storm event.

That means that “rainfall of this magnitude is only expected to occur once in a 200-year period,” according to the center's website.

At play was a complex weather system that the National Weather Service had been monitoring for days, warning of the threat of flash flooding, in which an upper level disturbance, a low pressure area at the surface and very moist environment all combined over the area, said Tim Morrin, weather service meteorologist in Upton.

The “bull's-eye” of the heaviest rainfall that deluged an area of western Suffolk was right near MacArthur Airport, he said.

“A very small micro-scale event took place” in that area, one that is yet to be explained, he said, but that will likely be researched extensively, with follow-up papers written. Such a phenomenon is “impossible to forecast,” he said, as “there's not enough skill in the computer models to pinpoint that kind of extreme” on such a small scale.

As for hourly rainfall, 5.34 inches fell from 5 to 6 a.m. Wednesday at the airport in Ronkonkoma, followed by another 4.37 inches from 6 to 7 a.m., according to the Climate Center. They may have come back-to-back, but each is considered a 500-year event, said Jessica Spaccio, a climatologist with the center, which is at Cornell University.

Records were also broken, and, “when we break a state record, that's pretty exciting,” Spaccio said

According to a preliminary report from the weather service, the previous New York State record for precipitation in a 24-hour period was broken. That was set Aug. 27 to 28, 2011, in Tannersville when 11.6 inches fell during what the service referred to as Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene.

With half the month still to go, Wednesday's rainfall also resulted in a record for the month of August, previously 13.78 inches set in 1990, the weather service said. The airport's August rainfall now stands at 13.88 inches, said the weather service, which has maintained official records for the airport for the past 30 years.

While Long Island has been considered “abnormally dry” this year by the U.S. Drought Monitor, the 13.27 inches at the airport in just about one day exceeded normal rainfall for June, July and August combined — 11.68 inches — based on precipitation records from 1981 to 2010, according to the Climate Center.

Wednesday's rainfall also broke the airport's all-time daily rainfall record, which was 6.74 inches set Aug. 24, 1990, Spaccio said.

And as for the record rainfall for Aug. 13 — beating that was a piece of cake, with the previous record for that day 0.91 inches, set in 2013, the weather service said.

As for hourly rainfall amounts — top honors now go to Wednesday from 5 to 6 a.m. when 5.34 inches fell at the airport, followed by 4.37 inches the very next hour, Spaccio said. The highest previous amount was 2.64 inches, which fell in one hour on July 18, 2007. That's based on data maintained since July 1996, she said. More

 

‘There Will Be No Water’ by 2040? Researchers Urge Global Energy Paradigm Shift

The world risks an “insurmountable” water crisis by 2040 without an immediate and significant overhaul of energy consumption and demand, a research team reported on Wednesday.

“There will be no water by 2040 if we keep doing what we're doing today,” said Professor Benjamin Sovacool of Denmark's Aarhus University, who co-authored two reports on the world's rapidly decreasing sources of freshwater.

Many troubling global trends could worsen these baseline projected shortages. According to the report, water resources around the world are “increasingly strained by economic development, population growth, and climate change.” The World Resources Institute estimates that in India, “water demand will outstrip supply by as much as 50 percent by 2030, a situation worsened further by the country's likely decline of available freshwater due to climate change,” the report states. “[P]ower demand could more than double in northern China, more than triple in India, and increase by almost three-quarters in Texas.”

“If we keep doing business as usual, we are facing an insurmountable water shortage — even if water was free, because it's not a matter of the price,” Sovacool said. “There's no time to waste. We need to act now.”

In addition to an expanding global population, economic development, and an increasing demand for energy, the report also finds that the generation of electricity is one of the biggest sources of water consumption throughout the world, using up more water than even the agricultural industry. Unlike less water-intensive alternative sources of energy like wind and solar systems, fossil fuel-powered and nuclear plants need enormous and continued water inputs to function, both for fueling thermal generators and cooling cycles.

The reports, Capturing Synergies Between Water Conservation and Carbon Dioxide Emissions in the Power Sectorand A Clash of Competing Necessities: Water Adequacy and Electric Reliability in China, India, France, and Texas and published after three years of research by Aarhus University, Vermont Law School and CNA Corporation, show that most power plants do not even log how much water they use to keep the systems going.

“It's a huge problem that the electricity sector do not even realize how much water they actually consume,” Sovacool said. “And together with the fact that we do not have unlimited water resources, it could lead to a serious crisis if nobody acts on it soon.”

Unless water use is drastically minimized, the researchers found that widespread drought will affect between 30 and 40 percent of the planet by 2020, and another two decades after that will see a severe water shortage that would affect the entire planet. The demand for both energy and drinking water would combine to aggressively speed up drought, which in turn could exacerbate large-scale health risks and other global development problems.

“The policy and technology choices made to meet demand will have immense implications for water withdrawals and consumption, and may also have significant economic, human health, and development consequences,” the report states.

The research says that utilizing alternative energy sources like wind and solar systems is vital to mitigating water consumption enough to stave off the crisis. “Unsubsidized wind power costs… are currently lower than coal or nuclear and they are continuing to drop,” the report states. When faced with its worst drought in 2011, Texas got up to 18 of its electricity from wind power and was able to avoid the kind of rolling blackouts that plague parts of China, where existing water shortages prevent power plants from operating.

An equally important step would be to shutter “thirsty” fossil fuel facilities in areas that are already experiencing water shortages, like China and India, where carbon emissions can be significantly more impactful.

“[We] have to decide where we spend our water in the future,” Sovacool said. “Do we want to spend it on keeping the power plants going or as drinking water? We don't have enough water to do both.” More

 

Water Resources Fact Sheet – Earth Policy Institute

JULY 30, 2014 Water scarcity may be the most underrated resource issue the world is facing today.

Seventy percent of world fresh water use is for irrigation.

Each day we drink nearly 4 liters of water, but it takes some 2,000 liters of water—500 times as much—to produce the food we consume.

1,000 tons of water is used to produce 1 ton of grain.

Between 1950 and 2000, the world’s irrigated area tripled to roughly 700 million acres. After several decades of rapid increase, however, the growth has slowed dramatically, expanding only 9 percent from 2000 to 2009. Given that governments are much more likely to report increases than decreases, the recent net growth may be even smaller.

The dramatic loss of momentum in irrigation expansion coupled with the depletion of underground water resources suggests that peak water may now be on our doorstep.

Today some 18 countries, containing half the world’s people, are overpumping their aquifers. Among these are the big three grain producers—China, India, and the United States.

Saudi Arabia is the first country to publicly predict how aquifer depletion will reduce its grain harvest. It will soon be totally dependent on imports from the world market or overseas farming projects for its grain.

While falling water tables are largely hidden, rivers that run dry or are reduced to a trickle before reaching the sea are highly visible. Among this group that has limited outflow during at least part of the year are the Colorado, the major river in the southwestern United States; the Yellow, the largest river in northern China; the Nile, the lifeline of Egypt; the Indus, which supplies most of Pakistan’s irrigation water; and the Ganges in India’s densely populated Gangetic basin.

Many smaller rivers and lakes have disappeared entirely as water demands have increased.

Overseas “land grabs” for farming are also water grabs. Among the prime targets for overseas land acquisitions are Ethiopia and the Sudans, which together occupy three-fourths of the Nile River Basin, adding to the competition with Egypt for the river’s water.

It is often said that future wars will more likely be fought over water than oil, but in reality the competition for water is taking place in world grain markets. The countries that are financially the strongest, not necessarily those that are militarily the strongest, will fare best in this competition.

Climate change is hydrological change. Higher global average temperatures will mean more droughts in some areas, more flooding in others, and less predictability overall.

Data and additional resources available at www.earth-policy.org

Research Contact: Janet Larsen (202) 496-9290 ex. 14 or jlarsen (at) earth-policy.org

Water Resources Fact Sheet
JULY 30, 2014

Water scarcity may be the most underrated resource issue the world is facing today.

Seventy percent of world fresh water use is for irrigation.

Each day we drink nearly 4 liters of water, but it takes some 2,000 liters of water—500 times as much—to produce the food we consume.

1,000 tons of water is used to produce 1 ton of grain.

Between 1950 and 2000, the world’s irrigated area tripled to roughly 700 million acres. After several decades of rapid increase, however, the growth has slowed dramatically, expanding only 9 percent from 2000 to 2009. Given that governments are much more likely to report increases than decreases, the recent net growth may be even smaller.

The dramatic loss of momentum in irrigation expansion coupled with the depletion of underground water resources suggests that peak water may now be on our doorstep.

Today some 18 countries, containing half the world’s people, are overpumping their aquifers. Among these are the big three grain producers—China, India, and the United States.

Saudi Arabia is the first country to publicly predict how aquifer depletion will reduce its grain harvest. It will soon be totally dependent on imports from the world market or overseas farming projects for its grain.

While falling water tables are largely hidden, rivers that run dry or are reduced to a trickle before reaching the sea are highly visible. Among this group that has limited outflow during at least part of the year are the Colorado, the major river in the southwestern United States; the Yellow, the largest river in northern China; the Nile, the lifeline of Egypt; the Indus, which supplies most of Pakistan’s irrigation water; and the Ganges in India’s densely populated Gangetic basin.

Many smaller rivers and lakes have disappeared entirely as water demands have increased.

Overseas “land grabs” for farming are also water grabs. Among the prime targets for overseas land acquisitions are Ethiopia and the Sudans, which together occupy three-fourths of the Nile River Basin, adding to the competition with Egypt for the river’s water.

It is often said that future wars will more likely be fought over water than oil, but in reality the competition for water is taking place in world grain markets. The countries that are financially the strongest, not necessarily those that are militarily the strongest, will fare best in this competition.

Climate change is hydrological change. Higher global average temperatures will mean more droughts in some areas, more flooding in others, and less predictability overall.

(PDF version)

Data and additional resources available at www.earth-policy.org
Research Contact: Janet Larsen (202) 496-9290 ex. 14 or jlarsen (at) earth-policy.org

 

 

The Unity of Water

MOSCOW – In May, Vietnam became the 35th and decisive signatory of the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. As a result, 90 days later, on August 17, the convention will enter into force.

The fact that it took almost 50 years to draft and finally achieve the necessary ratification threshold demonstrates that something is very wrong with the modern system of multilateralism. Regardless of longstanding disagreements over how cross-border freshwater resources should be allocated and managed, and understandable preferences by governments and water professionals to rely on basin agreements rather than on international legal instruments, that half-century wait can be explained only by a lack of political leadership. So, though the world may celebrate the convention’s long-awaited adoption, we cannot rest on our laurels.

Roughly 60% of all freshwater runs within cross-border basins; only an estimated 40% of those basins, however, are governed by some sort of basin agreement. In an increasingly water-stressed world, shared water resources are becoming an instrument of power, fostering competition within and between countries. The struggle for water is heightening political tensions and exacerbating impacts on ecosystems.

But the really bad news is that water consumption is growing faster than population – indeed, in the twentieth century it grew at twice the rate. As a result, several UN agencies forecast that, by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in regions stricken with absolute water scarcity, implying a lack of access to adequate quantities for human and environmental uses. Moreover, two-thirds of the world’s population will face water-stress conditions, meaning a scarcity of renewable freshwater.

Without resolute counter-measures, demand for water will overstretch many societies’ adaptive capacities. This could result in massive migration, economic stagnation, destabilization, and violence, posing a new threat to national and international security.

The UN Watercourses Convention must not become just another ignored international agreement, filed away in a drawer. The stakes are too high. In today’s context of climate change, rising demand, population growth, increasing pollution, and overexploited resources, everything must be done to consolidate the legal framework for managing the world’s watersheds. Our environmental security, economic development, and political stability directly depend on it.

The convention will soon apply to all of the cross-border rivers of its signatories’ territories, not just the biggest basins. It will complement the gaps and shortcomings of existing agreements and provide legal coverage to the numerous cross-border rivers that are under increasing pressure.

Worldwide, there are 276 cross-border freshwater basins and about as many cross-border aquifers. Backed by adequate financing, political will, and the engagement of stakeholders, the convention can help address the water challenges that we are all facing. But will it?

An ambitious agenda should be adopted now, at a time when the international community is negotiating the contents of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the successor to the UN Millennium Development Goals, which will expire in 2015. We at Green Cross hope that the new goals, which are to be achieved by 2030, will include a stand-alone target that addresses water-resources management.

Moreover, the international community will soon have to agree on a climate-change framework to replace the Kyoto Protocol. Climate change directly affects the hydrological cycle, which means that all of the efforts that are undertaken to contain greenhouse-gas emissions will help to stabilize rainfall patterns and mitigate the extreme water events that so many regions are already experiencing.

But the UN Watercourses Convention’s entry into force raises as many new questions as existed in the period before its ratification. What will its implementation mean in practice? How will countries apply its mandates within their borders and in relation to riparian neighbors? How will the American and Asian countries that have largely ignored ratification respond?

Furthermore, how will the convention relate to the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes, which is already in force in most European and Central Asian countries and, since February 2013, has aimed to open its membership to the rest of the world? Similarly, how will the convention’s implementation affect existing regional and local cross-border freshwater agreements?

The countries that ratified the UN Watercourses Convention are expected to engage in its implementation and to go further in their efforts to protect and sustainably use their cross-border waters. What instruments, including financial, will the convention provide to them?

Several legal instruments can be implemented jointly and synergistically: the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, to name just a few. The UN Watercourses Convention’s long-delayed enactment should be viewed as an opportunity for signatory states to encourage those that are not yet party to cooperative agreements to work seriously on these issues.

Clearly, politicians and diplomats alone cannot respond effectively to the challenges that the world faces. What the world needs is the engagement of political, business, and civil-society leaders; effective implementation of the UN Watercourses Convention is impossible without it.

This is too often overlooked, but it constitutes the key to the long-term success of cooperation that generates benefits for all. Inclusive participation by stakeholders (including the affected communities), and the development of the capacity to identify, value, and share the benefits of cross-border water resources, should be an integral part of any strategy to achieve effective multilateral collaboration. More

 

China Experiment in Permaculture Offers World Hope

China is the most populous and possibly one of the most diverse nations on the planet, with a population of over 1.3 billion people and 56 ethnic groups.

What each one of those people shares with the rest of the world, regardless of political, linguistic, economic, and existential differences, is the complete and utter dependence on the ability to find food. In China’s Loess Plateau, sustained generational farming had depleted the soil, leaving in its wake a textured landscape of dust. When winds came, the dust blew into cities, compromising air quality. In the rains, it washed down the valley, depositing more of the silt that gives the Yellow River its name. In 1995, scientists and engineers surveyed the land of the Loess Plateau in an attempt to determine what was causing the once fertile belt to be a thorn in the country’s. The results of their study led to an experiment in permaculture in China that offers hope to the world.

John D. Liu, Chinese American ecologist and documentary film-maker, documented the project in an award-winning film called Hope in a Changing Climate. In the film that Liu narrates, he reports that the first thing that the scientists discovered was a causal relationship between ecosystem destruction and human poverty. Where environmental degradation is severe, the population becomes trapped in a downward spiral. Because they needed to eat to survive, generational subsistence farming had stripped the land bare in the Loess Plateau. In search of food for themselves and their flocks, farmers and their families continued to deplete the fertility of the surrounding ecosystem, further impoverishing themselves.

When scientists developed the plan to restore the ecosystem in China’s Loess Plateau, generational farmers had to be convinced that not farming was critical for their families’ long-term survival. To get buy in from the locals who did not understand how their families would eat if they were not allowed to farm, the government subsidized them and taught them how to do the work that would restore their land from a scarce dirt pit to a thriving ecosystem.

Around the world, populations are living a scarce subsistence lifestyle similar to the one that the citizens of China’s Loess Plateau used to live. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) states that besides fleeing for personal safety, the basic need for food and shelter is the primary motivation for people leaving their homes and becoming displaced. If there were a stable food supply and supportive ecosystem, then the motivation for the world’s most vulnerable populations to move, would decrease. The UNHCR reports that competition for scarce resources triggers violence. If there were a way to restore resources so that people had food and a sense of power in their lives, the fuel for much of the world’s violence would be spent.

The permaculture experiment in China indeed offers hope to the world. Working with scientists, the local population terraced slopes, they planted trees, and they penned their herds so that the trees could grow without being eaten. Soon they found that their hillsides were green. Instead of letting the rains sheet off the mountains, the terraces collected the water and fed the delicate new roots systems, transforming the arid land into a booming garden. Liu reports that since he first visited the area in 1995, the people have seen a threefold increase in income and a profound sense of hope and empowerment. More

 

Drought in Syria: a Major Cause of the Civil War?

Syria's devastating civil war that began in March 2011 has killed over 200,000 people, displaced at least 4.5 million, and created 3 million refugees.

Figure 1. The highest level of drought,
“Exceptional”, was affecting much of
Western Syria in April 2014, as measured
by the one-year Standardized Precipitation
Index (SPI).
Image credit: NOAA's Global Drought Portal

While the causes of the war are complex, a key contributing factor was the nation's devastating 2006 – 2011 drought, one of the worst in the nation's history, according to new research accepted for publication in the journal Weather, Climate, and Society by water resources expert Dr. Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute. The drought brought the Fertile Crescent's lowest 4-year rainfall amounts since 1940, and Syria's most severe set of crop failures in recorded history. The worst drought-affected regions were eastern Syria, northern Iraq, and Iran, the major grain-growing areas of the northern Fertile Crescent. In a press release that accompanied the release of the new paper, Dr. Gleick said that as a result of the drought, “the decrease in water availability, water mismanagement, agricultural failures, and related economic deterioration contributed to population dislocations and the migration of rural communities to nearby cities. These factors further contributed to urban unemployment, economic dislocations, food insecurity for more than a million people, and subsequent social unrest.”

More