How unprepared is California for 2021’s drought? | CalMatters

“We were ahead of the game because we saw the writing on the wall,” she said. “If you don’t have the grass, you’re not going to make the money.” 

She sold “anything that looked at me funny, or had an attitude, or I thought would fail or wouldn’t make me money,” she said. “It was hard, some of these cows I’ve had for ten years.” 

The US Department of Agriculture declared a drought disaster that allows growers and ranchers to seek low-interest loans. 

But Brown refuses to accept a loan. “Our family history has a saying that if you can’t buy it in cash, you can’t really afford it.”

Brown has seen back-to-back calamities hit her land: drought, torrential rains and then fires that destroyed wooden flumes that ferry water from the west branch of the Feather River to Oroville and landowners like her along the way. 

“It’s all these things, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam — every year. It’s not supposed to be like that. We’re supposed to have these once in a generation,” Brown said. “It’s more. It’s worse.” 

She’s already weighing how to adapt her ranch to a changing California, such as raising heritage hogs and turkeys instead of cattle, and wondering whether there’s a future in emus. 

“It hurts, man, it hurts your soul,” Brown said. “I always felt like I might be the last one in the family to run cattle. I’ve just had a bad feeling. And this kind of makes it real, like my bad feeling was justified.” 

North and south: One dries up while one stored for a rainy day

When you take into account the path that water moves from source to tap, it’s a daily miracle that any of it arrives at its destination. Every day 20% of the electricity used in California and 30% of the natural gas is used to pump water. 

All that energy is necessitated by geography: Much of the state’s water is in the north and much of its population is in the south. This shift requires the State Water Project’s massive pumping plants to push water uphill 2,000 feet from the floor of the San Joaquin Valley and over the Tehachapi Mountains, where it flows down to the great southern basin and its 24 million people.

This year, the state expects to deliver only 5% of water requested from the State Water Project. And there’s an indefinite hold on federal allocations for some agricultural users both north and south of the Delta. 

Nevertheless, the Metropolitan Water District, which supplies imported water for 19 million people in six Southern California counties, says it has managed to sock away record levels of water despite back-to-back dry years. 

“We’ve gone into this year with the highest storage levels in our history, actually,” said Deven Upadhyay, assistant general manager and chief operating officer for the Metropolitan Water District. “Storage-wise, we go into this year — the second year of a drought, and now a really critical year — pretty well positioned.”

About 3.2 million acre-feet of water are tucked away in storage, with another 750,000 reserved in case of a disaster like an earthquake. That’s enough to meet the demands of 12 million households in the Los Angeles area.

As a result, Southern California agencies are unlikely to mandate rationing this year, although Upadhyay encourages residents to be careful with their water use.

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