Get ready for another summer of SoCal drought

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The wet El Niño winter Southern California dreamed of never showed up. Reservoirs and aquifers in the area are low and federal forecasters say the region will likely see a hot, dry spring and possibly a repeat of last summer's scorching temperatures.

All of this means drought conditions will continue clobbering Southern California for the time being. That's bad news for farmers like Chris Sayer of Petty Ranch in Ventura County. He grows citrus and avocado trees. Lately, the leaves on some plants have started going brown.

"A lot of these leaves look really stressed, you can see how the tips of them are all dried out," Sayer explained as he walked past an avocado grove.

The 57-acre Petty Ranch in Saticoy, Calif. produces avocados, lemons and other crops. The ranch will soon begin producing figs, which are more drought-tolerant.
The 57-acre Petty Ranch in Saticoy, Calif. produces avocados, lemons and other crops. The ranch will soon begin producing figs, which are more drought-tolerant. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

So far during this drought, Sayer's been lucky enough to get the water he needs from local aquifers, but it's that same water that is slowly harming his farm.

That groundwater contains salt. Normally the concentration is low, but as more water is pulled from the aquifer, the salt concentration rises. Sayer says that when he uses that water now, it adds more and more salinity to his soil.

"Normally in a non-drought year we’d have some good heavy rains and the fresh water coming from the rain would actually rinse all of that salt through," he noted.

But since those heavy rains are few and far between these days, Sayer’s soil is up to five times saltier than usual, hurting his plants.

Sensors installed at Petty Ranch in Saticoy, Calif. track air temperature and humidity as well as soil moisture and salinity.
Sensors installed at Petty Ranch in Saticoy, Calif. track air temperature and humidity as well as soil moisture and salinity. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

To combat this, he invested in a high-tech sensor that measures soil moisture and salinity in real time, then sends the data to his phone.

Chris Sayer, manager of Petty Ranch in Saticoy, Calif., points to a graph showing a drop in groundwater salinity after a recent rainstorm.
Chris Sayer, manager of Petty Ranch in Saticoy, Calif., points to a graph showing a drop in groundwater salinity after a recent rainstorm. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Sayer says he may resort to flushing the soil with large amounts of water to keep the salinity in check. It's an expensive solution, but it might be the only way to keep his plants healthy.

Farmers aren’t the only ones gearing up for another summer of hot dry weather. In Los Angeles, Department of Water and Power manager Marty Adams is trying to keep spirits high.

"I think everything is about making lemonade. I think we are having a great time meeting the challenges and the public is joining us in that," Adams said.

Since last spring, Angelenos have cut back water use by about 16 percent.

Adams says a lot of those savings come from rules limiting outdoor water use and incentives to rip out lawns. DWP hopes to continue the trend by encouraging more homeowners to install rain barrels and cisterns that capture precipitation for later use.

In fact, Adams says DWP is developing new "smart cisterns." These receive wireless signals when it's about to rain.

"So instead of a catch basin filling up once and just sitting there, it actually fills up, and if it is going to rain, it releases [the water] slowly back into the ground so that it has capacity for the next storm," Adams said.

A graphic showing how a "smart cistern" works.
A graphic showing how a "smart cistern" works. Tree People

Adams hopes to have these cisterns ready for the next rainy season. DWP will offer rebates to homeowners who buy them.

L.A.’s water conservation target was part of larger program to get the state as a whole to cut back water use by 25 percent, and so far, California is close to meeting that mark.

Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, says that in April, the group will consider scaling back those targets for some areas.

"We’re in much better shape than we were when we instituted the regulations, which was an era when we had the worst snowpack in 500 years and our reservoirs were well below average," she explained.

In fact, in the northern Sierra mountains, the snowpack is about average for the first time in years. That's good news, since runoff from that melting snow typically provides about a third of all water used statewide.

Still, the snowpack in the southern Sierras is lower than usual, and Marcus said now is not the time to stop conserving all together — even if we might be able to relax a bit.

That's why messaging is key. After all, with four years of drought behind us, many Californians are feeling drought fatigue — the sense that we’ve saved as much as we can.

Matt Petersen, chief sustainability officer for City of L.A., is gearing up to fight that fatigue.

His office is responsible for the drought awareness campaign anchored by the character known as the Drop — it’s that blue cartoon water drop with big, unblinking eyes you’ve likely seen on billboards and buses around L.A.

An ad featuring the Drop.
An ad featuring the Drop. L.A. Mayor's Office

"We’re in the writing room right now working on the Drop: The Sequel," he said.

Petersen hopes that this time the campaign can emphasize that frequent drought will likely be the state’s new normal, thanks to climate change. So, the more water-friendly lifestyle choices we can make now, the better.

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