Most of California in the US experience extreme drought. May and June have been the warmest and driest on record since 1896. Lake Oroville, one of California’s largest reservoirs, is expected to reach a new all-time low in October.
For example, the Putah Creek River fell victim to drought and now looks like a puddle where crowded fish, turtles, and birds.
To save the rivers from drying up, California regulators recently passed a decision banning farmers from taking water from the state’s major rivers. Local media write that this is the most dramatic step state regulators took since the drought was officially declared in most California counties and surpasses any steps taken during the previous drought. The losses for California’s agriculture and state economy are estimated at $50 billion.
Facing ‘dire water shortages,’ California bans Delta pumping
Growers’ groups voiced strong opposition, questioning the water board’s power to stop senior rights holders from pumping the water.
In an aggressive move to address “immediate and dire water shortages,” California’s water board today unanimously approved emergency regulations to temporarily stop thousands of farmers, landowners, and others from diverting water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed.
The new regulations – the first to take such widespread action for the massive Delta watershed stretching from Fresno to the border with Oregon – could lead to formal curtailment orders for about 5,700 water rights holders as soon as Aug. 16. The decision comes on the heels of curtailment orders issued to nearly 900 water users along the drought-stricken Russian River, with 222 more expected next week.
The five water board members, who were appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom or former Gov Jerry Brown, approved the rule despite vehement opposition from representatives of Central Valley growers.
A CalMatters series investigates what’s improved and worsened since the last drought – and vividly portrays the impacts on California’s places and people.
Sen. Shannon Grove, a Republican from Bakersfield, said the regulation would “disrupt the critical production of essential food…Instead, the state should focus on expanding water storage and upgrading its existing water infrastructure, not punish local water managers.”
Assemblymember Adam Gray, a Democrat from Merced, called the curtailment orders for senior water rights holders “one of the most destructive measures possible.”
“The Board’s legal authority is by no means certain,” Gray wrote to the board. “Growers will have to risk significant fines and penalties just to find out whether the Board actually has the authority it claims. Either way, they lose.”
Water users who continue to divert could face penalties of up to $1,000 per day plus $2,500 per acre-foot of illegally diverted water, according to Erik Ekdahl, deputy director of the board’s division of water rights.
“Growers will have to risk significant fines and penalties just to find out whether the Board actually has the authority it claims. Either way, they lose.”
Demand for water from rivers and streams has outstripped supply 16-fold in the San Joaquin River watershed and three-fold in the Sacramento River, according to State Water Resources Control Board staff. Dwindling flows risk salty backwash from the Pacific tainting supplies for drinking, farmers, and fish.
Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, told the water board that “this year there’s plenty of pain to go around.”
“Mother Nature and climate change have brought us the situation that we have. And therefore, the decisions that you have to make have very real impacts on people. But not making these decisions would have even more horrendous impacts for people,” Ross said.
However, six growers organizations, including the California Farm Bureau and the Almond Alliance of California, said in a comment letter that the board does not have authority to curtail the rights of users with claims for properties next to waterways or that pre-date 1914 – the year California enacted its water rights law.
“Treading lightly there is probably a good idea on a prudential basis,” Chris Scheuring, senior counsel for the California Farm Bureau, said at today’s meeting. He also warned that smaller growers “could run afoul of an order or something in a very inadvertent way. We don’t want draconian penalties there.”
“There’s a face behind all of this,” he said. “And those faces actually include my family.”
Irrigation districts also warned that the water board acted too quickly and may have violated due process.
“It’s just too fast; you’ve got to listen to stakeholders in this process,” said Valerie Kincaid, a water law attorney who represents the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority, a coalition of irrigation districts and water agencies. “We now have a draft regulation that exceeds water board authority.”
A similar critique came during the last drought when, in 2015, six irrigation districts sued the state over its efforts to stop some Delta diversions. A Superior Court judge ruled that the state violated their due process by failing to give them a “meaningful opportunity, including some form of public hearing, to challenge the board’s finding before they are ordered to curtail their water use.”
This time, state officials said at a July workshop that they were giving ample notice and opportunity for input. They said the governor’s drought emergency declarations ensured they were “on a very firm legal footing.”
Some residents, however, urged the water board to act quickly. One Shasta County resident, Diane Bond, wrote that because of heavy diversions, a critical creek in the region is all but dry. She urged the board to consider stopping all diversions regardless of seniority.
“We have no water for fire suppression, and the fish and wildlife are dying. We have put out water for the wildlife near our property. It is heart-wrenching to see our creek dry,” Bond wrote. “These are desperate times, and water is so scarce.”
A representative of the Westlands Water District, which relies on stored federal water supplies that flow through the Delta, said he supported the water board’s regulations.
“They will protect transfer water that’s been acquired to help mitigate, in part, the impacts of drought,” said Jon Rubin, assistant general manager, and general counsel. “They will also help protect stored water, and for those reasons, Westland supports the resolution that’s been presented.”
“It is heart-wrenching to see our creek dry. These are desperate times, and water is so scarce.”
Supplies of up to 55 gallons per person per day for minimum human health and safety needs, such as drinking and household use, are exempted from the curtailments.
The City of Vallejo urged the water board in a public comment letter to increase the 55-gallon cap, or change the way it’s calculated. The limit is “too rigid,” said Vallejo water operations manager Beth Schoenberger “and will be very difficult to implement in areas without a firm population count.”
Small community water systems and the Merced County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce warned in letters to the board that without surface water, growers may fall back on groundwater wells sucking from already depleted basins.
“I urge you to consider that this will result in local wells under producing or simply not producing at all, as well as reduced overall water quality,” Daniel Chavez, district manager for the Planada Community Services District, wrote.
Hurricane Ida: death toll rises in US north-east after sudden heavy rains and flooding
In the US northeast, police were going door to door searching for more possible victims and drawing up lists of the missing on September 3. The death toll rose to 49 across eight states in the region after the catastrophic flooding set off by the remnants of Hurricane Ida after it roared up from the Gulf coast.
Ida struck Louisiana on August 29, knocking out power to the city of New Orleans and causing deaths in that state and Mississippi, The Guardian reports.
Since August 31, the National Hurricane Center had warned of the potential for “significant and life-threatening flash flooding” and major river flooding in the mid-Atlantic and New England.
The storm struck the region on Wednesday night, and officials in New York admitted they had not expected the swift devastation that followed, as record rainfall and battering winds hit the city, amid a tornado warning, in the space of a terrifying hour or so after dark.
The disaster underscored with stunning clarity how vulnerable the US is to the extreme weather that the human-caused climate crisis is bringing. In its wake, officials weighed far-reaching new measures to save lives in future storms, and Joe Biden warned from the White House that climate change “is here.”
New York’s new governor, Kathy Hochul, and the New York City mayor, Bill de Blasio, said the storm took them by surprise.
“We did not know that between 8.50 pm and 9.50 pm last night, the heavens would literally open up and bring Niagara Falls-level of water to the streets of New York,” said Hochul.
De Blasio said he had a forecast on Wednesday of 3in to 6in (7.6-15cm) of rain over the course of the day. Central Park ended up getting 3.15in in one hour, surpassing the previous recorded high of 1.94in in an hour – recorded during Tropical Storm Henri on 21 August.
Many people drowned in their cars or basement apartments, and there were hundreds of rescues by boat and with first responders wading and climbing to the rescue in dangerous conditions.
Late on August 31 afternoon, after a day of rescue work and disruption to transportation and power, the governor of New Jersey, Phil Murphy, said he was “saddened to report that, as of right now, at least 23 New Jerseyans have lost their lives to this storm.
“The majority of these deaths were individuals who got caught in their vehicles by flooding and were overtaken by the water. Our prayers are with their family members.”
On September 3, communities labored to haul away ruined vehicles, pump out homes and highways, clear away muck and other debris, restore mass transit and make sure everyone caught in the storm was accounted for.
Even after clouds gave way to blue skies, some rivers and streams were still rising. Part of the swollen Passaic River in New Jersey was not expected to crest until Friday night.
“People think it’s beautiful out, which it is, that this thing’s behind us and we can go back to business as usual, and we’re not there yet,” Murphy warned.
In New York City, police said at least 13 people died, one in a car and 11 in flooded basement apartments that often serve as relatively affordable homes in one of the nation’s most expensive housing markets. Westchester County, a northern suburb of New York, reported three deaths.
Officials said at least five people died in Pennsylvania, including one killed by a falling tree and another who drowned in his car after helping his wife to escape.
In Connecticut, a state police sergeant perished after his cruiser was swept away. A 19-year-old man was killed in flooding at an apartment complex in Rockville, Maryland, police said.
In a speech at the White House in Washington on Thursday, Joe Biden said: “These extreme storms, and the climate crisis, are here. We must be better prepared. We need to act.”
Highways flooded, garbage bobbed in streaming streets, and water cascaded into subway tunnels, trapping at least 17 trains and halting service until early morning. Videos online showed riders standing on seats in swamped cars. All riders were evacuated safely, officials said.
Harrowing reports were common. In Queens, water filled the sunken patio of one basement apartment then broke a glass door, trapping a 48-year-old woman in 6ft of water. Neighbors tried in vain to save her.
“She was screaming, ‘Help me, help me, help me!’” said the building’s assistant superintendent, Jayson Jordan. “We all came to her aid, trying to get her out. But it was so strong – the thrust of the water was so strong.”
A two-year-old boy was among the dead in Queens, where officers said they found three bodies around noon in a flooded basement near Kissena Park. Three other people, including two women and a man, were found dead on Thursday morning in a basement apartment in another part of the borough.
The storm ultimately dumped more than 9in of rain in parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, and nearly as much on Staten Island in New York City.
Newark international airport shut down on Wednesday night as videos showed water rushing through a terminal. The airport allowed limited flights on Thursday.
“There’s a lot of hurt in New Jersey,” Governor Murphy told ABC, discussing havoc caused by flooding in the north and tornadoes in the south.
Major flooding along the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania swamped highways, submerged cars, and disrupted rail service. Amtrak service was affected between Philadelphia and Boston, as was New Jersey Transit train service.
New York’s resilience to flooding was under renewed scrutiny. It was the second time in recent weeks that subway stations and streets were submerged.In a 2021 three-part BBC movie, climate activist Greta Thunberg talks about whether the technology at our disposal can help us save our future. One part of the documentary was filmed in California, the state that suffered from wildfires in 2020.