Scary, isn’t it? That’s a live widget from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and it shows the current levels of the state’s water reserves. If you live in Southern California, you don’t need me to tell you that the drought is starting to hit home; you’re living through it. Governor Jerry Brown is facing opposition from business leaders because he has declared an emergency drought and wants to impose a 25% reduction in water usage for everyone but farmers. I wonder if those leaders have seen the widget. The truth is, California is running out of water, and if we don’t do something quick, or we don't get a miraculous El Niño this year, we are in some deep doo-doo.
Actually, the doo-doo hit the fan a long time ago. If you’ve driven up to San Francisco via the 152 West, past the San Luis Reservoir, you can see the damage for yourself. In years past, it was a beautiful drive, full of hills and trees and the sparkly blue waters of the reservoir. As the drought worsened, the water has receded at an alarming rate. The loss can be measured by indentations left by the water line. Where water used to lap just below the road is now a field of grass. It’s frightening.
Where is the El Niño? The last one that brought significant rain and snow pack (crucial to California's reservoirs) was way back in 1997-1998. Last week, meteorologists predicted that a moderate to strong El Niño has a 70% chance of developing through summer and a 60% change through fall. Sound familiar? Yes, we heard predictions of a monster El Niño last year, and what was supposed to be a drought-buster, ended up being a bust. Things are looking a bit more promising this year, because the Oceanic Niño index for January through March is now more than 1°C warmer than it was last year. Warmer waters cause stronger El Niños. 1°C doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is.
What causes an El Niño? According to Climate.gov, “Usually, surface winds along the equator—the trade winds—blow from the east to the west (“easterly” winds). That easterly flow helps keep warm surface waters piled up in the western side of the Pacific. When these easterly winds relax, or even turn westerly (blowing from west to east), they often allow some of that warm surface water to move back toward the central or eastern Pacific. The westerly wind burst during March [...] was the strongest since 1997, lasting 9 days.”
What does this have to do with landscaping, you ask? California has been paying cities and individuals to rip up their lawns and replace them with water-saving plants for several years, now. According to SoCal Water$mart, 60% of your monthly bill goes towards keeping that green lawn that you never use and only see when you leave or return home. In my area of Southern California, we're finally taking this seriously. Medians of public streets have been torn up and replaced with concrete or with desert plants. The lovely little patch of green grass outside my home is being ripped up and replaced with cacti and other plants. While I’ll miss seeing it, the only ones who’ll truly be affected are the cotton-tailed bunnies I see in the evenings. Exchanging the symbol of suburban life - a green lawn - for desert plants is a massive mindset change, but if California is going to survive, we have to change more than our minds; we have to change the way we live. There is no magic solution to the drought. One El Niño isn’t going to undo the damage, so we have to take steps now to conserve water.