California Dries Up – Again

California residents are used to water shortages. But the current drought is the worst since the mid-seventies and poses a massive threat to agriculture. Exclusive satellite imagery demonstrates just how much water levels have dropped in California’s major reservoirs and the western United States.

“Economy from above” is a collaboration between WirtschaftsWoche and LiveEO. This is a translation of the original article (written in German by Matthias Hohensee). Access the original article here.

Lake Oroville is a picturesque and powerful reservoir located about 120 kilometers north of California’s state capital, Sacramento, and is a popular destination for anglers, boat owners, and swimmers. It feeds water to thousands of channels of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, one of the largest river deltas in the United States. It supplies about two-thirds of California’s population with drinking water as well as the fields there with the vital wet.

The lake is still picturesque, but it’s not very big at the moment, as our exclusive satellite images show. Its water volume has shrunk to 36 percent of its actual capacity. So much so that the authorities have had to condemn almost 150 of the normally 800 houseboats to dry land, because the surface area is no longer sufficient for safe navigation and quite a few boats are stuck in the mud.

What’s more, the capacity of the hydroelectric plant has already had to be throttled by twenty percent because of the lowered water level. Even a complete shutdown is currently being discussed. A difficult decision, because in California not only the water but also the energy is becoming scarce due to the current record heat.

The reason for the dramatic situation is lack of precipitation. Lake Oroville, like all of California’s reservoirs, is fed by snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada mountain range. But last year, it hardly snowed at all. The record heat caused the few trickles to evaporate on their way to the reservoirs. That’s the case with Lake Shasta, California’s largest reservoir, high in the north of the state.

There, the situation is not quite as dramatic as further south at Lake Oroville, satellite images also show. But Lake Shasta’s water level, experts fear, will soon fall below the record level set in 1924.

The situation is much worse, however. That’s because Lake Powell (located in Utah on the Arizona border) and Lake Mead (located in Arizona and Nevada), the reservoirs that supply water to Arizona and Nevada as well as California, have also nearly dried up.

Lake Mead, located southeast of Las Vegas and created in the 1930s, is the largest reservoir in the United States. Since it was last completely flooded in 2000, its level has been dropping because snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains has decreased dramatically. This has also caused nearby Lake Powell to shrink, which is filled by the Colorado River.

Lake Mead, Arizona/Nevada, USA
04.06.2000 (left image): At the beginning of the millennium Lake Mead was still full of water.
00.06.2021 (right image): Two decades later, the reservoir near Las Vegas has shrunk enormously.

The western United States is regularly plagued by droughts. The last major drought ended in California just five years ago. Currently, the water shortage is as bad as it was last in the mid-seventies.

But since then, not only has the population of the “Golden State” grown dramatically, but agriculture has also expanded dramatically. Thanks to artificial irrigation, fields have emerged from desert-like landscapes, as in the Central Valley, in the middle of California. As a result, the calls to households to save water and to water green spaces little or not at all, as currently propagated in Silicon Valley, have so far brought little relief.

This is because 80 percent of water is consumed by agriculture, especially for particularly water-intensive crops such as almonds and pistachios. About 80 percent of the world’s almonds are produced in California. Now prices are rising as many farmers are forced to plow under their almond trees due to the lack of water.

Lake Powell, Utah, USA
27.08.2020 (left image): Lake Powell reservoir lies like a dark blue ribbon in the red-brown mountain landscape.
06.07.2021 (right image): Here the water level has not decreased as much as in the other lakes.

As a result of the drought, the state has severely curtailed water allocations. Most recently, California Governor Gavin Newsom called on residents to use less water. If possible, they should save about 15 percent compared to the previous year, but not only California’s residents, but also the industry and agriculture located there. In addition, the drought emergency declared in April is now in effect in 50 of the U.S. state’s 58 counties.

Recently, water also can no longer be pumped indefinitely from private wells, as in the past, because groundwater levels have dropped dramatically. Farmers, in turn, are resisting being made out to be the black sheep. They argue that too much water is being reserved for environmental protection, such as flooding deltas and swamps. Conservationists counter that these areas are in turn threatened by agriculture’s insatiable demand for water. The debate about this has been going on for decades. Until Mother Nature intervenes and makes it rain again. Like most recently in 2016, when record rainfall triggered mudslides and caused several reservoirs to overflow.