UCI Professor Jay Famiglietti Calls For “Thoughtful Leaders” During CA’s Emergency Drought

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California is entering its fourth year of a record-breaking drought, with last year as the driest year recorded in the past 100 years. Gov. Jerry Brown signed a $1 billion emergency drought-relief package last Friday, supporting water-saving measures for homes and businesses.

The aid follows measures that the State Water Resources Control Board passed on Mar. 17 to extend and expand emergency water regulations to safeguard remaining water supplies. The two bills, AB91 and AB92, provide some drought relief, but the vast majority of funding will be used to make the state’s water infrastructure more resilient to extreme weather events.

“This funding is just one piece of a much larger effort to help those most impacted by the drought and prepare the state for an uncertain future,” Brown said in a statement. “But make no mistake, from Modoc to Imperial County, rain is not in the forecast and every Californian must be doing their utmost to conserve water.”

Of the total $1 billion plan, only $27.4 million is new funding. All other funding comes from previous budget proposals or bond measures that have already been approved by voters. The package accelerates $128 million from the governor’s budget to directly assist workers and communities impacted by drought and to implement the Water Action Plan. Another $267 million from the ballot measure approved last year for water recycling will go toward helping poor cities by funding new wells and wastewater treatment facilities. The remaining $660 million is allocated for flood protection structures in urban and rural areas.

Among the extended regulations is an order prohibiting certain water use, such as washing down sidewalks. Urban water suppliers are required to limit the number of days that customers can water outdoors. Expanded measures include requiring restaurants to serve water only to customers requesting it and allowing hotels to decline sheet and towel cleaning.

Leading hydrologists believe there are other concerns that still need to be addressed, such as the disappearing groundwater.

Jay Famiglietti, a UCI professor of earth system science and senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, is a leading expert on groundwater. He recently wrote a dire editorial for the Los Angeles Times that the state has “only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs.”

Famiglietti and his team at the UC Irvine Center for Hydrologic Modeling have been using a pair of NASA satellites to monitor groundwater depletion. He visited Capitol Hill to inform both Democrats and Republicans alike that California needs to manage its groundwater resources and plan for the future.

“We need to look at the situation holistically — how much surface water we have and how much groundwater we have — and plan for the future, and that probably means mandatory rationing,” Famiglietti told MSNBC. “We have this landmark legislation that was recently passed that will help us in the long run, but in the short run I think we’re going to have some issues with managing our groundwater for the next few decades.”

As surface reservoirs are depleting, groundwater has become the new source of water, but this too needs to be replenished. The rate of depletion poses a problem where parts of the state are sinking through a process called subsidence. As a result of pumping groundwater, subsidence has damaged infrastructure, causing buckles in canals and sinking in bridges.

In the editorial, the hydrologist called for immediate action.

“First, immediate mandatory water rationing should be authorized across all of the state’s water sectors, from domestic and municipal through agricultural and industrial,” Famiglietti said.

He also called for a state task force of “thought leaders” that will brainstorm the long-term needs of a drought-prone, water-stressed California.

However, lawmakers and hydrologists both agree that for drought-relief plans to work much of the responsibility falls on Californians. Famiglietti wrote that the public must take ownership of this issue.

“This crisis belongs to all of us — not just to a handful of decision-makers,” said Famiglietti. “Water is our most important, commonly owned resource, but the public remains detached from discussions and decisions.”

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