High up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Andrew Schwartz is gathering data that tells us a lot about snowpacks and their importance to the overall water supply.
“We have seen just massive weather whiplash up here,” Andrew Schwartz, Station Manager and Lead Scientist at the UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab, said. He’s referring to the record-breaking December snowfall – almost 18 feet – followed by the record longest period from January to mid-February with no precipitation.
“It’s looking like it could be another drought year in which we don't have enough water to go around,” he said.
These mountains hold a very important water source for California. At the Central Sierra Snow Lab, they measure and research all things atmosphere, especially snow.
“Particularly this year we are seeing ahead of schedule melt,” Schwartz said. “When it came to our April 1 measurement this year, which typically tells us how much water we’re going to have for use throughout the year, we were only at 38%. Well below, of course, where we would hope to be and well below recent years.”
The amount of snow up in the mountains has a direct impact downstream.
“Any water shortage is ultimately going to mean we’re all gonna have to pinch on our water usage,” Schwartz said.
“Because of shortages, we have to fallow ground. We have to leave the ground idle. So this year, my farm has got 200 acres that's been left fallow, because we don't have enough water to farm it,” Bill Diedrich, a farmer in California’s San Joaquin Valley, said. He grows everything from almonds, to grapes for raisins, and processing tomatoes.
“Our focus is primarily on water supply as a result of what has happened over the last 30 years in water supply in California,” he explained. Diedrich said it’s due to regulatory changes, climate change, and infrastructure issues with collecting and transporting water. “It’s forced us to change our farming practices.”
“If you're in New York or Boston or Miami or North Dakota and you’re putting pizza sauce on a pizza or dipping a chip in some salsa, chances are the tomatoes that went into that product are from California,” Mike Wade, the executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, said. Wade said the coalition is expecting around 800,000 acres of farmland in California to sit idle this year. A number, he said, is unprecedented.
“If you are a farmer and you live to make things grow, that opportunity is becoming more and more difficult to maintain,” Diedrich said.
“We’re looking potentially at 40 to 45% of farmland having little or no water at all,” Wade said.
This will impact availability and prices on certain foods.
“We’re already seeing price increases for fresh produce and it's going to be worse this year because of the reduced production that’s coming from the state,” Wade said.
While the snowpack is not the only water supply in California, it tells experts a lot about future water availability.
“We're seeing wetter wet years and dryer dry years than we did 20 years ago,” Wade explained.
“Given where we are in time, we’re at a tipping point,” Schwartz said. “There’s going to have to be some hard decisions moving into the future. Where is somebody's livelihood more important than someone's right to water?”