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Severe heat and drought are the hallmarks of a changing West

LAKE OROVILLE, Calif. – The work had to be done quickly as water vanished to vapor in the early summer heat. Hauling giant houseboats, some 50 to 60 feet long, from this lake became urgent just a few weeks ago.

In all, the Oroville Lake Marinas company removed 130 houseboats; floating recreation palaces such as the Monte-Carol and La Bella Vita now sit in a parking lot on stacks of pasteboard props. The lot stands where the lake’s high water mark would usually be — 900 feet. It is now 700 feet and falling fast.

The man-made lake, which helps to irrigate thousands of acres of crops through the elaborate State Water Project, is now so low that it is impossible for the marina to remove more of the large boats even as dun-colored islands begin to pop up. The launch ramp no longer reaches the water, which will keep disappearing amid a summer of record heat, including the “mega-heat wave” currently scorching much of the West.

“I’ve seen it like this before but only at the end of summer, never this early,” said Aaron Wright, the area’s public safety chief who has worked in and around Lake Oroville — the state’s second-largest reservoir — for that last eight years. “This low will be historic.”

Much of the American West , from parched Northern California through Arizona and New Mexico, is drying out at a record pace.

The onset of this severe drought was far quicker than previous ones — the result of a meager Sierra Nevada snowpack and early seasonal heat that evaporated the runoff needed to fill the reservoirs and rivers.

“It’s difficult to point to one occurrence and say, ‘Hah, this is climate change,’’’ said John Yarbrough, the assistant deputy director for the State Water Project with the California Department of Water Resources.

But this year — the second consecutive that the nation’s most populous state will be in drought — has been different from previous ones. Yarbrough said that only 20 percent of the expected runoff from an already well-below average snowpack arrived in reservoirs. The rest evaporated during the unseasonably warm spring.

“The relationship broke down,” Yarbrough said. “It is unlike anything we have seen.”

Lake Oroville boats sit as water levels drop to historic lows, leaving small islands in the man-made body of water on Tuesday. The lake is not only a recreation area but provides drinking water to 27 million Californians and waters millions of acres of farmland. (Melina Mara / The Washington Post)

About 130 houseboats have been moved to the parking lot near Lake Oroville in Calif. (Melina Mara / The Washington Post)

LEFT: Lake Oroville boats sit as water levels drop to historic lows, leaving small islands in the man-made body of water on Tuesday. The lake is not only a recreation area but provides drinking water to 27 million Californians and waters millions of acres of farmland. (Melina Mara / The Washington Post) RIGHT: About 130 houseboats have been moved to the parking lot near Lake Oroville in Calif. (Melina Mara / The Washington Post)

Managing emergency

The heat and drought have forced decisions from farmers and policymakers far earlier than in years past — what crops to grow, what fields to fallow, how much to spend to protect the state’s $50 billion agricultural industry.

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has declared a drought emergency in 41 of the state’s 58 counties, covering about a third of the state’s population, and set aside $5.1 billion to manage some of the immediate consequences. On Thursday, Newsom declared a state of emergency because of the heat wave, a move that makes more energy available within the power grid.

There are many in Lake Oroville and across the region.

More than half of the western United States is in the grips of “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, indicating widespread water shortages and major impacts on crops and pasture. In California, Arizona and Utah, the period between June 2020 and May 2021 has been the driest ever recorded.

“Every dry year is not the same as every other dry year, and every drought is not the same as any other drought,” said Felicia Marcus, a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Water in the West program. “This one’s come on hot and quickly. And that has created an acceleration of the problems you might otherwise see, in part because our ecosystems, our forests, our groundwater resources haven’t recovered from the last one.”

The heat and drought are hallmarks of climate change.

Human activities have already raised global average temperatures more than 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. In many western states, the increase is close to 2 degrees Celsius — a threshold the United Nations associates with catastrophic warming.

Unless people drastically reduce planet-warming emissions, the world faces a future of increasingly frequent and severe environmental disasters: coastal flooding, mass extinctions, deadly hurricanes, uncontrollable wildfires.

For much of the West, the future is now.

Last year, wildfires burned more than 4.3 million acres across California — the most in state history — and now at least one-quarter of the state’s residents live in high fire risk zones, according to state fire officials.

Los Padres National Forest firefighters implement a “backfire” method to burn off underbrush to protect residential structures against the Dolan Fire in Big Sur, Calif., on Aug. 22, 2020. (Melina Mara / The Washington Post)

Firefighters work a controlled burn in the Inyo National Forest in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., on June 3, 2019. (Melina Mara / The Washington Post)

LEFT: Los Padres National Forest firefighters implement a “backfire” method to burn off underbrush to protect residential structures against the Dolan Fire in Big Sur, Calif., on Aug. 22, 2020. (Melina Mara / The Washington Post) RIGHT: Firefighters work a controlled burn in the Inyo National Forest in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., on June 3, 2019. (Melina Mara / The Washington Post)

Phoenix now experiences more than 100 days of triple-digit temperatures every year. Mountain snowpacks, which provide most of the region’s water, have declined 15 to 30 percent since the middle of the century, and water levels in Lake Mead — the country’s largest reservoir — have never been this low.

Under a worst-case scenario, in which emissions continue to increase, scientists anticipate that Western summers could warm by as much as 4 degrees Celsius. Drought severity will triple. Wildfire “season” will become a year-round event.

If the nation is forced to put restrictions on water from the Colorado River, farmers in Arizona will be among the very first to see cuts. In a decades-old deal, the state agreed to claim the most “junior” rights to the river if the federal government helped build an aqueduct to transport water to cities and fields across the state.

Now those growers of produce, hay and cotton may see their entire allotments cut.

“They’ll likely … have to fallow up to 40 percent of what was being grown before,” said Stefanie Smallhouse, a fifth generation Arizona rancher and president of the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation.

Her organization is one of some 200 signatories on a letter asking that $49 billion worth of water-related investments — canal repairs, recycling projects, ecosystem restoration — be included in the federal infrastructure package.

“We’re used to dryness,” Smallhouse said. “We live in the Southwest, and we try to plan for it. But these prolonged periods are just very difficult to plan for. You really have to have to be looking at more broad infrastructure type solutions, which involve more than just one ranch and one farm. We can’t do it on our own.”

On Smallhouse’s own ranch outside Tucson, her husband and 14-year-old son spend every daylight hour hauling water. The family is constantly looking for leaks in the irrigation system that waters the alfalfa they need to feed their cattle.

“Physically, it’s exhausting,” Smallhouse said. “And mentally? It’s tough. Because you just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Even desert plants and animals — creatures that evolved to withstand water scarcity — are unable to cope with the ongoing drought. Smallhouse described seeing creosote and mesquite bushes wither. Giant saguaro cactuses are shriveling in the heat.

Last fall, wildlife biologists were shocked when migrating birds began dying by the hundreds of thousands. When Martha Desmond examined the carcasses, she found the animals were “emaciated.”

Years of drought had so depleted their food supply that birds were breaking down the muscles in their wings just to maintain enough energy to fly. A freak windstorm over Labor Day weekend and one of the worst fire seasons on record likely sealed the animals’ fates.

“We’re really setting ourselves up to be in the same situation right now,” said Desmond, a New Mexico State University ornithologist who studied last year’s die-off. “These are dangerous times for animals.”

New rules

In recent weeks, several Northern California counties and cities have begun imposing water-saving regulations. Marin County, just north of San Francisco, was among the first to do so, prohibiting most outside water use in residential areas.

Healdsburg, in Sonoma County wine-growing country, imposed a mandatory 40 percent reduction in use compared with last year on all residents. The city took the step earlier this month after it became clear that it would not meet the initial 20 percent conservation target set in the spring.

Farmers have been told that state and federal water allotments will be curtailed, and hundreds of growers who have rights to draw from the nearby Russian River were informed this week that they would likely not be allowed to do so this year.

“Big agriculture will find a way to survive, they have the resources and flexibility,” said Sarge Green, a water management specialist with the California Water Institute at the California State University at Fresno.

Large growers have the resources to drill deeper groundwater wells, and the deeper they go in California’s San Joaquin Valley, the saltier the water is. There is talk of trying out desalination techniques to remove the salt from the deep-well water, making it useful for crops of almonds, pistachios, lettuce and others.

That is a longer-term idea. Right now, Green predicts that California agriculture will take a 20 to 30 percent financial hit this year.

“It’s going to be a big hurt,” Green said. “And it’s the small towns that get the hardest hit in times like this.”

A dangerous wave of heat

At the same time, more than 40 million Americas are facing dangerous triple-digit temperatures this week as the summer’s first major heat wave sweeps across the West.

Long-established records were tied or toppled as the mercury spiked to 107 degrees Fahrenheit in Salt Lake City, 108 degrees in Billings, Mont., 121 degrees in Needles, Calif. Facing surging electricity demands, Texas grid operators asked residents to turn down their air conditioning.

In Lake Oroville, the dam, which at 770 feet high is the nation’s tallest, and its electricity production could soon be affected.

Another 60 feet or so of evaporation, which could come within weeks, will drop the water line below the turbines that provide power to the broader grid. Power companies across the California are preparing residents for a summer of rolling outages.

The extreme heat and drought have turned much of the West into a tinderbox.

Parched vegetation combusts more easily, giving wildfires more energy to burn. Already, firefighters are battling about 15 blazes in Arizona, at least nine in New Mexico and over two dozen more across other Western states.

In the mountains outside Phoenix, the Telegraph and Mescal fires have consumed over 200,000 acres. Through the haze of smoke accumulating high in the atmosphere, the sky has the dull yellow tinge of an old bruise. The sun is a scorching red sphere.

This week’s extreme temperatures have made the fires dangerously unpredictable. On Tuesday morning, the Telegraph fire jumped a fuel-free barrier built to contain it, prompting the rapid evacuation of three mountain communities.

“The fact that it is so hot makes things more difficult for firefighters on the ground,” said Barb Satink Wolfson, a fire ecologist at Northern Arizona University and program coordinator for the Southwest Fire Science Consortium. “Fire behavior is elevated. The effects on the landscape are more severe.”

Nights offer no reprieve. Falling temperatures and rising humidity after dark typically tamp down fire behavior, giving firefighters a chance to get their bearings and get the blaze under control. But overnight lows in the region are not expected to drop below 90 degrees this week.

It’s not clear whether the state’s monsoon season, which lately has run from July through September, will bring any relief. The seasonal rains have disappointed two years in a row; 2020 was the Southwest’s driest monsoon season on record.

“We called it the ‘nonsoon,’” Wolfson said. “Really at this time of year we’re all sort of holding our breath, just hoping for rain.”

Adapting in wine country

Driving west toward California wine country, the effects of the drought and the decisions being made around it are evident.

Green, flourishing fields are separated from fallow ones by a road or a fence line. “For sale” signs stand along the road at some farms. The dry, hot wind blows a fine dust through the orchards and rows of crops.

In Sonoma County, one of the first that Newsom declared to be in a drought emergency, grape growers are deciding how to plant and where to do so with water at a premium. There are 18 distinct growing regions within the county, most famous for its chardonnay.

The recent extremes endured by the county winegrowers, most of whom are small farmers with 20 acres or fewer under cultivation, can seem apocalyptic by outside standards.

In 2017 and 2020, two enormous fires burned through parts of Sonoma County, the latter ruining much of the county’s red grape harvest. In between, during the single wet year that separates the current drought in California from the last one, vineyards flooded when more than three times the average amount of rain fell.

Last year, Sonoma winegrowers experienced a 40 percent decline in business.

“Every year our farmers tangle with Mother Nature,” said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, a marketing arm for the local industry that has in recent years also expanded its water-related expertise to help advise growers. “Every year it’s adapt, innovate and survive.”

Workers plant chardonnay grapes at Dutton Ranch vineyards in Windsor, Calif., on Thursday. The vineyard is in Sonoma County, a region known for its chardonnay wines. (Melina Mara / The Washington Post)

Pinot noir grapes grow on a vine at Dutton Ranch vineyards in Sebastopol, Calif., on Wednesday. (Melina Mara / The Washington Post)

LEFT: Workers plant chardonnay grapes at Dutton Ranch vineyards in Windsor, Calif., on Thursday. The vineyard is in Sonoma County, a region known for its chardonnay wines. (Melina Mara / The Washington Post) RIGHT: Pinot noir grapes grow on a vine at Dutton Ranch vineyards in Sebastopol, Calif., on Wednesday. (Melina Mara / The Washington Post)

Duff Bevill manages 1,200 acres of grapes across the county. Now 70, Bevill arrived in Sonoma in a van in the mid-1970s, around the time of another severe drought in wine country. He has worked in the industry ever since.

This year, Bevill said, he has already decided to cut grape production by half at some of his farms, simply because there is not enough water to go around. It is called “pruning,” and it is happening across the county.

“These are all extremes we’re dealing with now,” said Bevill, a true graybeard of the local industry. “Very seldom do you have something like the Titanic hit the iceberg and it sinks. Typically, it’s an accumulation of these events that start stacking up and you just survive one or two, then you’re beat down again. And so this accumulation is what the risk is.”

Steve Dutton represents a fifth generation of Sonoma County grape growers — a family that was among the first to plant chardonnay grapes in the Russian River Valley. He manages about 1,200 acres of vines also, some sitting on strong groundwater wells and others relying on pools and ponds for irrigation.

Last year, Dutton invested $250,000 to build a five-acre storage pond at one of his farms. It was in recognition that the nascent drought might be around a while. But the payoff has been negligible: This year, rain filled the pond to one-fifth of its capacity.

But Dutton, 54, is pushing ahead despite the drought.

This week, on two of the hottest days of the year, he and workers planted vines that had been in the planning phase for two years. He had no choice but to do so.

And on another of his farms he has enough water in a storage pond for one irrigation, which he is waiting as long as possible to conduct. He usually irrigates his vines three times a season and a fourth time after the fall harvest.

“I do nothing the same way my father did, and I do almost nothing the same from one year to the next now,” Dutton said. “But we need this to be a good year.”

Kaplan reported from Portland, Ore.

Source:Washington Post

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