Environment

California could experience 'historic' drought in 2014

The Central Valley's wine industry fears protracted dryness will cut into profits

State water authorities note that in the event of an official state or federal emergency, people in agricultural industries may have to apply for recovery funds from FEMA.
George Rose/Getty Images

California water authorities told Al Jazeera Friday that barring a series of heavy storms, California faces a drought next year that would restrict residents' access to water and hurt agricultural production in the heartland in the long-term.

"On the horizon, there is a chance we will receive some rain and snowfall in Northern California. We're hoping the storm door will open," Bill Croyle, drought manager at the California Department of Water Resources, said.

"We're coming close to meeting some thresholds where we are in a drought. We're looking at making recommendations after the January or February snow forecast," he said.

California's wine industry worries about the prospect of an ecological disaster.

"It has a potential to be a historic drought," said David Graves, managing member of Sonoma Valley, Calif.'s Saintsbury Winery, which is associated with the trade group Napa Valley Vintners Association.

For the past two years, California has experienced dry winters that have depleted reserves. Snowpacks in the Sierra Nevada — a key source of water for the state — are sparse this winter.

If there is a drought, Croyle said, the growing population and "restrictions on the movement of water across the state" may make this drought harder to handle than the last "very dry period" California experienced in 1976 and 1977.

California Gov. Jerry Brown has called a task force to address the issue. Croyle's Department of Water resources is already preparing for disaster.

"The larger water districts have more reliable water sources than, say, agriculture does," Croyle said.  

California farmers may find that they can't harvest crops this year. There is typically insurance to foot the bill for a barren harvest season when crops are "idled" or not harvested due to a lack of resources.

But "even if you don't harvest a crop, you still need water to survive," Croyle said.

Saintsbury's Graves said the winery's aquifer "will have enough water to supply both the winery and the vineyards" — this year.

"If we had another dry winter, that would change the equation."

Graves explained that not many people have prepared for droughts in recent years.

"In a rainy winter, people wouldn't be thinking (about preparations as much). In a dry winter, it moves up the priority list," he said.

"There's that old saying, 'You don't miss the water till the well runs dry.' We see that potential. I don't believe our aquifers will dry up, but there will be considerably more stress on them. Some wells (pumping water from the aquifers) may experience failure," he said.

It typically costs a vintner $30,000 or more to fix a broken well, Graves said, which takes a huge chunk out of profits in the nation's most renowned wine country.

As for the men who fix wells, "these guys are going to be the most popular guys in town. Get on their dance card now," he said.

Graves says he blames climate change for the California agriculture industry's prospective woes, and that the government "has been very frank about the effects of global warming."

Saintsbury will start using recycled water in the next few years.

"It takes an investment — that investment is being made. We're not yet plugged in, if you will. This year a pipeline was brought to convey water from the City of Napa's reclamation plant. (The water) won't be available this year or probably next year."

Croyle said Los Angeles residents may also feel the heat if Croyle's hopes for rain don't come through.

He qualified Los Angeles as a "larger water district" with contingency plans in the event of a drought, but said that still, "big agencies will start conservation programs. At the individual level, there may be water use restrictions — people can't water their lawns on certain days, there are certain times when you can wash your car. There will be extra effort put into leak detections. They'll want homeowners to make sure they fix leaks."

"You choose to receive a glass of water at a restaurant or not," he added.

If California's farmers fall into dire straits, Croyle noted that there are options.

"Ultimately, if you have extreme drought conditions and the state or federal governments declare an emergency, there are cost recovery programs under (the Federal Emergency Management Agency)," Croyle said.

Still, it's unclear how much hassle California businesses and residents will face trying to receive government aid.

A year after Superstorm Sandy destroyed 29-year-old Carnasie, N.J., resident Nicole Adejumo's workplace and apartment, she told Al Jazeera's Peter Moskowitz she was "still trying to get assistance from FEMA… Everyone says, 'We'll call you back, we'll call you back.'"

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