Thursday, March 05, 2020

Record-dry February in California raises wildfire risk; could worsen well access for small farmers and rural residents

California just had its driest February on record, part of a climate change-related dry spell that will likely exacerbate chronic overuse of groundwater by agriculture, increase the risk of wildfires, and make life harder for small farmers and rural residents who use wells.

About 90 percent of California's annual precipitation usually falls between Oct. 1 and April 30, and about half of the annual precipitation is in December, January and February. This year's record-dry February followed a drier-than-average January and fall, Kendra Pierre-Louis and Nadja Popovich report for The New York Times. There was a decent amount of snow in December, but the state would need record-breaking rain and snow in March and April to make up the deficit.

Latest Drought Monitor map outlines dominant impacts; S means
short-term impacts; L means long-term; yellow areas are abnormally
dry; tan areas have moderate drought; orange have severe drought.
Rain isn't everything: The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada provides up to 30% of the state's drinking water and 75% of its agricultural water. As of March 1, the state's total snowpack was 44% of normal, and in the southern southern Sierras it was only 40%, Pierre-Louis and Popovich report. Many parts of Oregon, Washington state and Nevada are also seeing abnormally dry conditions.

Decreasing precipitation means farmers have to rely more on irrigation, and that's drying up some of the streams and rivers in the western U.S. Large farming operations are taking the lion's share of the groundwater, Susie Cagle reports for The Guardian. Meanwhile, smaller farmers and rural residents must dig ever deeper to hit water and their wells are increasingly going dry, Cagle reports. That problem will get worse if global warming continues unchecked, according to a study in Nature.

Lack of precipitation isn't the only problem in California. It's been warmer than average too, which dries out soil and increases wildfire risk. Between Jan. 1 and March 1, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire, responded to 381 reports of wildfires. That's about 35% higher than average, Pierre-Louis and Popovich report.

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