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California Has Only One Year of Water Left, Warns NASA Scientist

Mar 16, 2015 04:17 PM EDT
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California is in the midst of the worst drought the region's seen in a millennium, which is rapidly depleting its water supply, and now a NASA scientist warns that the state has only one year of water left.

2014 was the hottest year on record for California and the rest of the world, and this intense heat just exacerbates the ongoing drought by speeding up evaporation and drying out the land surface. The entire California population is hanging on by a thread, and acccording to an editorial published in the Los Angeles Times last Thursday, NASA's Jay Famiglietti believes a more "forward-looking process" is necessary to deal with the problem.

"California has no contingency plan for a persistent drought like this one (let alone a 20-plus-year mega-drought), except, apparently, staying in emergency mode and praying for rain," wrote Famiglietti, a senior water cycle scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). "In short, we have no paddle to navigate this crisis."

Thus far the Golden State has been relying on water in reservoir storage to survive, however, this supply has been dwindling since 2002, even before the current four-year drought began. What's more, its groundwater supply is nearly tapped out, leaving thirsty residents with few options.

Among Famiglietti's recommendations for saving California from a real crisis is immediate water rationing, a taskforce focused on long-term solutions, and also a law mandating groundwater stability.

Many don't realize it, but disappearing groundwater is the out-of-sight, out-of-mind threat that can potentially push California into a downward spiral. Groundwater comes from aquifers - sponge-like gravel and sand-filled underground reservoirs - that pump freshwater from the earth into people's homes. Tapping into this source helps to make up for surface water lost from drought-depleted lakes, rivers and reservoirs.

However, what we don't realize is that groundwater actually makes up half of our water needs. And by continuing to rely on this hidden resource, we are threatening our very survival.

"These aquifers typically cannot recharge, and once this 'fossil' water is gone, it is gone forever," wrote National Geographic.

Data from NASA satellites show that water stored in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins was 34 million acre-feet below normal in 2014 - that's nearly 1.5 times the capacity of Lake Mead, America's largest reservoir. And overall California has lost more than 12 million acre-feet of total water every year since 2011.

It's not unusual for the state to find itself in a drought, but this latest dry spell is an entirely new class of its own. A whopping 55 percent of the state is experiencing "exceptional drought conditions," which is the most severe classification, according to the US Drought Monitor.

It's been said that 11 trillion gallons of water is the solution to a full recovery, but with only one year's worth of water left in storage, and the groundwater supply at an all-time low, it would take a miracle to completely bounce back. Perhaps Famiglietti suggestions hold the answer.

"Our state's water management is complex, but the technology and expertise exist to handle this harrowing future," he said in the Times. "It will require major changes in policy and infrastructure that could take decades to identify and act upon. Today, not tomorrow, is the time to begin."

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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