The drought has left rafts and docks stranded in a dry section of Ruth Lake. (Photo of one area of Ruth Lake taken earlier this month by Richard Matteoli)

As Humboldt waits under a blanket of clouds hoping for more fat drops of water to soak down into the thirsty soil, let’s look at how dry the area actually is. Are we worrying too much about drought? Are we over-reacting to a few months without rain?  

Actually, some authorities think we aren’t worrying enough.

The fact is, 2013 was the driest year ever recorded in California.

As far back as the records stretch, there was never another calendar year this dry — not in the great drought of 1976-77. Not back in the ‘20s.  

Not ever.

How much rain do we need to get back up to normal? Daniel Swain, writer of the Weather Blog and PhD candidate at Standford, says:

… an informal analysis suggests that we would have to receive more precipitation between now and the end of the rainy season than has ever been observed in California during the February-April period in order to erase the deficit. Therefore, even a repeat of the … drought-busting late-season events in California’s meteorological history -– the infamous “Fabulous February” “Miracle March,” and “Awesome April” wet spells of years past -– would probably not be enough to end the drought.

Professor B. Lynn Ingram, a paleoclimatologist from U.C. Berkeley who studies changes in the climate over time, worries that this could be the driest water year (water years run from October 1 through September 30) in 500 revolutions around the sun. 

Ingram, who co-wrote The West Without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climatic Clues Tell Us About Tomorrow, says scientists gather evidence of ancient droughts from tree rings and soil cores. There’s no way of knowing for certain how these earlier droughts affected the human population, but evidence suggests some droughts lasted hundreds of years. One such drought may have killed off an entire ancient Pueblo civilization.

From 900 to 1400 A.D., she says, there was a particularly long dry spell. On average, 60 percent less rain fell during this time period. This changed the entire landscape. Ingram was able to see this by taking deep soil samples (coring).

“I’ve done a little coring in the marshes,” Ingram said of her work in the Golden State. During the period of the medieval drought in California, she explained, “the fresher kind of plants gave way to the saltwater-loving plants.” As the salinity in some areas increased, plant types changed. Entire ecosystems receded and were replaced by others.

Of course, we have a long way to go before matching that 500-year-long drought. But still, the past three-plus years are California’s driest since modern records began more than 100 years ago. Some areas of California have recorded record lows that are barely half the previous low marks.   

This year, says Swain, some California communities may face “water shortages of a magnitude not seen in the modern era.

Voluntary water rationing has started in much of California already. In fact, earlier this month, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency and, in his State of the State Address, spoke of convening an interagency drought task force. 

Governor Brown giving his State of the State Address. (Photo from press release.)

He said, “We need everyone in every part of the state to conserve water.” He laid out some steps and acknowledged,

It is a tall order. But it is what we must do to get through this drought and prepare for the next … . [W]e can take this drought as a stark warning of things to come. The United Nations Panel on Climate Change says -– with 95 percent confidence -– that human beings are changing our climate. This means more droughts and more extreme weather events, and, in California, more forest fires and less snow pack.

Some areas have already begun mandatory rationing. Willits, for instance, has instituted severe water restrictions. According to the Willits News, the town has “imposed the most stringent water conservation measures allowed by statute.” Residents may not use more than 150 gallons per day and may not water gardens or lawns at all.

Water shortage affects areas close to Humboldt. (Photo taken last week in Willits by Robin Fleckles)

Ingram worries that modern-day California may have been developed during a particularly wet period. Our infrastructure and our population may have grown up relying on rainfall levels that were abnormally high compared to the previous century.

“We could be heading into a drier cycle,” she said. This could make our way of life difficult to sustain particularly now that our population has exploded. “If we compare to the water year of ‘76/‘77 … we had less people and that was a really bad year,” she says. 

Drought in Humboldt:

In the vast Redwood forests of northern California, our droughts aren’t as obvious as those in other areas. In fact, Humboldt isn’t included in the governor’s drought declaration. Supervisor Estelle Fennell wrote to the Lost Coast Outpost last week:

The Sheriff’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) has examined the current situation and has determined that our water supply is currently at acceptable levels. Obviously, that may change if we don’t receive substantial amounts of precipitation during the much-anticipated spring rains. The sheriff tells me we are closely monitoring the situation and if we don’t see the rains in the next few weeks more steps will probably be taken.

Nonetheless, Fennell writes, “I think local landowners and water managers need to take this situation very seriously. We are all aware that we need to plan ahead and doing things like conserving water and inspecting infrastructure for potential leaks and other water management issues are good first steps.”

Here’s what Humboldt is experiencing right now.

Our Fire Season:

Screen capture from Cal Fire TV’s January 23 show. (See here for video.)

According to a Cal Fire video, in the first three weeks of January the agency had responded to more than 300 fires statewide. A normal year sees around 50 fires. One large burn was in normally wet Humboldt County, and there have been multiple smaller fires here also — something almost unheard of for this time of year.

Cal Fire in Humboldt has already begun hiring back seasonal workers. In 2013, crews were also brought back early but not until almost May. This year, at least 10 workers have been hired already — three months before the normal start of the season.

Our Rivers:

 Local rivers are extremely low for this time of year. (Photo by Eric Stockwell.)

River levels are at unprecedented lows. There has been a gauge on the Eel River at Scotia for more than 100 years. In that time, the lowest the water has ever flowed on January 28th is 308 cubic feet per second. 

Until this year. Yesterday’s provisional measurement was 157 cubic feet per second — less slightly more than half the previous record low for this time of year. It’s what we’d usually expect to see in mid August.

The Van Duzen River at Bridgeville is even worse. In more than 60 years of collecting information, the record minimum low on January 27th previously was 53 cfs. This year it’s at 18 cfs — slightly more than a third of the previous record low. Again, this is equivalent to August flows.

Check here for flows on other rivers in the area.

Our Fish:

Salmon swimming in the main stem of the Eel earlier this month(Photo by Eric Stockwell.)

Because waterways are so low, fish are having difficulty reaching their traditional spawning grounds. Many, for instance, are spawning in the main stream of the Eel rather than in the quieter tributaries. These redds, or salmon “nests,” are more vulnerable with low water levels.

Eric Stockwell, a local outdoorsman, says that he has seen multiple areas where vehicles have driven over redds, damaging the spawning areas. The low water tempts drivers into “four-wheeling” in sensitive areas.

Tracks lead over a prime area for salmon to spawn. (Photo by Eric Stockwell.)

Stockwell has built signs asking people not to drive in these areas. He has posted the signs alongside several possible redds on county rivers.

Sign placed with the consent of landowners near the mouth of the Van Duzen River. (Photo by Eric Stockwell.)

Salmon that are stressed by the drought conditions and unable to reach their normal tributaries may find it difficult to spawn at all. A bad year for spawning can mean repercussions for the fish and the local fishing industry that might not be seen next year or even the next but may result in greatly reduced numbers of mature fish in the future.

Our Ranches:

Will Hurlbutt, whose great-grandfather came to Petrolia in the 1850s and whose family has owned the same ranch by Garberville since the 1940s, worries that this drought might cripple his ability to run his business.

“Last year,” he explained, “we didn’t get the late spring rains that gets the grass the burst of growth. We got that little rain in September … . [The grass] has been growing steadily but not enough. I have to buy a bunch of feed this year … . If I can find it.” Hurlbutt pointed out that the whole west coast is experiencing some level of drought and farmers are finding it difficult to grow feed. Consequently, ranchers are struggling to supplement their stunted grass with purchased hay.

Hurlbutt spent the day recently gathering livestock because he is trying to make sure that the cattle he keeps have enough feed. “I’m getting rid of everything that I would normally sell later,” he explained. “I had the vet come down and I’m getting rid of anything that isn’t pregnant.”  

The scarcity of feed isn’t his only worry. Some of his normal water supplies have disappeared. “I’ve had springs that have dried up that have never dried up before.” For the last few years, he says, “we’ve been putting in tanks to catch water so that it is more available.” But now he is concerned about this summer’s water. 

He believes he might have to sell even more animals if the drought doesn’t end. “If we don’t get any rains for the rest of the year I’ll be selling calves early. Plus other cows,” he says.

“I’ve had to reduce my numbers of animals to try and cope and I might have to go even further,” he adds. Ranchers further south in drier areas have had to sell even larger parts of their herds. (See story here.)

The late spring rains are what local ranchers are counting on. Hurlbutt is worried that there may not be any. “I’m trying not to be scared,” he says, “but if we don’t get 20 inches [of rain this spring] or more, I may be out of the cattle business or severely crippled. It could take awhile to recover.”

Our Water Districts:

Snip from Google Maps of Redway’s town boundaries.

Each community has its own water sources with different challenges during drought years. Michael McKaskle, board member of the Redway Community Services District, notes, “I think it is probably different for all the towns.”

He points out that the local communities are not likely to face severe shortages in the next few months. His district will have water for near future. “Our engineers assure us that we can draw from underflow of the Eel even if it goes dry,” he says

But that is not ideal for the environment.

“That is fine from the services district’s perspective, if our engineers’ assurances are correct,” he says. “But as a human being and a community member, if the river goes dry, that is a disaster — whether Redway residents have drinking water or not.”  

“We’re doing fine right now,” he assures the LoCO. “We’ll be fine for four months. We will be impacted later than the ecosystems and other people.” However, he says, the rest of the area’s ecology would be devastated.

The Big Picture:

McKaskle believes that communities and individuals should be thinking beyond themselves and their immediate convenience. Landowners and towns should work toward protecting their local water supplies. “The long run solution,” he said, “is for everyone to have as much groundwater infiltration as possible … . The more you pave things and the more you hurry water off to the ocean, the less ground water you have.” He believes everyone needs to conserve what water is available.

Ingram, the paleoclimatologist, agrees. “What we tried to explain in the book and make … accessible to the public was water conservation. We want people to understand why it is important.”

She points out that back in earlier droughts “a lot of water conservation got taken seriously.” But people have stopped being careful. “Even if right now we are not heading into a major year drought, we should start looking at ways to conserve water,” Ingram says. “We should look at our ‘water footprint,’ not just our carbon footprint.”

“Some things use a lot more water than others,” she says. We should learn to minimize our water use, she adds — if not for this year, for the possible impacts that will surely arise as the population increases and aquifers dry up.  

(For tips on conserving water go here.)