NASA satellite photos show severity of California drought

As the West sinks deeper into drought, climate and water experts are increasingly alarmed by California’s severely withered reservoirs.

On Monday, Lake Shasta – the state’s largest reservoir – contained just 1.57 million acre-feet of water, according to the US Bureau of Reclamation, or about 35% of its capacity.

A series of satellite images captured by NASA shows how dramatically the water level has dropped.

An image from July 2019 shows a fuller Shasta Lake surrounded by green shores. This year that greenery has been replaced with a beige “tub ring” bordering the lake bed, indicating the degree to which the water is falling.

A similar pattern can be seen in images of Lake Oroville, the state’s second largest reservoir – which has also seen a sharp drop in reserves – and in the Sierra, which has seen a diminishing snowpack this year.

Jeffrey Mount, senior researcher at the California Institute of Public Policy Center for Water Policy, said “everyone should be concerned” with what they see.

“The reservoir levels that we are examining are almost record high, with all the prospects that they will actually be to be record low by the end of the summer, ”he said. “The mountains are dried up. The sponge is completely dry.

Satellite images are striking and their ramifications run deep, experts said – from dead lawns and fallow fields to ecological peril and worsening forest fires. Some have said they probably represent a new standard for a Golden State turned brown.

NASA satellite image of Lake Oroville 2019, left and 2021.


Many scientists studying the drought in California indicate that 1976-77 is the benchmark for the “worst case scenario”. This drought brought Lake Oroville to its all-time low of 646 feet above sea level.

On Monday, the lake was just over 661 feet above sea level, or 28% of its total capacity, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

As for Lake Shasta, Oroville satellite images in 2019 show a lake with much more water than in 2021. And at eye level today, the barges are now resting on concrete blocks because there is no water. not enough water to contain them.

The lake’s water level is likely to continue to drop, said John Yarbrough, deputy deputy director of the State Water Project’s Department of Water Resources.

Yarbrough said California typically receives the majority of its annual precipitation between early December and late March, so things are unlikely to improve for several months, if not longer.

“This lack of stored water due to the west-wide drought has multiple cascading impacts,” he said, “including considerably less water for our farms and communities, more stress on our electricity grid and an increased risk of forest fires “.

Already, the state’s farmers have faced conditions so dry that many have started to fallow fields, pull up vines and trees, and leave land empty that once thrived.

Although the drought of 76-77 broke records, there are several key differences that make it even more difficult today than that time, said Forrest Melton, senior researcher at the NASA Ames Research Center.

In 1977, California was cooler than it is now, Melton said, and the state was home to about 15 million fewer people. Warming temperatures and population growth have only increased the use of resources and the demand for reliable water.

“Increasingly, our dry years are also hot years,” said Melton, and “the increase in population in California is adding to the challenge for water resource managers, who must respond to both reductions in water resources. water supply linked to drought and continued growth in demand. for water.”

What’s more, all but a handful of the past 20 years have seen below-average precipitation, the researchers said.

The most recent rainy year, which ended in June, was the seventh of Los Angeles’ 144 record years, according to the Golden Gate Weather Service, and the third driest on record in the region. Sierra of the North.

“We’re not just going back and forth between wet years and dry years, but the number of dry years is really increasing,” said Mount of the Public Policy Institute of California. “And wet years are increasingly rare.”

In fact, the snowpack in the Sierra is almost nonexistent today, satellite images show.

Pictures from 2019 show the mountain range covered in snow – even in july – while this year’s images are mainly marked by varying shades of brown.

In one Publish About the footage, NASA Earth Observatory editor-in-chief Michael Carlowicz said it was a cause for concern as the snow falling on the Sierra Nevada and others chains becomes a “natural reservoir that slowly melts each spring and summer and flows into river valleys,” and many of the state’s resource managers use it to fill reservoirs.

But officials warned in March that already low snowpack levels were declining, suggesting a critical year for the state. In June, the Department of Water Resources found the statewide snowpack to be an ominous 0.1 inch, or 0% of normal.

NASA also captured the regression in a series of images from March, May and July this year, in which the snow practically disappears from the Sierra.

“The ground conditions were so dry this spring,” said Yarbrough, “that much of the snowmelt, essential to filling our reservoirs during the summer months, was absorbed before it even reached its peak. usual streams and tributaries. “

That snowmelt and water supplies cannot reach the tributaries is not only a concern to the people of California: it is also a huge problem for the ecology of the state and some of its parts. most endangered species.

Historically low river levels prevent salmon from making their regular races, and California officials now plan to truck millions of young fish to the Pacific Ocean.

Chinook’s winter population has already declined significantly, but the State Water Board has said it must choose between preserving Shasta Lake’s limited reserves for fish or reducing them for central valley irrigation.

Table attributed the decision of “extremely dry conditions and the significant reduction in influxes from Shasta expected this year”, but also acknowledged that this could “increase the [Chinook’s] risk of extinction significantly.

“It will be a horrible benchmark year for salmon,” said Mount. “It will be almost complete erasure for at least two runs.”

If that happens, it will be catastrophic not only for the fish, but also for the people who harvest them.

In addition, the recent heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, which is believed to have killed more than 100 people, also killed around 1 billion sea creatures, according to recent data.

But it’s not just an ocean problem: as the heatwave conditions meet the ongoing drought, more and more forest fires are poised to ignite.

Already, more than 5,000 fires have ravaged more than 140,000 acres of parched and sunburnt vegetation in the state, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.

Last week, the Sugar Fire in the Plumas National Forest became the state’s first 100,000-acre mega-fire of the year, in large part due to the drought.

“It’s mainly the dry fuels we have and the low humidity levels that are really creating these fires,” Sugar fire incident spokesperson Phyllis Ashmead said last week. “And it’s not just here, it’s in many areas. These are the same conditions all over California.

Drought conditions have become so worrisome that Governor Gavin Newsom this month asked Californians to Reduce water consumption by 15%.

Melton, of NASA, said he spent the past weekend tearing up his “sad, brown, patchy lawn, both to save water and reduce [my] household water bill in the future.

It’s a choice many Californians will likely have to make soon as water becomes scarce.

The governor also issued a state of regional drought emergency in 50 counties in California, or about 42% of the state’s population.

Southern California is not included at this time – thanks in large part to strategic investment and planning. But further restrictions are possible as reservoirs continue to shrink, experts said, with little to no rain in sight.

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