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After the driest year on record for California and over two years of below-average rainfall for the majority of the state, Governor Jerry Brown has declared a drought emergency.
His declaration has enabled the state greater flexibility to cope with the drought, including hiring more seasonal firefighters and reaching out to the federal government for aid to abate the water crisis. In a statement released by Brown, he called on “all Californians to conserve water in every way possible” with the goal of reducing water consumption across the state by 20 percent.
For most of California, the first month of this year is on track to be the driest January ever recorded in the state, according to the National Weather Service. 62.7 percent of the state is being crisped in “extreme” drought conditions, up 35 percent from the beginning of 2013. The local situation is equally dire, with Cachuma Lake — the primary source of drinking water for over 200,000 Santa Barbara County residents — filled at just 40 percent of its full capacity.
According to UCSB earth science professor David Lea, California has both a rainy and dry season, and now is the time to receive the rain.
“If it doesn’t rain this month or next, it doesn’t mean all hope is lost, but the probability starts to diminish,” Lea said.
Lea said one of the possible reasons for the extended dry period is related to yearly patterns of oceanic temperatures in the Pacific that are associated with El Niño and La Niña, the opposite phases of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation cycle that explains temperature changes between the ocean and east-central Equatorial Pacific atmosphere.
“The Eastern Pacific has been locked into a cold mode now for a good part of the last decade,” Lea said. “When the East Pacific is cold, we tend to be drier. That’s a pattern that has been established.”
Incidents of drought will likely become even more frequent for local areas as a result of climate change, as Lea said, “Global warming projections predict that the Southwest will get drier.”
Professor of Hydrologic Sciences Jordan Clark said the state’s drought is a complex concern that may require more monitoring of developments in other regions that also affect California’s water supply.
“We also get a lot of our water from the Colorado Basin,” Clark said. “So what’s going to happen in Colorado and the Rocky Mountains matters a lot for us, in addition to what happens in the Sierras.”
Ecology and environmental science professor Joshua Schimel said because more than half of California’s water is used for agriculture, rather than municipalities, the effects of household conservation may be limited.
“Most water in the state doesn’t get used by households. It gets used by agriculture,” Schimel said. “The bigger issues, really, are with agriculture, where livelihoods, economies and communities are at risk.”
Still, Schimel suggests students and community members reduce their water consumption by not watering lawns or plants at mid-day and turning the water off while brushing teeth or washing dishes.
“When you’re in a really big crisis, even small actions add up, ultimately,” Schimel said. “If 20 million people use 10 percent less water in their daily uses, it actually adds up.”
Congresswoman Lois Capps also encouraged conservation efforts in light of the governor’s declaration but said rainy conditions are largely outside of the people’s control, joking that the best thing to do would be to “pray for rain.”
Second-year psychology major Briana Beghi said students should just remain conscious of their personal water usage.
“I know my housemates shower forever,” Beghi said. “It’s really not that hard to get in, get clean and get out, and it makes a difference.”
But some students are not so ready to start doing things differently for the sake of saving water. First-year chemistry major Travis Trusty said he would not be doing anything to change his current consumption habits, even after hearing about the governor’s declaration.
“I’m stuck in my ways,” he said.
A version of this story appeared on page 3 of Wednesday, January 29, 2014′s print edition of the Daily Nexus.