Needed: 11 Trillion Gallons to Replenish
Dec. 16, 2014: It will take about 11 trillion gallons of water (42 cubic kilometers) — around 1.5 times the maximum volume of the largest U.S. reservoir — to recover from California’s continuing drought, according to a new analysis of NASA satellite data.
The finding was part of a sobering update on the state’s drought made possible by space and airborne measurements and presented by NASA scientists Dec. 16 at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. Such data are giving scientists an unprecedented ability to identify key features of droughts, data that can be used to inform water management decisions.
A team of scientists led by Jay Famiglietti of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California used data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites to develop the first-ever calculation of this kind — the volume of water required to end an episode of drought.
Earlier this year, at the peak of California’s current three-year drought, the team found that water storage in the state’s Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins was 11 trillion gallons below normal seasonal levels. Data collected since the launch of GRACE in 2002 shows this deficit has increased steadily.
“Spaceborne and airborne measurements of Earth’s changing shape, surface height and gravity field now allow us to measure and analyze key features of droughts better than ever before, including determining precisely when they begin and end and what their magnitude is at any moment in time,” Famiglietti said. “That’s an incredible advance and something that would be impossible using only ground-based observations.”
GRACE data reveal that, since 2011, the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins decreased in volume by four trillion gallons of water each year (15 cubic kilometers). That’s more water than California’s 38 million residents use each year for domestic and municipal purposes. About two-thirds of the loss is due to depletion of groundwater beneath California’s Central Valley.
In related results, early 2014 data from NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory indicate that snowpack in California’s Sierra Nevada range was only half of previous estimates.
The observatory is providing the first-ever high-resolution observations of snow water volume in the Tuolumne River, Merced, Kings and Lakes basins of the Sierra Nevada and Uncompahgre watershed in the Upper Colorado River Basin.
To develop these calculations, the observatory measures how much water is in the snowpack and how much sunlight the snow absorbs, which influences how fast the snow melts. These data enable accurate estimates of how much water will flow out of a basin when the snow melts, which helps guide decision about reservoir filling and water allocation.
“The 2014 snowpack was one of the three lowest on record and the worst since 1977, when California’s population was half what it is now,” said Airborne Snow Observatory principal investigator Tom Painter of JPL. “Besides resulting in less snow water, the dramatic reduction in snow extent contributes to warming our climate by allowing the ground to absorb more sunlight. This reduces soil moisture, which makes it harder to get water from the snow into reservoirs once it does start snowing again.”
New drought maps show groundwater levels across the U.S. Southwest are in the lowest two to 10 percent since 1949. The maps, developed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, combine GRACE data with other satellite observations.
“Integrating GRACE data with other satellite measurements provides a more holistic view of the impact of drought on water availability, including on groundwater resources, which are typically ignored in standard drought indices,” said Matt Rodell, chief of the Hydrological Sciences Laboratory at Goddard.
The scientists cautioned that while the recent California storms have been helpful in replenishing water resources, they aren’t nearly enough to end the multi-year drought.
“It takes years to get into a drought of this severity, and it will likely take many more big storms, and years, to crawl out of it,” said Famiglietti.
ABOUT OUR SPEAKERS
Jay Famiglietti PhD is a hydrologist, a professor of Earth System Science and
of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California,
Irvine, and the Senior Water Scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion
Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. He is a member of
the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board.
Jay and his team have been researching and communicating about water and
climate change — in academics, in business, in government and to the
general public — for over 25 years. He appeared as a featured expert on
60 Minutes and in the water documentary Last Call at the Oasis, and he is a
regular contributor to National Geographic Water Currents and to Huffington
Post. Jay is a frequent speaker, and his research is often featured in the
international news media, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles
Times, The Economist, CNN, Al Jazeera, National Public Radio, BBC Radio and
He is currently working on his first book on the global groundwater crisis.
Mr. Thomas A. Love is Vice President of D R Consultants & Designers, Inc. and a registered civil engineer with 30 years of experience in public agency, water resources and engineering management. Mr. Love has experience in all aspects of water resource management and capital program implementation including: planning; finance; grant funding; customer and stakeholder collaboration; and public and legislative outreach pertaining to all aspects of water / waste water resource management and program implementation. Mr. Love demonstrates a high level of competence and proven success in interfacing with communities and agencies, as well as consensus building with and between agencies on water resource planning and project implementation.
Mr. Love’s work experience with public agency governance and management brings a unique insight to the DRC family and clients.
Mr. Love is a major asset to DRC’s Municipal Service Division having served as General Manager and Executive Manager of Engineering for the Inland Empire Utilities Agency, a MWD member agency and sanitation district. Mr. Love also served as District Engineer for West and Central Basin Municipal Water Districts during the initial implementation of their Recycled Water Programs. Mr. Love holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Utah State University and is a Registered Civil Engineer in California.
Our Chairperson, Joan Riback
Joan Riback has served as an Organization and Community Development Consultant since 2001. She received training in Leveraging Skills for Municipalities’ Change Efforts in 2002 and was an invited participant in Leadership Training for a Sustainable Future in September, 2003 – May, 2004. As founding President of the Forestville Planning Association in Sonoma County, she served on a variety of committees working with water issues. Joan believes that water is the most important issue in the world today and is passionate about deepening that understanding within her community.