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NASA scientists predict that the likelihood of a 30-year “megadrought” coming in 2050 is growing rapidly. This study gained widespread media coverage and a national debate about its accuracy in February. As Californians look ahead to a likely fourth year of drought, Cal Poly researchers say there is a reason to be concerned.
A megadrought occurs when there are approximately 30 years of warm temperatures and low precipitation, Cal Poly geography professor Bill Preston said. Temperature is a critical factor of drought.
The likelihood that California would match up a dry year with a warm year was 50 percent in the last century, Preston said. Because of California’s dry temperatures, the chance of having a drought has gone up to 80 percent. It is more likely that the very dry year will coincide with a very warm year.
“As a professional, I have a little trouble believing that we’re going to have a 35-year megadrought by 2050 because there’s just no way to know,” Director of Cal Poly’s Irrigation and Training Research Center Stuart Styles said.
Researchers have suggested that megadroughts may be the reason civilizations have collapsed, Styles said.
“We haven’t had a megadrought for the last 100 years,” Styles said. “The truth is, the weather report said it is going to be a thunderstorm this afternoon and I’m looking outside and it’s sunny. Even trying to predict the weather today is very difficult.”
The current drought is the most severe one California has had in the past century, associate professor of natural resources management and environmental sciences Chris Surfleet said.
“We’re in a part of the globe where it is drier,” Surfleet said. “It’s kind of to be expected that we’re going to have years with less precipitation.”
The real problem is the allocation of water, he said. We have a lot of people and need to be smarter about where our water goes because we don’t have it all the time.
“This is worse than normal,” Surfleet said. “Nonetheless, drought is a regular thing in this state. We just have to be careful.”
It is time to think about what happens next and how to help our future, Styles said.
“How do we do something in 2015 that is going to impact 2050? More storage. We need to capture the water that does come down,” Styles said.
Agriculture has suffered the most in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Growers have been hit with some of the biggest decreases in their surface water supply and have been moving toward groundwater, Styles said.
We haven’t seen a real drought yet; a real one will last about 10-12 years, he said. Ten to 12 years would have a major impact on many growers, which will make them need to change to different crops or stop farming.
“People are going to have to change their consumption in water and crops,” Styles said.
Experts say another major factor in causing droughts is the climate change.
Climate change revolves around the issue of greenhouse gasses, tropical deforestation and many other contributing factors, Preston said.
It is not an argument whether or not climate change is occurring, Styles said.
“These ice flows in Alaska are melting, and so I went out there to see for myself,” Styles said. “There’re lots of places where you can go and they’ll show you pictures of what it was in the ‘60s, and you look at it now and it’s all bare ground.”
The ocean levels rose rapidly by a foot over the last century but suddenly slowed during the last 20 years. This shows that, regardless, there will be big changes in the future, Styles said.
“I think everybody has decided (the climate) is changing, things are happening,” Styles said. “It’s going to result in more unstable, erratic conditions.”
“What was the normal 50 years ago is not going to be the normal 50 years from now. We’re going to be dealing with higher ocean levels, more ice melting,“ Styles said. “It’s going to lead to more serious conditions for us.”
People need to change their water consumption and find new sources of water, he said.
What are ways to save water?
- Use treated water for agriculture
- Turn off sprinklers
- Eat less beef
- Take shorter showers
- Only flush the toilet when necessary
“Some of the things that we eat take a tremendous amount of water in the process of production, transportation and consuming. For instance, beef,” Preston said. “If you reorder your culinary habits to other forms of meat, like poultry, you’re actually conserving water.”
It is also important to think about drought-tolerant landscaping at home and to be an activist to leaders to say we need to plan for this. Specifically, it’s important to tell them to think about how we’re going to deal with these issues, Surfleet said.
“Insist that your representatives at a larger scale implement water conservation measures that are enduring,” Preston said.
The most important thing to understand is that there is a future of water shortages because we have maxed out our resources, Styles said.
“We’re going to be continuously having shortages in the future,” Styles said. “We’re always going to be up against that limit because we’re up against that limit right now.”