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Climate Change Exacerbates Drought In Western United States




A concrete structure is visible in a section of Lake Oroville that is usually underwater on June 01, 2021 in Oroville, California.
A concrete structure is visible in a section of Lake Oroville that is usually underwater on June 01, 2021 in Oroville, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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Each year Lake Oroville helps water a quarter of the nation’s crops, sustain endangered salmon beneath its massive earthen dam and anchor the tourism economy of a Northern California county that must rebuild seemingly every year after unrelenting wildfires.

But the mighty lake — a linchpin in a system of aqueducts and reservoirs in the arid U.S. West that makes California possible — is shrinking with surprising speed amid a severe drought, with state officials predicting it will reach a record low later this summer.

While droughts are common in California, this year’s is much hotter and drier than others, evaporating water more quickly from the reservoirs and the sparse Sierra Nevada snowpack that feeds them. The state’s more than 1,500 reservoirs are 50% lower than they should be this time of year, according to Jay Lund, co-director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California-Davis.

Over Memorial Day weekend, dozens of houseboats sat on cinderblocks at Lake Oroville because there wasn’t enough water to hold them. Blackened trees lined the reservoir’s steep, parched banks.

At nearby Folsom Lake, normally bustling boat docks rested on dry land, their buoys warning phantom boats to slow down. Campers occupied dusty riverbanks farther north at Shasta Lake.

Droughts are a part of life in California, where a Mediterranean-style climate means the summers are always dry and the winters are not always wet. The state’s reservoirs act as a savings account, storing water in the wet years to help the state survive during the dry ones.

Last year was the third driest on record in terms of precipitation. Temperatures hit triple digits in much of California over the Memorial Day weekend, earlier than expected. State officials were surprised earlier this year when about 500,000 acre feet (61,674 hectare meters) of water they were expecting to flow into reservoirs never showed up. One acre-foot is enough water to supply up to two households for one year.

“In the previous drought, it took (the reservoirs) three years to get this low as they are in the second year of this drought,” Lund said.

Today on AirTalk, we’re learning more about drought conditions and wildfire risks ahead of the summer. Questions? Give us a call at 866-893-5722.

With files from the Associated Press

Guest:

Lauren Sommer, correspondent covering climate change for NPR; she tweets @lesommer