Central Coast Notes: California's Drought, Made Terribly Visible

Lake San Antonio, which is near the Monterey/San Luis Obispo county border, was found to be nearly dry on January 15, 2014.
| Photo: Courtesy Bill Bouton

It used to be an uplifting drive, countryside of rolling green -- and, yes, often brown -- hills pocketed with oaks and grazing cattle. Driving north on the 101, just past the last scattered homes and businesses of Goleta, the sky yawns wide. It is beauty and release -- from crowds, from strip malls, from white knuckle freeway traffic -- that actually makes you sigh.

The skies remain wide, but the rolling hills have changed. They are not green. In places, they are not even brown. They look almost alkaline. Gray. Sickly, like something's bled from the land.

That something, as we all know, is water.

There are so many statistics, figures, and dates. California-wide, 2013 was the driest year in 119 years of records. In Ventura County, where I live, only 2.97 inches of rain fell on the town of Camarillo last year. In San Luis Obispo County, 2013 saw four and half inches of rain, down from an average of almost two feet. Lopez Lake, a key water source for many SLO County towns, is 57 percent full. Out of sight, but no longer out of mind, the Nipomo aquifer was 30 percent lower this past spring than the spring of 2012 and has fallen to its lowest level since record keeping began in 1975. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 62.7 percent of California is experiencing extreme drought conditions, an almost 28 percent jump since the beginning of the year, five weeks ago. On January 17, Governor Jerry Brown declared an official drought state of emergency in California.

Odds are, you've already forgotten everything but this last date.

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But drive through the countryside of San Luis Obispo County and you will see things you will not forget. Hillsides a queer sepia gray. Eucalyptus trees that look like skeletal fingers. Cattle and horses bent to dust. SLO County ranchers are facing the loss of entire herds for lack of forage; they're either digging deep into their pockets to buy feed, or they're selling off their herds. Avocado and citrus growers are trucking in water. Where the water doesn't go, the soil is drying up and salt is building up. And, of course, this could all burn. As we all know, in places it has. Or is. Even if it doesn't burn, the dust rises into the sky. Pollution, too. With no rain to remove the particulates from the air they stay there, a haze of particles linked to diseases ranging from asthma to lung cancer.

To the east, in the Central Valley, a particulate haze has cloaked the skies from Bakersfield to Stockton for most of the winter. Children don't go out for recess. "I prefer not to see what I'm breathing," a Fresno cardiologist says, telling a reporter that he has asked his patients to stay indoors for nearly two months. Directly east of where I am driving now, Lake Cachuma, the source of drinking water for some 200,000 people on the southern coast of Santa Barbara County, is disappearing. Docks prong out into dirt, hundreds of feet from the high-water shoreline. Rangers stand at the base of the dam, where they should be 40 feet underwater, and shake their head.

I don't mean to sound like Eeyore. This could all change in an instant (well at this point, maybe a lot of instants). In 1991, San Luis Obispo County was suffering its last major dry spell when the heavens opened, dumping ten inches of rain from late February through March. It could happen again. Meteorologists are predicting our winter will continue its dry ways, but as we all know meteorologists can be wrong. The meteorologists would love to be wrong.

In fact, the sky I am driving beneath at this very moment is smeared with gray clouds. Just north of Santa Maria raindrops begin to fall. They pock the windshield for a minute and then they stop.

I have read that elsewhere in California drastic measures have already been taken. The tiny Mendocino County town of Willits has banned outdoor watering, car washing, and hosing down pavement. No official word on how the area's marijuana growers are coping.

Banning outdoor watering, car washing, and the hosing down of pavement does not seem all that apocalyptic to me.

In 2012, here in Ventura County, an agency called LAFCO (Local Agency Formation Commission) figured out how much water households in some of our local cities use. According to LAFCO, folks in Thousand Oaks use 222 gallons per person a day; Camarillo, 212 gallons; Ventura, 168 gallons; Oxnard, 132 gallons.

Does that seem like a lot of water per person to you?

Governor Brown is asking us -- you and me -- to cut our water use by 20 percent. My own city of Ventura this week asked our citizenry to voluntarily reduce our water use by at least 10 percent. Our city officials point out that cutting back can often be a simple -- and quite effective -- matter. A slow faucet drip can waste 450 gallons in a month; a leaking toilet can waste up to 60,000 gallons in a month. Last night we unplugged our sprinklers. I don't like cutting the grass anyhow.

Two days before Governor Brown declared a state of emergency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared San Luis Obispo County a natural disaster area. I'm not sure exactly what this means - there is likely a complex algorithm of bureaucratic qualifiers -- but as the hills scroll past outside my window it's not hard to see why they did it.

The countryside is becoming a ghost of itself.

I pass horses. They lean out over a fence, muzzles futilely sweeping the ground.

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