If you eat or drink, you will experience less snow east of Modesto

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OPINION AND COMMENT

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When we are warned that one day there won’t be much snow in the mountains east of Modesto, we might think of how we can tubing with the kids on the snowy spots at Long Barn, Strawberry or Spicer or at Leland Snow Play in nearby will miss pine wood.

Less snow would mean fewer days skiing in Dodge Ridge or Bear Valley.

But climate change will not only affect those looking to relax in the snow. Our whole lives will be affected because we all drink water and eat food that needs water to grow.

Anyone who has had a glass of water from taps in Modesto, Salida, Empire, Grayson, Del Rio and parts of Ceres and Turlock since 1994 has drank water from the Sierra Nevada. That year, Modesto started buying purified water from the Tuolumne River and mixing it with roughly the same amount of groundwater to deliver to customers in these towns and cities.

Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy are doing the same thing with the Stanislaus River water, which also comes from the mountains, and Turlock and Ceres will soon be doing the same with the Tuolumne water, which also quenches San Francisco’s thirst. Overall, the snowpack provides around 30% of California’s drinking water.

And almost all farmers here and in the entire Central Valley are at least partially dependent on water from rivers. It starts with the winter snowpack melting into streams that are caught by foreland reservoirs to be released from crops and orchards as needed in spring, summer and fall.

Almonds, walnuts, cherries, peaches, corn, cabbage – everything we grow and send all over the country and sometimes all over the world – begins with snow in the mountains.

Studies that predict a significant reduction in snow cover should not only bother tobogganists or snowboarders on weekends. Such reports should concern people who hunt, fish, ride boats, raft, farm, bathe, eat or drink. In short, all of us.

A warning in the Central Valley

While attending a land use symposium for journalists at Harvard University in 2008, I was shocked when a science professor predicted this very scenario during an insightful presentation on climate change. Everyone called it global warming at the time, because of the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” by Al Gore, published two years earlier.

I remember staring at the slide show screen as this professor, from my Massachusetts headquarters, showed a model of a disappearing snow cover on the other side of the continent – the Sierra Nevada. My – our – backyard, playground and source of life.

Fast forward 13 years ago to a few days ago when the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory published a sober study with a similar prediction, but this time with actual data, assuming Earth conditions and carbon emissions remain unchanged. Much of the sierra could be dry in the mountains for five consecutive years with little snow in just 25 years and dry in the mountains for ten years by the end of the 2050s, the study said.

That would be ruinous and catastrophic for the valley and beyond.

The team of scientists did not produce the study, which was published in the November issue of the journal Nature ratings earth & environmentto scare us. They just say what all the signs point to and suggest that we prepare.

We are already affected. The current drought has brought California’s reservoirs to dangerously low levels. State officials on Wednesday warned city residents to prepare for a mandatory reduction in water use at home. We had a surprising amount of snow in October this year to open some ski resorts, but nothing since then. Snowfall usually closes Highway 108 Sonora Pass through November and has only been open for Christmas once in the past 14 years; right now it’s dry and open.

These swings are notable for their unpredictability. It’s really hard for water managers to do their job right when they can’t rely on the weather.

Prepare for less snow

As the climate warms up, water not only disappears from the atmosphere, but comes more from rain than snow. That’s why Vance Kennedy von Modesto, a retired scientist on the US Geological Survey, has been advocating groundwater recharge or enhancing our ability to store water below the surface for years.

Several politicians have campaigned for above-ground storage facilities or dams and reservoirs for decades with very limited success. The resistance of the environmental lobby, which often has the law on its side, has proven to be a particularly tough nut to crack.

More water authorities across the state should be taking snow measurements from the air, as did the Turlock and Modesto irrigation counties. Airborne Snow Observatory technology, developed at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, predicts the water content in the snowpack with an accuracy of 97% and gives water managers a better planning tool every spring. The old measuring method with snowshoes and aluminum pipes can deviate between 30 and 50%.

The shrinking of the snowpack is certainly a flash of inspiration. Makes all of the things I and my predecessors wrote about California’s water wars, with the negotiations and decades of disputes and legal proceedings that went on, pale in proportion. If there is little or no water, what do we argue about?

The struggle will of course continue because our economies and well-being depend on continuous access to water and we must not be intimidated by the rich and powerful.

But we should also do more – much, much more – to better measure and store the precious elixir of life, which we cannot do without, before it is too late.

We have been warned. Now is the time to act.

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Garth Stapley is editor for The Modesto Bee’s opinion page. Prior to this assignment, he spent 25 years as a Bee reporter covering local government agencies and the high profile murder of Scott and Laci Peterson.


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