Officials, researchers express rising concerns over drought emergency

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A week after declaring a drought emergency, Gov. Jerry Brown called California’s current drought “a stark warning of things to come” in his State of the State address Wednesday.

Brown’s emergency drought proclamation follows the beginning of the state’s third consecutive year of severely dry conditions, which could be the driest year California has seen in almost 500 years, according to B. Lynn Ingram, a UC Berkeley professor of earth and planetary science.

Despite Brown’s request for all Californians to voluntarily reduce their water consumption by 20 percent, Ingram, who researches climate change, believes increased water prices or usage restrictions ought to be implemented to ensure a change in individual behavior.

“It’s almost like the tragedy of the commons,” Ingram said. “People don’t often respond individually when it comes to the conservation of a common resource unless you have some sort of regulation.”

So far, the East Bay Municipal Utilities District, which provides drinking water for 1.3 million customers in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, has not implemented water restrictions or increased its prices in response to the drought, according to Andrea Pook, an EBMUD spokesperson.

EBMUD has not declared a water shortage emergency based on its reservoir levels, which are 63 percent full in total, a level that is considered just below average.

“Although our reservoirs aren’t at alarming levels, what is alarming to us is the amount of precipitation we would normally receive,” Pook said. “In our rain and snow levels, we’re not seeing anything close to normal.”

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Since July, EBMUD’s Mokelumne basin received 4.66 inches of rain, only 22 percent of the average amount. The district’s drought committee has begun to meet every two weeks in response. If reservoirs are not replenished this winter and spring, EBMUD could declare a drought emergency.

Berkeley officials are particularly concerned about an increased fire risk due to the dryness and have prohibited open fires in Codornices, Glendale La Loma and Terrace View parks, according to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko.

The only years when climate conditions rivaled the state’s current situation were 1580 and 1976, Ingram said. The aftermath of the 1976 to 1977 drought included wildfires as well as damage to the San Francisco Bay ecosystem, cutbacks in agricultural jobs and increased food prices.

“All of these consequences happened in one year,” Ingram said. “Today, the population is even larger, and if we have a similar year, it’s possible that the results will be even worse because our population and agricultural industry have both continued to grow.”

According to records from the last few thousand years, there are dry and wet cycles that last 100 to 200 years, and this century is lined up to be even drier than the last, Ingram added.

The city of Berkeley has not yet made changes to water usage policy in public buildings, but officials are currently assessing their options to reduce the city’s water consumption, according to Chakko.

As for the University of California, UC President Janet Napolitano announced a systemwide goal to reduce its water use by 20 percent by the year 2020.

“We can only live with it, and now we have to live with a very serious drought of uncertain duration,” Brown said in his address. “Right now, it is imperative that we do everything possible to mitigate the effects of the drought.”

Chloee Weiner covers campus life. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @_chloeew .