Skip to content

Southland drought poses danger to both health and local economy


The Antelope Valley might evoke images of a hot, dry vista—an oasis within the Mojave Desert baked by the sun—but the landscape actually supports a vast array of plants and animals, along with with about one million people who call the sunny region home.

All of these plants, animals and people need water to survive. That resource is getting more precious year in and year out. People in the Southwest, in general, are particularly dependent on surface water supplies like Lake Mead, which are vulnerable to evaporation.

Even a small increase in temperature (which drives evaporation) or a decrease in precipitation in the already arid area can seriously threaten natural systems and society.

LA County in ‘extreme drought’

By all accounts, Southern California is headed for an even more disastrous drought than the one we emerged from five years ago. Droughts significantly contribute to increased wildfires, crop damage, rising utility bills and even pest outbreaks. This week, most of Los Angeles and Ventura counties—along with parts of Riverside and San Bernardino counties—have reached conditions that are considered “extreme droughts.”

A new report from the U.S. Drought Monitor has revealed dramatic declines in reservoir and aquifer levels, enforcement of water use restrictions and wildlife and agricultural implications. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts no improvement to the conditions for the rest of 2021 and likely well into 2022.

The NOAA report also revealed that most of the United States has experienced a warming trend over the last 30 years. The South and Southwest were “considerably warmer” and normal temperatures were warmer across the West and along the East Coast. Satellite mapping has shown the dry Western region (Southern California, Nevada and Arizona) as “in the bullseye” for a significant decrease in precipitation for the foreseeable future.

A shift in the growing season

“The data is clearly showing the U.S. Climate is changing,” said Mike Palecki, project manager for NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information “1991-to-2020 Climate Normals” study. Pelecki explained that the growing season has been extended for most states and, with the shift in climate zones, he described the changes as “not good.”

In addition, while several regions now get an earlier spring, temperatures can still get cold, which can subsequently kill early blooming plants and damage crops. This scenario can potentially cause billions of dollars in agricultural damage well into the summer months.

“What we’ve found is that most days in a year are warmer than they should be [in reference to ‘normal’]”, he said.

The Palmdale Water District (PWD) has not forgotten lessons learned during the previous drought. They had to set limits on delivery then, and last month asked customers for a 15-percent conservation schedule to help better supply the increasingly dry region with water. It’s the initial phase of its Water Shortage Contingency Plan to ensure there continues to be enough supply for nearly 117,000 people who depend daily on PWD to provide water.

Palmdale Water District takes steps

“It is important that each and every one of us do our part to cut back at least 15 percent of our daily water use,” said PWD Board Director Vincent Dino. “We’ve had two consecutive dry winters, and we need to protect the water supply. We’re encouraging our customers to use less water outdoors and be aware of how long we run the tap.”

At present, PWD is increasing “conservation outreach.” It doesn’t mean a return to the period not long ago when you couldn’t water the lawn on any particular day. They’re enforcing things like water-waste rules, alerting high water users, and emphasizing rebate programs that can help customers make ends meet when the bill arrives. They may implement a drought factor as well.

It is estimated that 22,200 acre-feet of water will be needed this year to meet the demands for evaporative losses in 2021. While supplies from PWD’s three water sources—State Water Project, Littlerock Reservoir and groundwater wells—are expected to meet this year’s needs, the aforementioned Drought Monitor report adds to the concern of Southland residents that this summer and fall may be a significantly dry period with resulting utility bills at a premium.

Newsom orders ‘accelerated action’

“If we can have our customers conserve water now, there will be more water to provide us a buffer for 2022,” said Peter Thompson Jr., director of resource and analytics with PWD. “We want to make sure that we keep a supply in reserve in case next year is also dry.”

This week, Gov. Gavin Newsom expanded his April 21 drought emergency proclamation to include the Klamath River, Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and Tulare Lake Watershed counties. He ordered this  “accelerated action” to help protect public health, safety and the environment. To date, 41 counties are under a drought state of emergency, representing 30 percent of the state’s population.

Climate change-induced early warm temperatures and extremely dry soils have further depleted the expected runoff water from the Sierra-Cascade snowpack. This has resulted in historic and unanticipated reductions in the amount of water flowing to major reservoirs, especially in Northern California.

Extraordinarily warm temperatures in April and in early May have separated this critically dry year from all others on California record. The state has experienced an accelerated rate of snowmelt in the Sacramento, Feather and American River watersheds, which feed the major reservoirs of the state and federal water projects.

“It’s time for Californians to pull together once again to save water,” said Wade Crawfoot, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency. “All of us need to find every opportunity to save water where we can.”

‘Most polluted air in the nation’

Air pollution is a byproduct of climate change. Once again, Los Angeles County has topped the ozone-pollution for 21 of the 22 years the American Lung Association (ALA) has produced its “State of the Air” report. Los Angeles County has the most polluted air in the nation.

“California’s leading clean air policies have driven significant improvements, but more must be done to ensure that all communities experience the benefits of healthy air,” said Will Barrett, director of clean air advocacy for the ALA in California.

Emissions of pollutants into the air can result in changes to the climate. Ozone in the atmosphere warms the climate, while different components of particulate matter can have either warming or cooling effects on the climate. For example, black carbon—a particulate from vehicle exhaust—contributes to the warming of the earth, while particulate sulfates cool the atmosphere.

Hotter temperatures and lack of rainfall increase the risk of drought and wildfires, both which create particle pollution. In Southern California, wildfires have become a major source of extremely high particle levels in places hundreds of miles from the fire itself. In the Antelope Valley, dust storms may increase as soil dries out and the water table drops.

The ALA report said ozone and particle pollution threatens the health of more than 38 million people statewide. Nationwide, more than four in 10 people live with polluted air. Environmental justice advocates—specifically those in the Greater Los Angeles Basin—have long complained of the dangers to people of color who are 61 percent more likely to reside in a specific community with unhealthy air.