California’s Mountains Are Ablaze and there’s no Water to Quench the Fire

On an early February afternoon in 2015, the side of a mountain southeast of Newburgh, California is ablaze. It resembles Moses’ burning bush – but here, the blaze consumed the forest. This is summer weather. Nevertheless, it is the dead of winter; in the midst of a deadly drought. Although drought is and has been a dominant characteristic of the climate of the American southwest[1] nowhere in the region is it more devastating than in California. Indeed, for the past one hundred years various sections of the west have been tormented with prolonged “decadal-scale dry periods”, they include, the 1930s Dust Bowl,[2] the 1950s Southwest and the Southern Great Plains drought,[3] and, of course, the current four-year long one.[4] Nevertheless, it is today’s Californians that are living under the worst drought in a century.[5]

Each of these drought episodes has caused significant hydrological impacts.[6] In fact, the sedimentary paleoclimatic record is teeming with evidence of former epochs of protracted and severe “megadroughts”.[7] Nevertheless, from a hydrologic perspective “[today t]hings really are at critical levels in parts of the West, and while [government officials are] hoping and praying for rain and some moisture, [they] are very worried . . .” [8] The four-year drought that has spread from Texas to California has resulted in a national emergency. It has dehydrated the grasses, shrubs, undergrowth and trees that form tinder and fuel wild fires in California and elsewhere. For example, the I-15 (the “Mojave Freeway”) fire in the Cajon Pass area – which lies between the San Bernardino Mountains and the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California’s San Bernardino County – not only scorched 3,500 acres in the mountains east of L.A.,[9] but also jumped onto the interstate burning forty-four cars.[10]

  1. Use of Water in Agriculture

80 percent of all of California’s water is utilized for agriculture. That is, “over 9.6 million acres [are] under irrigation – while the remaining 20 percent is for urban use. . . Indeed, Much of California’s vast water infrastructure was developed for agricultural purposes.”[11] The 80% of the total water budget used for agriculture has not changes since Mesopotamian times, i.e., over 4,000 years ago; neither has irrigation, the method of delivering water to fields.[12] While humanity’s means of accomplishing tasks, solving problems and discovery, have transformed drastically, the amount of water used by farmers and their means of its delivery has remained static.

The foregoing is problematic for two principal reasons. First, California is the country’s leading food producer and has been so for the past sixty years. It is also the nation’s foremost agricultural exporter, and as an industry, the state’s farmers and corporate farms, employs over 1.1 million jobs and tens of billions of dollars per annum.[13] Indeed, “[m]uch of California’s vast water infrastructure was developed for agricultural purposes.”[14] And, today politicians and farmers groups prefer the status quo and unless they are coaxed to alter their practices. Why change, when the government is subsidizing the very practices that should have been evolving all along?

Second, Californians forget that they live in a desert and are – with the help and encouragement of their politicians – profligate with the little water that their state has. But, for the importation of water the state and its cities would have remained desert landscapes. “California’s drinking water supply system relies on approximately 157 million acres of land spanning 8 states to collect, filter, and deliver water.”[15] Similarly, cities like “San Diego currently imports about 70 percent of its water.”[16] Moreover, people who live in wealthier communities “tend to use more water because it is inexpensive for them,” [17] See Figure 1.

Figure 1: California Map with Cities and their Per Capita Daily Water Use

(From the San Jose Mercury News Article dated February 7, 2014, California Drought: Database Shows big Difference between Water Guzzlers and Sippers, authored by Paul Rogers and Nicholas St. Fleur).

WATERUSE gallons 020914

Indeed, the wealthy Palm Springs community, “[the] land of big desert lawns and verdant golf courses, gulps down a staggering 736 gallons per day per person, five times as much as residents of San Jose and Los Angeles”[18] and seven and half times that of San Francisco (98 gallons per capita/day).[19] Furthermore, Californians spend large sums of money to Landscape their front and backyards with trees, bushes and flowers from the northeast, Midwest and Hawaii: all areas where water has been plenty. Watering of lawns and flowers in certain parts of California, including Beverly Hills and other sections of Los Angeles and Hillsborough, a tony suburb of San Francisco, account for 50 percent of residential water bills, are a driving factor in the superfluous use of water.[20] Furthermore, “[i]n Hillsborough, ornate bushes and towering hedges fence in lush, green lawns and winding brick driveways that lead to three-story houses with views of San Francisco Bay. Vegetation bleeds into the streets, where miniature shrubs adorn sidewalks and flower patches embellish four-way stops.”[21] Rather than xeriscaping (gardens with local plants that are drought tolerant), the rich in the West, and particularly in California “prefer” plants like lawns use water, lots and lots of it.

These lawns and flowers are but mere water sippers. It is the golf courses that drink-up all the water. Indeed, in “a place like Palm Springs, where 57 golf courses challenge the desert, each course eats up a million gallons a day. That is, each course each day in Palm Springs consumes as much water as an American family of four uses in four years.”[22]

  1. Uses of Water for Domestic Purposes

We not turn to how much water Californians use for the domestic purposes. The pie chart shown in Figure 1 displays that distribution. Showers and toilets account for 55 percent of daily usage. Note that these two uses can be changed so that much less water is utilized. For example, low flush toilets have been available for a number of decades. Nevertheless, the California Energy Commission approved regulations on April of 2015 for water appliances that will come into force in 2016.[23] For example, lavatory faucets and aerators sold prior to January 1, 2016 can have a maximum flow rate of 2.2 gallons per minute (gpm), while those sold post January 1, 2016 must have a maximum flow rate of 1.2 gpm – A full gallon less.[24] Overall the Commission estimates that the state will save more than 10 billion gallons of water in the first year. Over time, the water savings are estimated to reach 105 billion gallons per year – a savings of more than three times the annual amount of water used by the City of San Francisco.

Figure 2:

  1. The Decline of California’s Water Budget

Distribution of California's Domestic Water Uses

California’s water budget has declined precipitously. For example, the Sierra Nevada Mountains’[25] snowpack is a mere 12 percent of its annual average,[26] and “[s]everal rural California counties are within a few months of running out of water altogether.”[27] Similarly, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (“USDA”) Water and Climate Center (“W&CC”) the snowpack throughout the Cascades of Oregon and Washington has also plummeted below normal levels.[28] Recently, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (“NRCS”) noted


Photo of snowpack and a waterfall in the Sierra nevada Mts.

Figure 3:  Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

From USGS in the Parks: Pacific Province.


that the snowpack in the Cascades of Idaho, Nevada and Utah is likewise plunged below usual levels.[29]

Indeed, a hydrologist for the NRCS recently observed that “[n] early a third of our [Snow Telemetry equipment or] SNOTEL sites in the Cascades and Sierra Nevada are reporting the lowest snowpack ever measured” . . . For the first time, some sites were snow-free on March 1st. These areas can expect reduced summer streamflow.”[30]

Although recent rain storms did aid in relieving the parched situation in the Southwest, the drought persists in California and a number of its sister states, including Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and in Washington.[31] One of the reasons for the drought’s persistence is that once the snowpack near the summits of the Sierra Nevada mountain peaks melts, it turns into snowmelt and this water begins to flow down the mountain escarpments. Making its way down the mountains into the valleys, where the rivers and streams are situated, the water soaks into the ground by percolation, thereby replenishing the groundwater. As it courses down the granitic[32] mountain face, pulled by gravity, the water feeds tree roots and makes its way down, eventually reaching the newly eroded valleys where rivers, streams and lakes form. Likewise, the groundwater ultimately flows through its rock hosts and also winds-up in the rivers or lakes that also constitute the valleys floor.

An example of the processes discussed above can be seen in how California’s Mono Lake was formed.[33] For millennia, the water that flowed down the escarpments of the Sierra Nevada Mountains traveled via paths that are somewhat similar to those that it utilizes today – as the mountain building period receded into history the “channels” that were developed by the flowing water adjusted to the changing topography. When the Sierra Nevada Mountains were initially formed, approximately four to five million years ago, the melting snowmelt flowed down in a helter-skelter fashion since no channels were carved out yet.[34] Once the mountain-building phase was over, the next part of the cycle, an erosive period began. This recurring process of building and eroding down is somewhat similar to the hydrological cycle, which is discussed below.

As the water carved – and currently carves – through the mountains, it chiseled through the rock, forming conduits or valleys, where the rivers began to flow. After working the granitic rocks of the Sierra Nevadas for some 3.2 million years, Mono Lake began to form on the valley floor, approximately 760,000 years ago.[35] The Lake has no outlet, thus, once the rivers or streams entered, they had no outflow. Mono is therefore known among geologists and geographers as a “terminal lake” in an “endorheic or closed basin”.[36] See the photo and diagram below.


NASA Landsat Photo of Mono Lake

Figure 4: NASA Landsat Photo of Mono Lake. Note the lack

of any outlet for the water.

Relief Landsat Lake Tahoe to Mono Lake

Figure 5: Relief map – a map showing highs and lows – of Mono

Lake, Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park.


 1. The Heavens Closed Up the Watering Hole without Announcing “Last Call”[37]

At a time when the snowmelt was plentiful the lake filled up, and rivers and streams were chocked with flowing water. In contrast, with a limited amount of snowpack, the current drought has caused less water flow from the Cascades and Sierra Nevada mountains; we now see dry stream beds across southern California. Observing this phenomenon in 2015 California’s state officials

ordered thousands of junior water-rights holders to stop pumping water due to the drought. They’ve also warned that senior water-rights holders could be limited sometime later this year, if the limits on junior rights holders aren’t enough. In April, Governor Brown said if the dry conditions continue, the state’s entire water rights system could be up for examination.[38]

  1. Droughts and the Hydrological Cycle

But why a drought? It all has to do with the hydrological or water cycle – that continuous circulation of water between the oceans, atmosphere and land.[39] Three depictions of the cycle are reproduced below. A verbal description follows.

The cycle begins with the evaporation[40] and transpiration[41] of water from the ocean’s surface. As this water-saturated air[42] rises, it begins to cool and the saturated air turns to water vapor,[43] which then condenses, forming clouds. The clouds are then moved by winds across the globe, until they form nimbostratus or rain clouds[44] – saturated with water, which under the right meteorological conditions, return the water to the surface as precipitation – rain, hail, or snow. Depending on weather conditions when the water makes contact with the ground, it will “go” in one or both of the following paths. First a percentage of the water may evaporate, and return to the atmosphere. Alternatively, the precipitation may run off the ground surface, and in so doing will percolate through the ground and form groundwater or, directly penetrate the surface and then turn into groundwater. The groundwater will then trickle its way into rivers, streams, lakes or the oceans, and flow until it is utilized or begins its ascent to the atmosphere via transpiration.

Figure 6. A Simplified Land-Based Hydrological System

Inflow (precipitation as rain or snow)



Outflow (streamflow & storage, evaporation and evapotranspiration)

˂˂ —————————————————————-


Figure 7. Three version so the Water/Hydrological Cycle


Water Cycle


The hydro Cycle


USGS Water Cycle


However, during a drought the precipitation element of the hydrological cycle is missing. No precipitation, no surface runoff, percolation/infiltration or, flow into rivers or streams. Consequently, there is no evaporation, transpiration or condensation. Today, farmers across California are estimating the losses that each arid day rakes in because of a simple missing element: rain[45]. Indeed, “[f]ields that in any other year would be filled with broccoli, melons and onions are instead dusty patches of dirt.”[46] The calamity for family farmers is particularly tragic, as can be seen from the following example:

[f] or more than a century, [Bill] Chandler’s family has watered crops from a canal near his ranch, which holds rainwater and runoff from the nearby Sierra mountain range. Last summer — and the summer before that — it was dry. This year, Mr. Chandler does not even expect to see a trickle of water through the cracked dirt. “People would like to think a few storms will solve our problems, but that’s not even going to get us close,” he said. [47]

However, if Mr. Chandler and his fellow farmers thought that the politicians in the state or federal governments would step in to help them, as they had done for the ag lobby every other time it asked, this time no assistance would be forthcoming. Government entities are unable to create water in the quantities necessary to forestall the drought. In effect “state officials have already said that they w[ould] not be able to offer any water to the farmers through California’s vast network of canals. And federal officials are expected to announce that their web of reservoirs will not provide any water this year either, leaving thousands of farmers to rely exclusively on private wells.”[48] This means that fruits and vegetables will be scarce in markets across the country.

[1]               Daniel Griffin & Kevin J. Anchukaitis, How Inusual is the 2012-2014 California Drought? 41 Geophys. Res. Lett. 9017 (2014).  (“For the past [four] years (2012-[2015], California has experienced the most severe drought in its last century.”)

[2]               “[T]he term Dust Bowl designated a specific region in the Great Plains, including northeastern New Mexico, southeastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas, and the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma.” Harry C. McDean, Dust Bowl Historiography, 6 Great Plains Quarterly 117, 117 (1986), article=1968&context=greatplainsquarterly.

[3]               R. L. Nace and E. J. Pluhoski, Drought of the 1950’s with Special Reference to the Midcontinent, [U.S.] Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 1804, 1 (1965), available at

The drought of the 1950’s was one of the more severe of record in the Southwest and the southern Great Plains. Above-normal rainfall had encouraged, rapid expansion of industry and agriculture in the Midcontinent during the 1940’s because growing demands for water were easily met and few supply problems arose. However, a persistent pattern of below-normal precipitation began in 1952 and, except for minor interruptions, continued until early 1957.

[4]               Id. See also, Benjamin I. Cook, et al., The Worst North American Drought Year of the Last Millennium: 1934, 41 Geophys. Res. Lett., 7298 (2014); Connie A. Woodhouse et al., A 1,200-Year Perspective of 21st Century Drought in Southwestern North America,107 Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 21,283 (2010); Benjamin I. Cook et al., Megadroughts in North America: Placing IPCC Projections of Hydroclimatic Change in a Long-Term Paleoclimate Context, 25 J. Quat. Sci. 48 (2010); Richard Seager, et al., Modeling of Tropical Forcing of Persistent Droughts and Pluvials Over Western North America: 1856–2000, 18 J. Clim. 4065 (2005).

[5]                Griffin & Anchukaitis supra at 9017.

[6]               Id. at 9017. Of course, these droughts also had significant agricultural, ecological and economic effects.

[7]               See generally, Connie A. Woodhouse & Jonathan T. Overpeck, 2000 Years of Drought Variability in the Central United States, 79 Bull. Am. Meteor. Soc. 2693 (1998); Mark A. Chandler, et al., Pangaean Climate during the Early Jurassic: GCM Simulations and the Sedimentary Record of Paleoclimate, 104 Geol. Soc. Amer. Bull. 543 (1992).

[8]               Reid Wilson, Amid Drought, California and Other Western States Gird for a Landmark Year in Forest Fires, Wash. Post, Feb. 14, 2015, amid-drought-california-and-other-western-states-gird-for-a-landmark-year-in-forest-fires/2014/02/13/ec23fbae-9417-11e3-84e1-27626c5ef5fb_story.html?hpid=z2. (“Statement of Tom Harbour, the U.S. Forest Service’s National Director of Fire and Aviation Management.”)

[9]               An acre measures 660 feet by 66 feet, which converts to an area that is exactly 43,560 square feet. (Author’s personal knowledge from working in oil and gas fields).

[10]             Irene Moore & William Avila North Fire” 15 Freeway Lanes Reopen; Mandatory Evacuations Lifted, NBC 4 Southern Los Angeles July 15, 2015,  (“The destructive North Fire forced more than 250 residents to evacuate their homes . . .  The Baldy Mesa community bore most of the damage caused by North fire, with a total of three homes, eight outbuildings and 44 vehicles destroyed, according to Forest Service officials.”)

[11]             Gayle Olson-Raymer, California’s Water Policies: Who controls, distributes, and consumes this scarce resource?Discussion Guides – History 383 – (Undated),  (“The destructive North Fire forced more than 250 residents to evacuate their homes . . . The Baldy Mesa community bore most of the damage casused by the North Fire, with a total of three[12]             “Irrigation is the artificial application of water to the land or soil. It is used to assist in the growing of agricultural crops, maintain landscapes, and revegetate disturbed soils in dry areas and during periods of inadequate rainfall. In contrast, agriculture that relies only on direct rainfall is referred to as rain-fed or dryland farming.” Id.

[13]             Olson-Raymer, supra note 11.

[14]             Id.

[15]             Kirk Klausmeyer & Katherine Fitzgerald, Where Does California’s Water Come From? Land  conservation  and  the  watersheds  that  supply  California’s  drinking  water, The Nature Conservancy of California (Oct. 2012),

[16]             Nathan Rott, The Far Reach of the West’s Drought: The Search For Drinking Water In California Has Led To The Ocean, NPR Feb. 26, 2014, 02/26/281984555/the-search-for-drinking-water-in-california-has-led-to-the-ocean. (Statement of “Bob Yamada, the water resources manager at the San Diego County Water Authority.”)

[17]             Paul Rogers & Nicholas St. Fluer, California Drought: Database Shows Big Difference Between Water Guzzlers and Sipper, San Jose Mercury News Feb. 7, 2014, 090363/california-drought-water-use-varies-widely-around-state.

[18]             Id.

[19]             Id.

[20]             Id.

[21]             Id.

[22]             Frank DeFord, Water-Thirsty Golf Courses Need to Go Green, NPR June 11, 2008, templates/story/story.php?storyId=91363837. A study conducted by the Audubon International estimated that the median American golf course uses 312,000 gallons per day, as compared to the one million gallons that waters desert golf courses.

[23]             California Energy Commission, Appliance Efficiency Regulations, California Code of Regulations Title 20, Sections 1601 Through 1608 Toilets, Urinals, and Faucets Regulations Effective January 1, 2016,

[24]             Id. Section 1605.3.h. State Standards for Non-Federally-Regulated Appliance, at Table H-3

[25]             On the Sierra Nevada Mountains see generally, TerryDad2, Sierra Nevada Mountain Range Geomorphology, Geocoaching (Last updated July 24, 2015), range-geomorphology.

The Sierra Nevada Mountain Range sits on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada-Great Valley Block. This block is a large piece of the crust that extends from the eastern edge of California’s Coast Ranges to the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and from the Garlock Fault on the south to about the northern end of the Sacramento Valley. Some consider this block a micro-plate.

[26]             Reid Wilson, Drought-Stricken California, Other States Prepare for Landmark Year in Fires, Wash, Post Feb. 14, 2014, landmark-year-in-fires.  See also, Rott supra note 16, providing “[t]hat snowpack in the Sierra Nevada he’s talking about is still less than half of what it should be for this time of year.  Farmers, environmentalists and cities like nearby San Diego have been fighting over what little water there is.”)

[27]             Id.

[28]             Id.

[29]             United States Department of Agriculture, News Release, Release No. 0062.15, Record Low Snowpack in Cascades, Sierra Nevada (Mar. 11, 2015), usda/usdamediafb?contentid=2015/03/0062.xml&printable=true&contentidonly=true.

[30]             Id. Citing a statement made by USDA’s NRCS Hydrologist Cara McCarthy. (Emphasis added). Snowpack is the amount of naturally occurring packed snow that generally accumulates in the western portion of the U.S., and melts during the late spring, or in the warmer months.

SNOTEL “is designed to collect snowpack and related climatic data in the Western U.S. and Alaska.” USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service, SNOTEL and Snow Survey & Water Supply Forecasting (Rev. Jan. 2014),


[31]             Id.

[32]             The Nevada Mountains consists of granite. See e.g., Keith Heyer Meldahl, Hard Road West: History and Geology along the Gold Rush Trail 248 (2007). (“The rock was classic Sierra Nevada granite . . .”), See also, N. H. Darton, Catalog of Photographs Belonging to the Geological Society of America 377, 391 (1902), photographs numbered 268 -270, discussing “granite boulders” in Inyo County, California.

[33]             Mono Lake is located in California’s Eastern Sierra. “It is an oasis in the dry great Basin and a vital habitat for millions of migratory and nesting birds.” Mono Lake Committee, Mono Lake (2015), On the history and geography of Mono Lake see generally, Mono Lake Committee, About Mono Lake: Quick Facts (2015),

[34]             See generally, Brian Popp, University of Hawai’i at Manoa, School of Ocean Science and Technology, Mountain Building: How Do Mountains Form? (Undated), (Particularly slide 19), See also, Science Clarified, Mountain (2015),

Mountains cover approximately one-fifth of Earth’s land surface. Although rare, a mountain can exist singly, such as Mount Kilimanjaro in northeast Tanzania. Most mountains, however, occur as a group, called a mountain range. An example of a mountain range is the Sierra Nevada, which extends for about 400 miles (643 kilometers) in eastern California. A group of mountain ranges that share a common origin and form is known as a mountain system. The Sierra Madre, which arises just south of the U.S. border and extends south, is Mexico’s chief mountain system. A group of mountain systems is called a mountain chain.

[35]             Id.

[36]            “The word endoreheic is of Ancient Greek origin, Taken from the endon meaning within, and rhein meaning to flow.”  Geocoaching, An Endoreheic Basin: GC4KMHY (2015).

Accordingly, the lake flows within itself. For our purposes however, an endorheic basin is one that has no drainage or outlet. Consequently, it retains the water that drains into it, and allows no outflow to other external bodies of

[37]             Taken from Renee Ridgeley, Drought Tolerant Idea: Waterless Dry Steam Bed, Larchmont Chron. Oct. 30, 2014,  (“It appears, the heavens closed up the watering hole without announcing ‘last call’ to all the thirst California patrons.  Angelenos have been asked to cut back another 20 percent on water usage . . . take that roses, hydrangeas and grass.  We’re cutting you off!”)

[38]             Lauren Sommer, Will California Drought Force Changes In Historic Water Rights? KQED Science May 11, 2015,

[39]             R. Allan Freeze & John Cherry, Groundwater 3 (1979).

[40]             Evaporation is the process by which a liquid changes/turns into a gas, e.g., water turning into steam.

[41]             “Transpiration is the process by which moisture is carried through plants from roots to small pores on the underside of leaves, where it changes to vapor and is released to the atmosphere. Transpiration is essentially evaporation of water from plant leaves.” USGS, The Water Cycle (Water Science for Schools), Transpiration – The Water Cycle: What is Transpiration (Last Modified Apr. 15, 2014),

[42]             When “as many water molecules are entering the liquid phase as are escaping to the gas phase, so we say that vapor or gas is ‘saturated’. It has nothing to do with air ‘holding’ the [water] molecules, but common usage often suggests. As the air approaches saturation, we say that we are approaching the ‘dewpoint’”.  Georgia State University, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Hyperphysics, Relative Humidity (Aug. 2000),

[43]             Water vapor is water in its gaseous state-instead of liquid or solid (ice). Water vapor is totally invisible. If you see a cloud, fog, or mist, these are all liquid water, not water vapor.  Water vapor is extremely important to the weather and climate. Without it, there would be no clouds or rain or snow, since all of these require water vapor in order to form. All of the water vapor that evaporates from the surface of the Earth eventually returns as precipitation – rain or snow., What is Water Vapor? (2013), http://www.weatherstreetquestions .com/What_is_ Water_Vapor.htm.

[44]             See e.g., National Weather Service, Ten Basic Cloud Types (undated), http://www.srh.

[45]             Jennifer Medina, California Seeing Brown Where Green Used to Be, N. Y. Times Feb. 13, 2014,

[46]             Id.

[47]             Id.


[48]             Id.



Itzchak Kornfeld

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