Friday Finds: Drought Leaves CA Glass Half Empty

Climate change threatens grapes, salmon and other dining favorites

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While much of the country digs itself out from piles of snow, wine growers in Napa Valley are losing sleep over the state’s current drought, brought on by a lack of rain and freakishly warm weather.

California’s drought could spell disaster for wine growers in the region, who rely on rain stored in rivers and reservoirs to water their vineyards. But the damage isn’t just limited to the state’s wine connoisseurs. According to the Wine Institute, an industry trade group, California wines accounted for 63 percent of the total 703 million gallons—both foreign and domestic—consumed in the U.S. in 2005, or roughly two out of every three bottles sold in the country. As climate change continues to heat up the southwest, wine aficionados across the nationmay have a harder time finding their favorite pinot or syrah.
Of course, wine is hardly the only item on the menu that will be affected by a lack of water. Lack of rain can also stress out salmon, which require plenty of water to survive their migration from the ocean to inland waterways. Dams and diversions on rivers have already badly damaged important salmon runs along the west coast and scientists have confirmed that increasingly dry conditions will only magnify that damage.

Despite the warnings, plenty of mega agricultural farms, developers and short-sighted politicians continue their attempts to drain rivers dry. One such water grab occurred in 2002, leaving as many as 70,000 salmon dead in California’s Klamath and Trinity rivers, with the next generation decaying in their bellies. Years later, those rivers were empty of salmon, as was the future of the commercial/recreational fishing industry that depends on healthy salmon runs. Last August, Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman successfully fought off the mega-farms’ latest attempt to drain the rivers, arguing that another large-scale fish kill would devastate the coastal economy. A U.S. District Court judge agreed, sending down a decision that was a huge win for salmon as well as the Northern California coastal communities.
Two states north, Earthjustice is fighting to ensure that governments maintain the basic flow requirements necessary to maintain a healthy river system for fish and people. Last fall, Earthjustice successfully supported the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in its argument that the Washington State Department of Ecology cannot allow more water to be withdrawn from the troubled Skagit River and its tributaries for new junior water uses because such new uses would further impair stream-flows and damage salmon, other wildlife and communities that depend on the water. In addition, Earthjustice recently challenged the department’s decision to allow an industrial farming operation to divert water from the Columbia River, which would further deplete flows and negatively impact salmon.
As climate change increases extreme weather like severe droughts, it’s all the more imperative to conserve water resources so that there’s plenty to go around for making wine, growing salmon and putting other items on our table. Earthjustice will continue to defend against water grabs by thirty mega farms and short-sighted politicians that refuse to acknowledge the reality of our warmer world. 

Jessica is a former award-winning journalist. She enjoys wild places and dispensing justice, so she considers her job here to be a pretty amazing fit.

The California Regional Office fights for the rights of all to a healthy environment regardless of where in the state they live; we fight to protect the magnificent natural spaces and wildlife found in California; and we fight to transition California to a zero-emissions future where cars, trucks, buildings, and power plants run on clean energy, not fossil fuels.

Established in 1987, Earthjustice's Northwest Regional Office has been at the forefront of many of the most significant legal decisions safeguarding the Pacific Northwest’s imperiled species, ancient forests, and waterways.