California drought

When Will California Have Its Next Drought? JPL May Soon Offer a Water Crystal Ball

NASA researchers believe the results of their first Earth's surface water survey will become available to the public by the end of 2023.

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A new satellite by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory will soon provide more precise -- and vital -- data on how much water is available on Earth’s surface, allowing better forecasts for extreme weather conditions such as droughts and floods, and helping water resources managers and farmers to get a better picture of their water budget.

The international Surface Water and Ocean Topography or SWOT mission was launched in December 2022 from Vandenberg Space Force Base atop a Falcon 9 rocket. While SWOT won’t solve water problems, the mission will provide better information on how communities can plan and respond in the future, according to the JPL.

“We don’t have a good view of water right now,” said Dr. Ben Hamlington, one of the researchers for the SWOT mission. “As climate continues to change, water resources are changing. We need to understand how water is moving about Earth and how the availability is going to shift.”

The high-definition data of freshwater bodies, which is measured by the Ka-band Radar Interferometer, will become available by the end of 2023, providing some relief for California farmers like Joe Del Bosque.

Del Bosque, who has spent most of his life on a farm since his migrant farmworker parents settled in California, said securing water resources started to become challenging in the 90s when environmental regulations began to restrict the supply. But the situation worsened last year amid the severe drought.

“Climate change – it seems like we’ve been on a rollercoaster,” said Del Bosque whose farm grows various crops including cantaloupes, tomatoes, almonds, and cherries. “We’ll have real wet years and real dry years.

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The patriarch of the family-owned farm said knowing water supply is critical to his business and overall industry because it can help them prepare for what’s to come.

“We need to know now what our water supply is, so we can determine what to plant in the spring and summer.”

California has spent most of the last two decades in drought. California recorded its driest first three months of the year on record to start 2022, and by September nearly all of California was in drought.

But this year's winter storms provided enough rain and snow for a dramatic turnaround, wiping out drought in the agricultural Central Valley and elsewhere. At the start of the water year in late September, the Central Valley was one of several regions facing extreme to exceptional drought, the two most severe drought categories in the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor report. As of April 13, only 9 percent of California as in moderate drought, the Monitor's least severe category.

Del Bosque alluded better predictions for water can also provide better data to California's agriculture labor market and prevent mass layoffs like the ones he had last year. As 40% of his land went unplanted under the bone-dry conditions in 2022, several hundred people lost their jobs on his farm.

“People need to understand we can’t survive these ups and downs,” the farm owner said. “We have to stay in the business every year. We can’t just go out of business one year and come back next year. That’s like telling people [that they] don’t eat this year but next year.”

Dr. Hamlington hoped the SWOT project will bring societal benefits to Del Bosque and others who depend on water supplies.

“SWOT can better allow [farmers] to prepare for the future -- whatever tools they can use for their livelihoods.”

Once SWOT completes collecting data, the JPL research team will examine and calibrate the information. Hamlington said, once the calibration is complete, the data will become available to anyone who wants to access it. The scientists are also working on a tool that would make it easier for anyone, including farmers like Del Bosque, to obtain the water information.

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