Drought crisis: why it is a problem if the sea water goes up the Po

Drought crisis: why it is a problem if the sea water goes up the Po

Drought crisis

No rainfall, high temperatures and little snow during the winter season. These are mainly the three factors that led the Po River to a severe drought, linked to the climate crisis, which had not been seen for at least 70 years. And that will have dramatic consequences, both for the irrigation of the fields, both for the hydroelectric plants for energy, and, finally, for the supply of drinking water. Furthermore, further complicating this scenario is the fact that the little water available risks not being usable anyway. This is because, again as a consequence of the intense drought, the salty waters of the sea are rising in the branches of the Po delta.

In general, in fact, we know that when the flow of a river is too weak, the salt water from the sea, the so-called saline wedge, rises along the river bed and permeates the ground beyond its banks, contaminating the underground aquifers and thus making the little water available useless for many applications. A problem already widely observed previously: as explained in 2020 Franco Dalle Vacche, former president of the Consortium of reclamation Pianura di Ferrara, "the rising of the salt water, called saline wedge, in the branches of the Po Delta is a great problem, which it is accentuated by drought and irregular regimes; it contaminates the aquifers and in the most serious situations renders the water useless for drinking purposes and for the irrigation of soils which, however, being characterized by a strong sandy component, facilitate the infiltration of salt water ". In the last 20 years, the expert pointed out, the sea water has managed to rise almost 30 kilometers along the mouths, particularly in the secondary branches, and has entered the hinterland, putting thousands of hectares and farms at risk. , due to the presence of higher salinity values.

Recent measurements have shown that the rising salt water from the Po delta, coming from the Adriatic Sea, has now reached about 20 kilometers and the situation is likely to worsen further in the coming weeks. This was reported in recent days by Anbi, the National Association of Consortia for the protection and management of the territory and irrigation water, according to which irrigation in some areas was suspended and emergency mobile pumps were put into action for the survival of crops. However, not only agriculture is at risk, but also drinking water. "It is an invisible phenomenon, but it is upsetting the environmental balance of the Polesano delta", explained Francesco Vincenzi, President of the PNA. “If the situation persists, the first aquifers destined for drinking will be contaminated”.

EXPLAINER: California’s drought crisis is getting worse but it’s not too late to act, experts say

California is no stranger to drought as it is a recurring feature of its ever-changing climate. Wildfires, overconsumption of water and overproduction of waste are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the environmental crisis that is the Golden State’s drought.

State Water Resources Control Board, also known as Water Boards, is responsible for monitoring the quality and consumption of water in California. 

According to Water Boards Public Affairs Officer Edward Ortiz, the drought has been an ongoing issue for decades, most notably throughout the 1920s into the 1930s as well as other historical times spanning from 1976-2016.

“We are dealing with a ‘new normal’ of ongoing weather extremes, with no true start and end dates,” Ortiz said.

Throughout the past few years in California, the months have become progressively hotter and drier, with the state having experienced these effects in the springs of 2020, 2021 and 2022.

“This year California had the driest January, February and March ever recorded. Warm days melted snow faster than expected which meant more evaporation and less water in streams, rivers and reservoirs,” Ortiz said.

The dry weather and lack of rainfall due to droughts also contribute heavily to the forest fires that occur in parts of California that are more densely populated with dead shrubs and bushes. 

The main cause of forest fires is the interaction between extreme weather and dry terrain. The most prominent example being lightning striking dry forests made up mostly of dead plants and shrubs due to the lack of rain.

According to Board Trustee of the Coast Community College District Lorraine Prinsky, who is also a Bolsa Chica Land Trust Docent, the drought has majorly affected farmers due to various cases of dead, unusable crops. In California and around the world, farmers must adapt their methods of growing and harvesting their crops despite having their water allotments cut.  

“When farmers must grow fewer crops or crops fail due to drought, people will go hungry – we see this in developing nations in Africa. A drought crisis leads to a hunger crisis,” Prinsky said. 

In some cases of severe drought, such as on the Horn of Africa, the lack of accessibility to water and lack of resources to properly plant crops can cause malnutrition in humans and livestock and can lead to death. 

While the case in the Horn of Africa is extreme, allowing the drought to pass the point of no return in California could result in the same outcome if not handled properly. 

Spreading awareness about the drought is the first step to resolving it, yet many people, particularly students in college, don’t seem to understand the gravity of the situation. 

“Students and others are aware that there is a drought but that they don’t fully understand the seriousness of the crisis or what they can do personally,” Prinsky said.

Since 1950, when the California Water Science Center began collecting water usage data, California has been the state with the greatest water use in the U.S., using approximately 38 billion gallons of water per day. 

“The compounding effects of hot and dry springs have contributed to the steady increase in residential outdoor water use - which accounts for most water use,” Ortiz said.

The first step in attempting to alleviate the problem is educating the public. This proved difficult, due to the denial of most California residents and students who don’t believe they can make a difference. However, this is simply no longer sustainable and must be actively responded to. 

“We all need to cut back on our use of water and must work together to manage this crisis,”  Prinsky said. “We add to the drought crisis by insisting on green lawns and long showers. Most people are not aware of how much water usage goes into various activities such as washing a car.”

Making water conservation a way of life and actively deciding to practice it no matter the weather, is a key factor in the way the community responds to the drought crisis.

In addition to cutting individual water usage, there are environmental groups at Orange Coast College that work to educate their peers and hold informative meetings on campus to spread awareness and engage students. 

“The important thing is getting students and the community to act, not merely discuss and intellectualize,” Prinsky said. “We are too far behind, and the next rainfall will not fill our reservoirs.”

The state and water providers themselves have made various strides to encourage Californians to use less water. 

Water systems and regional water suppliers such as the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District voted to limit outdoor irrigation to one day per week beginning in June, which will directly affect about six million Californians.

“The extremely dry conditions California is facing means it needs to redouble efforts to conserve inside and outside of homes and businesses. Cutting down on outdoor irrigation, which can account for up to 80% of urban water use and is at its highest in the summer, is critical,” Ortiz said.

Prior to the actions taken by water suppliers to aid in resolving the drought crisis, Governor Gavin Newsom made a statement in June 2021 asking Californians to voluntarily reduce their water use by 15% compared to 2020, in an effort to implement immediate conservation measures.

Despite the statement by Newsom and various water districts in California to encourage the conservation of water, the decision to protect the environment and actively participate in putting an end to the drought rests in the hands of individuals. 

“The world is changing rapidly due to climate change and it will take all of us to alter our habits to minimize the negative effects,” Prinsky said. “We have been warned for many years about impending climate change and its impact on the weather but we haven’t made the necessary changes. The crisis is here and there is no time to lose.”