California’s Drought and Climate Change

We had a nice storm pass through this week, but it’s going to take a lot more to end California’s water woes. The state is simply running out. The Official Residence of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas has gone into full-on conservation mode, and we hope all our neighbors do likewise.

I hear people around me saying, “Take that, global warming deniers! Here’s your proof!” The thing is, that’s not actually true. I did some reading recently, and the gnomes in their supercomputing centers, honing their climate models ever-sharper, still think that Northern California will be getting more rain as a result of global warming, not less. Farther south there will be less rain, and where the inflection point lies is the subject of much analysis. Current best guess out of UCLA is that the line is around Los Angeles.

But wait — we’re supposed to be getting more rain? Then what’s up with this drought? Does it disprove global warming? A well-informed global warming denier could get some mileage sowing doubt in the climatologists’ computer models.

The thing is, this drought is weather. Just as you can’t calculate the mileage of your car based on a single drive to the store, you can’t form meaningful conclusions about climate based on a couple of years of weather.

And the drought isn’t really contrary to the climate models, anyway. While California may get more water in any given twenty-year period, the weather is likely to become more extreme in both directions — very dry periods followed by very very wet ones. The weather on a given day is almost never average, and will be average even less in the future. So in fact we are more likely to have droughts, but there will be floods between them.

Right now, a flood seems like a pretty good thing. It would take a lot of rain before California couldn’t find a use for it. Hell, if it rained enough, people in the cities could have grassy lawns like they do in other places.

Wait? They do have grassy lawns in desert cities even as the state’s farms dry up? Why, that makes no sense at all. Maybe we need this drought to last a while longer, so we can end that crazy habit and change the way water is allocated. It will probably take a true emergency to turn that boat around. (I feel obliged to confess that I had a small grassy lawn in San Diego and I liked it. I like grass. But it’s time we found alternatives in places where lawns don’t grow by themselves.)

So while Northern California might be getting more rain in the future, we are powerless to control when that rain will fall. Conservation may be different going forward, more about efficient storage during the wet years (and the will to not squander the water when it’s in the reservoir), but conservation will still be critical to the state’s continued prosperity — and its ability to help feed a nation.


3 thoughts on “California’s Drought and Climate Change

  1. The water-interest lobbies have been really good at taking a lot of the conversation off the table; the government has not considered reducing water flows for any of these huge consumers, and therefore the press is generally leaving these out of the conversation (while focusing on us having to ask for water while eating out, which is below the level of noise). None of these activities has to occur in Cali per se at this tie:
    * Alfalfa … used to raise:
    * Livestock
    * Almonds
    * Rice (in the desert!)
    * Frakking (requires an insane amount of water, which is non-reusable because of the chemicals, and is likely poisoning aquifers and miscing (immiscible’s opposite?) fresh water aquifers with less appealing underground pools)

    All ag together is taking 80% of our “discretionary” flows, and that runoff is largely unrecyclable. They pay about $.10 on the $ for their water. There’s a simple free-market solution to this problem, which is make everyone pay the same for water and remove the gas industry’s exemption from the Clean Water Act. A lot of business will move out of state, which will mean alfalfa and cows will be grown in WA, and ND will have to deal with frakking contaminants, both of which are fine with me.

    • I don’t think it’s as simple as that. The “Ag uses 80% percent of California’s water” statement has been thrown around for a while now. For too long, it seems to me. For the past two years the big story has been about the federal Central Valley Project delivering no water to farmers with “junior rights,” farming acreage being fallowed, and how groundwater is being extracted at insane levels. How is it that agriculture still uses 80% of the water? How up-to-date are our figures?

      Admittedly, there is the ridiculous situation of “senior rights” in the water equation — legal entities with historical rights to (outrageous) set amounts of water. But Water Law in the West is a nasty business. It will probably come down to some future governor of California to declare the equivalent of martial law in the water world and do what needs to be done. But that will likely only happen after the situation has become hopeless anyway.

      To get back to the original point, I apologize for citing Wikipedia, but here’s a quote: “In an average year, about 80% of California’s water consumption is used for agricultural and environmental purposes.”

      Have the last two years been “average”? And doesn’t “environmental purposes” include trying to (unsuccessfully) save the soon-to-be-extinct delta smelt — a species so hated by the farming lobby that they’re essentially celebrating its extinction?

      And despite the threat of fracking, how much water is it really using?

      • Perhaps it is out of a feeling of futility that I just try to do my own little bit to save a few drops while rice is grown in the desert. (And almonds, which farmers rather disingenuously planted bazillions of so now they can say, “but we can’t stop irrigating for a year, the trees will die!” But I like almonds a lot.)

        The way water is allocated is broken, that’s for sure. Exempting frackers from the Clean Water Act is insane; the roll call for that one is the a roll call of corruption.

        Is it a bad thing that 80% of the water in our state is used to produce food? At first blush, I’m thinking no. The catch is that it’s probably more than 100% of the water input each year. The rest comes from savings. The other catch is that we need to compare that figure to how much water it would take to produce the same amount of food in a system that rewards efficiency, before we can form any conclusions.

        So the 80% number alone doesn’t mean a whole lot. 80% of annual rain and snow devoted to ag biz would be perfectly acceptable to me. Ag biz rewarded for producing more food with less water would be gravy.

        When the aquifers run dry, I’ll get my wish. And it will hurt.

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