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.

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