California Drought Pushing West Coast to the Brink
Things just keep heating up in Cali, with no relief in sight. And as things get hotter, the fires grow bigger while the water starts to disappear. And this is just the start of summer 2014!
As of this weekend, the entire state of California is in either extreme (D3) drought or turning into exceptional drought (D4)–with a huge jump from D3 to D4 in just the past week, as seen in these two graphics from the US Drought Monitor. Sadly, most Californians don’t seem to be getting the message, at least if recent public polls are any indication.
“A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll in June found most Californians surveyed say the statewide drought has had little or no impact on their daily lives, and a majority oppose the suspension of environmental protections or large-scale public spending to boost water supplies. Although 89% characterize the drought as a major problem or crisis, only 16% say it has personally affected them to a major degree. Despite widespread news coverage of the drought the state’s major population centers have largely escaped severe mandatory rationing. Even agriculture, which as California’s thirstiest sector is inevitably hit the hardest by drought, has partially compensated for reduced water delivery by pumping more groundwater.“
And this is precisely why California will slowly choke itself to death, and then take its neighbors to the east and south with it. You can’t keep pumping out groundwater to feed an industrial agricultural system when there is no more groundwater left to pump. With year after year of expanding and worsening droughts, plus decreasing snowfall in the Rockies and other higher altitude areas that supply the larger watersheds feeding into the west coast, plus the slow but sure depletion of fossil water across the Southwest and Midwest–mostly for corn, soy, wheat and cows–you have a recipe for disaster. Of course, this is not new news for anyone paying even a tad bit of attention. But then, it seems like most people are not even paying a tad bit of attention, as witnessed by the larger numbers of people not changing their water use habits at all. And of course, there are still the rightwing kooks trying to tell us its all a liberal climate conspiracy…
Climate Wire reports that things are not looking good for Cali, and the hoped for El Niño is looking increasingly unlikely, or at least much less and much later than expected or needed.
“California will remain in the stranglehold of drought at least until September, even as a climate system in the tropical Pacific Ocean that would have brought rainfall to the parched state appears to be weakening, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s monthly climate update released yesterday.“
But it’s not just the drought that is the problem, it’s everything else that heat waves, drought and forest fires trigger in the process–like the increasing trend in heath-related deaths–documented by Matt Damon in one of the final episodes of the new Years of Living Dangerously tv series. Some experts are suggesting that Cali is on route to another 1970’s style drought, based on current temp and weather trends, but this ignores two crucial factors. First, the weather of 2014 is not like 1970, so suggesting we will have a similar summer and fall climate as that year is a big “if” at best. Secondly, there was a lot more water in the ground, and in the Rockies and surrounding areas, in the 1970s that is not there, and that is not being taken into account in basic weather predictions. Here’s what the official report, “California Drought of 1976 and 1977–Extent, Damage, and Governmental Response”, had to say about that drought.
“With the drought persisting through 1976 and 1977, surface water supplies in some parts of California dwindled sharply, and large quantities of groundwater were extracted to make up the shortage. The drought did the most damage to California’s agriculture, especially the livestock industry. Federal, State, and local government response has been generally adequate to cope with the drought.
The State water plan shows that dependable water supplies will not provide for State needs through the year 2000, even if certain conditions are met. These conditions include completion of planned federal, State, and local surface and groundwater projects, as well as reclamation and reuse of wastewater. To compensate, more groundwater will have to be extracted than is replaced. Continued, excessive extraction of groundwater can lead to land subsistence, poor water quality, and high energy costs as pumping depths increase. State-proposed alternatives to drawing more groundwater could make up much of the projected deficit, but whether such alternative supplies can be made available or the planned water projects will be developed is questionable. Substantial federal investment in water resources development will be required to implement the State plan.“
Notice those two lines I highlighted in bold. Cali was already projected to be f*d by 2000 way back in 1977, and basically since 1977 Cali and its neighbors have been doing exactly what the report said they would, extracting more groundwater than is being replaced. Except now the groundwater is running out, and once that happens, there is no more freshwater to magically extract to fill the gap. And while I’m no Cali water expert, I know enough to say the report is more or less right in its conclusion that necessary alternate supplies and water projects were not developed as they speculated was going to be the case. And the result of that shortsightedness is what we are seeing play out today.
It is precisely these additional stresses that will help push Cali over the drought edge, factors not at play in 1976-77. Once again, climate change rears its head and reminds us that we operate under natural constraints, and not the other way round. We would do well to remember that sooner rather than later.
Until next time…if its yellow, let it mellow.