Guest Essay by Kip Hansen
I have one advantage over the journalists of the NY Times when it comes to covering the current drought in California:
I grew up in Southern California, in Los Angeles. I lived through drought after drought as a child. I grew up through the wildfire seasons that followed dry summer after dry summer. It was hard to distinguish drought from the usual dry summers and simply no rain for months on end. I remember nights when the horizon was smokey and rose-colored, the LA basin ringed to the north with the hills afire after a long hot summer. The real droughts I remember best, those they told us about in school, when teachers checked the boy’s rooms to make sure no one left the sink-faucets running, are 1958-59 and the famous one in 1961, I was on the East coast when the worst hit in 1977, but my family kept me posted.
Norimitsu Onishi and Coral Davenport (NY Times’ new Environmental journalist) cover the Presidential visit to Fresno, California, with this:
In a speech in Fresno, President Obama states “A changing climate means that weather-related disasters like droughts, wildfires, storms, floods are potentially going to be costlier and they’re going to be harsher.” and pledges to “ask Congress for $1 billion in new funding for a ‘climate resiliency’ program to help communities invest in research, development and new infrastructure to prepare for climate disasters.” The President was forced by reality to acknowledge “the difficulties of dealing with the drought in the face of California’s intricate water politics, which have traditionally cleaved along regional lines and have often become mired in epic court battles.”
I will leave it to our host, Anthony Watts, to address this issue, California’s water policies, with which he is far more familiar than I — what I do know is that California’s water policy resembles the worst kind of political dog’s breakfast of compromises and left-over deal-making between Northern Californian agricultural interests and Southern Californian cities drinking water needs. Then there are the inter-state deals, the Colorado River deals, …. yes, it goes on and on…
Onishi and Davenport do some balance reporting, to their credit, and quote Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, who says “Mother Nature is not the only reason we’re in this mess,” expressing skepticism about linking the drought to climate change, “California has gone through dry periods in its history, and instead of focusing on something that is questionably tied to this or not, we just want to focus on the immediate drought.”
Representative Devin Nunes, a Republican who represents Fresno, who was not invited to Friday’s event, apparently because he does not belong to the correct political party, attributes California’s water crisis to interference by the federal government which he claims has shut off portions of California’s system of water irrigation and storage and diverted water into a program for freshwater salmon. “There was plenty of water. This has nothing to do with drought. They can blame global warming all they want, but this is about mathematics and engineering.”
In another article, Justin Gillis does a professional job of reporting on the California drought by giving us up front in the lead paragraphs that Obama and his aides “cited the state as an example of what could be in store for much of the rest of the country as human-caused climate change intensifies. But in doing so, they were pushing at the boundaries of scientific knowledge about the relationship between climate change and drought.” Kudos to Mr. Gillis for highlighting this. I am truly pleased to have the opportunity to congratulate Gillis, since in the past, I have often been critical of his work in the Times. Even his title is encouragingly honest:
Before I go into too many details, let me give two graphics for those of you not familiar with California. Many Californians consider California to be “two states” — Northern California and Southern California, with rather ill-defined borders. First, here is a population density map of California — the darker brown is the “Black Hole of Population” – where the density keeps growing and growing, seemingly exponentially — there are two — one tiny — at San Francisco Peninsula — and the other huge — at Los Angeles. The dark red areas are very densely populated areas, solid single-family-home suburbias as far as the eye can see. The black spot is Fresno, where the President gave his speech. Everything else barely matters.
Fresno is usually considered Northern California, but not always. The line (pink) is often drawn as shown, but that is a rough rule of thumb, here it runs along the northern county lines of the (west to east) San Luis Obisbo, Kern and San Bernardino Counties from the Pacific Ocean to the California-Nevada border. One could draw the line, for some purposes, just above the population concentration of Fresno County at a 45° angle and be just as usefully correct for many purposes. Some posit that California is really better considered three separate states – the LA-to-San Diego Megapolis, the San Francisco-San Jose-Sacramento Megapolis, and the Rest-of-California Rural State – which is a very functional view – much like considering New York State to be two functionally different states within a state – Gotham City and Upstate.
The next image is a Precipitation Map of California. What it shows is that ALL of Southern California is a desert surrounded by a drier desert. The little bits that don’t appear to be deserts, around to the North of LA, are high mountain tops — all of which I hiked as a boy — that get a little rain/snow in the winter. Almost all of California, as you can see, is technically, desert.
[As an aside, it is those little light blue spots surrounded by yellow, those high mountain tops that get snow, just north of LA that make it possible for a few adventurous souls to snow ski and surf on the same weekend.]
On the precip map, it is easy to see where California’s water must come from (besides the Colorado River, which forms the squiggly line forming the border at the bottom right of the state) – the green and blue mountainous region at the north and east part of the state, the Sierra Nevada mountains. They are rugged and hauntingly beautiful. John Muir studied them for us and wrote about them. They include Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the 48 states–I’ve hiked over it east-to-west and west-to-east. Some useful water comes into California’s Northern Central Valley from the Mount Shasta range, but the majority of all that lovely rain-forest coastal precipitation along California’s northwest coastal mountains flows quietly into the sea, watering the redwoods on the way.
There was a very similar drought – a devastating drought – in 1976 and 1977 — though 2013 was a bit warmer, exacerbating the drying while waiting for rain. Northern California has had some relief with heavy rains earlier in the month, not enough to fill reservoirs, of course, but certainly enough to cheer a few hearts.
I’m afraid that Gillis wanders off into speculation-land when he discusses the findings of a Dr. Sewall, who ran a series of climate “predictions” in 2004 and whose results in which Dr. Sewall now finds, when compared to the current drought in California, a “ — resemblance…so uncanny that Dr. Sewall, who now works at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, suspects an element of coincidence, but he also calls the correlation ‘frightening.’ — “
It is remarkably unscientific to remark both a coincidence and a “frightening” correlation while positing them to be in any way scientific – particularly when attached to the phrase, as Mr. Gillis does, “getting a glimpse of its [California’s] future.” Personally, I find coincidental frightening correlations unlikely scientific predictors of the future.
Of course, this is climate science. Gillis treats us to what I cheerfully call the “Opinions Vary” section that must be present in any honest climate science discussion: “other research has come to somewhat different conclusions. Many of those studies have found a likelihood that climate change will indeed cause the American West to dry out, but by an entirely different mechanism — the arrival of more dry air from the tropics. And the most recent batch of studies predicts that effect will not really apply to the western slope of the Sierra. Climate projections show that the area should get somewhat more moisture in the winter, not less.”
Our Mr. Gillis points out, quite correctly, that it will take years to sort out the scientific uncertainties. The policy decisions of the past are brought to light by Gillis’ introduction of Dr. Seager of Columbia University who points out that much of the Southwestern United States has been in a drought of off and on over the 15 years (during which the global temperatures have leveled out). “In some areas, moreover, the warmer climate is causing winter precipitation to fall as rain rather than snow, meaning less melting snowpack to help parched states through the hotter summers” Without reservoirs, these areas can expect trouble. Possibly, some of the federal “climate resilience” funds can be put to use to build new California reservoirs to capture rains so cities won’t have to depend on snowpack.
Checking up on the question of reservoirs, I found that only one new reservoir has been built in in California in the 21st century, while there are still ~13 dams/reservoirs still in service from the 19th century (based on available data)—that means they were built in the 1890s. Thus it appears that reservoir building has not been high on California’s priority list. The lesson learned in SW Britain this winter may well apply to California reservoirs, whose true capacity may be well below the rated volume due to silting and lack of dredging.
Summary: The NY Times didn’t do a bad job reporting on the President’s visit to Fresno and the California drought – and fairly well-balanced report on both the visit and the causes and effects of the drought. Justin Gillis did particularly well.
What do we know about the causes of the water problems in California?
1. The population in the Los Angeles=>San Diego Megapolis grew by almost 2 million people in the last ten years, and contains almost 21 million persons today.
2. The SF-SJ-Sacramento Megapolis saw equivalent population growth of over 10% but contains only 8.8 million persons.
3. Altogether, California garnered a total 3.7 million extra souls in ten years. That’s a lot of people to provide water for.
4. An atmospheric high pressure ridge has been more-or-less parked off the California coast for much of the last three years and such a ridge tends to push moisture-bearing winds to the north, so that the water falls closer to Seattle than Sacramento (pencil sketch explanation – reality is a lot more complicated). Many would like to blame this phenomenon on climate change; it is possible but unlikely to be true.
5. Much of California is a desert – measured by precipitation levels. The most people live in the drier, southern part of the state; the population of the drier part of the state is growing the fastest.
6. California is an agricultural state that depends on irrigation to grow nearly half of America’s fruits and vegetables. That’s a lot of water.
7. California is prone to short-term (1-2 year) droughts (recently: 1958-59, 1961, 1976-77, 1986-91, 2001-02, 2006-07). Historically, the American Southwest is prone to periodic mega-droughts, the last one in the 13th century (and possibly the 14th and 16th centuries, opinions vary).
8. The first seven items point up to this: True demand** for water likely exceeds supply and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future – and will nearly always be borderline – as populations and agriculture continue to increase demand.
9. All problems of water supply in California are exacerbated by the convoluted politics of water policy unique to California and understood only by a few true insiders – complicated by interference from various Federal agencies on behalf on various non-human species – and almost continually under litigation. Don’t forget the inter-state treaties and agreements and international agreements over Colorado River water.
**True Demand = True Demand can be defined as the actual demands of all the stake holders as if they were to receive all the water they desired with enough to spare, as well as enough to fulfill their medium-term and long-term projected future needs. For California, this would include neighboring states and Mexico, in consideration of the Colorado River. As is easily seen, if True Demand is met, there would be no squabbling, no litigation, no political infighting, no inter- and intra-agency intrigues and all the other nonsense that currently defines California water policy. It is an impossible goal under present circumstances and will remain so unless there is some fantastical technological breakthrough which magically produces freshwater as a bountiful waste product.
So, my short answer? Way too many people in the wrong place. The LA=>San Diego Megapolis is built in a desert with no fresh water in sight and city planners allow unlimited growth in all directions, while at the same time, it appears to us outsiders that long-term planning has simply been ignored – no new reservoirs have been built to capture and retain more of the precipitation that does fall and otherwise runs into the sea. Instead, Californians argue and squabble and litigate over what water they have. None of this leads to a solution.
California does have serious water supply problems. There is a drought. The true demand for water far exceeds the usual supply.
Coping strategies include the usual: Agriculture needs to change their methods to reduce water usage and increase efficiency. Industry needs to self-examine and reduce usage. In years of shortage, like this, anyone with a clean car should probably receive a citation for wasting water on vanity and brown lawns should be a badge of community solidarity. Golf courses should have green greens and brown fairways.
The list of demand reducing ideas has been run up before; it is printed in the newspapers and on billboards for every serious drought. They’ll do it again. California will tough it out, with all extra three point seven million of them this time.
I wish them Good Luck and God speed.
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Moderation Note: I will be glad to answer any of your questions about living in California during the 1950s and 60s droughts, hiking the Sierras or the mountains surrounding the LA Basin. I know almost nothing about current California water policy that I haven’t read in the two NY Times articles. I do know about the water diversions for fresh water salmon in the Sacramento Valley area – a part of the EPA plan on the SF Bay Watershed [ see http://www2.epa.gov/sfbay-delta ].