A perspective on the California Drought

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:

Obama Announces Aid for Drought-Stricken California

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:

Science Linking Drought to Global Warming Remains Matter of Dispute

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.

# # #

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 ].


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It’s of doubtful utility to talk of demand divorced from the question of price.

Good post. Good memories of good times. John Muir Trail N-S July 1966. Family farmed pears in Santa Clara on eponymous Coffin Road where I remember an artesian well out behind the hands’ cabins.


Went school in Sonoma County in the 1980s. Drought and water rights were a constant topic of conversation. If little has been done to increase water supply it is a shame but not unexpected. Maybe the new bullet train will solve the problem.

Bloke down the pub

On my only visit to the States, I stayed with family in San Jose and Sacremento. I think this was in the early nineties. There had been a drought there for some time previous and on a trip to the lake behind Nimbus dam there was not much more than a puddle at the bottom, with the last few boats moored way below the level of the boathouse. Suprisingly enough, the drought didn’t break until after I got back to the UK.

I lived in Sunnyvale during 1976-1977. It was indeed a time of “TURN OFF THE TAP!” for all children in the state. If the present drought isn’t worse, one wonders how Californians will fare when it is.

D. B. Cooper

Ahhh memories.
“If its yellow, keep it mellow, if it’s brown, flush it down”

Ron Braud

During the last several thousand years California has experienced droughts lasting for hundreds of years. The Spring 2005 issue of the Journal of the Nevada Water Resources Association contains an article on trees rooted in 120 feet of the waters of Fallen Leaf Lake, California.
“The significance of this discovery is the fact that for these trees to be rooted below the surface of
the lake, the lake must have been down at least 36.5 m for over two hundred years. This would
indicate that a “mega drought” had occurred, since several of these trees have been carbon dated
to have “drowned” in 1215 A.D. ± 40 years. This would indicate that the drought persisted
during the medieval period 850-1150 A.D., and was followed by an extremely wet period that
brought the lake level back up high enough to drown the trees.” . . .
“Evidence of Medieval “dry periods” that were of much greater severity and duration (over 100
years) should truly be considered as droughts. Evidence of these medieval droughts appears at
many sites in and adjacent to the central Sierra, i.e., Mono Lake, Tenaya Lake, the West Walker
River, Osgood Swamp (Stine, 1994), Fallen Leaf Lake (Kleppe and Norris, 1999; Kleppe, 2004),
Lake Tahoe (Lindstrom, 1990), and Pyramid Lake (Benson and others, 2002).”
There is a post on the ClimateAudit site from Dec 6, 2006 titled “Underwater in the Sierra Nevadas” on this subject.

Rhys Jaggar

I guess if rainfall is more abundant in Oregon, Washington, Idaho the question arises as to whether any water carrying canals can be created to divert fresh water from teeming rivers to reservoirs in N. California.
One can ask whether the California climate is too hot to use hydroponic glasshouses for some or much of the agricultural production and whether appropriate recycling of liquid would reduce water needs from agriculture in a meaningful way or not.
Finally, one can but suggest that Californians take a trip to Davis, where far-sighted planners have shown what can be achieved in a semi-desert environment. If you’re too lazy, Bill Mollison’s Permaculture volume does have a few pictures and descriptions of it. Just focus on the actions in Davis, don’t get outraged about the political position of the author (which many readers, contributors and owners of this website will fundamentally disagree with).


Our current Governor Brown here in CA was also the State’s chief executive during the 1976/77 drought. Analogous to Gore, maybe we are seeing a “Brown Effect”.
I remember the civic/political slogan from that earlier drought: If it’s yellow leave it mellow. If it’s Brown flush is down.
Our lack of storage capacity today is argueably attributable in part to Moonbeam Brown’s green philosophies and inaction in the 1970’s.

David Wells

The UK wanted to construct three new reservoirs in England but the EU said no that instead we need to save water usage by only having a dump once a fortnight, I would imagine California is suffering from the same green cow crap. My suggestion is to stop recycling green rhetoric and recycle the waste water instead unless of course that is already being done. We are really under the green hammer in the UK with any weather event being cited as evidence of climate change its wall to wall green rhetoric with Caroline Lucas wanting us to live like Romanians on a diet of fried cabbage living in mud huts with a bible in one hand and an anti fracking guide book in the other denoting what happens if fracking takes place including plagues of frogs, lice, skin being leached from your bones, rats the size of cats and when you look at the real reasons for this insanity its origin likes across the water in Brussels and unless you believe your right to free speech and human rights are immediately rescinded you become the lowest form of humanity. I am starting to believe that President Putin has the right idea but just very crude about the method of implementation but with so many people willing to believe in the new religion having tired of Christianity Islam and reality precisely what can you do. I think people are consistently looking for a way to convince themselves that both the planet and humanity is finite. At some point in time we die and at some point in time so will the planet this is all about trying to cope with mortality and the greens are making a very good job of tapping into human weakness. Islam has an awful lot to be responsible for because it gave the greens an idea of how to promote their campaign , draw a clear line in the sand if you commit to belief you are inside the tent if you default then you are the infidel and deserve every type of abuse and offensive behaviour that comes your way indeed you cannot be a true green unless your default mode is being offensive and prepared to ridicule, degrade and discredit your tormentors that is how radical Islam functions unbelievers should die preferably stoned to death. Belief is the only thing that matters greens operate in a parallel universe. I approach them as individuals and first they try to persuade you of the correctness of their argument but if you fail to respond to their “view” the conversation ends. They live in their own little boxes, they cite other peoples peer reviewed texts as evidence which they never question because taking it at face value allows them to create their own little area of expertise which is totally reliant on taxpayers money just attending to one area of EU legislation, mitigation for example which excludes everything else on the planet a global issue conflated to a local issue for tiny minded consumption which if see in a real world context immediately conflicts with legislation so they just avoid it. Getting a huge publicly funded salary as a University professor is a good deal for them and a bad deal for everyone else. Government wont be enticed to reverse the situation any time soon because jobs will be lost and that is detrimental to getting elected next time around.


Can we, in the UK, send you some of our ‘consistent with global warming’ (quote courtesy of the Met Office) jet-stream-carried-rain-dumping depressions..?

J. Arbona

Why not use the power of the wind (on a state with so many wind generators) to desalinate sea water? Sure, it’s expensive but better than no water. I can’t think of a better use for a non-constant (unreliable) power source. Just desalinate when wind power is available and store the water in reservoirs.

Randle Dewees

I live 10 miles south of that dark line on your map, in the Mojave Desert of Kern County. I would dearly like that Inyo County line to be just south of me because I wouldn’t have to smog check my cars every two years. Low population desert on each side, air pollution from the Central Valley and China on each side, but I have to dance to CARB’s idiocy.
Look, the further you go north the more “Northern” your attitude is. Someone in Redding hardly considers Fresno to be in “Northern California”, Just like an Oregonian wouldn’t consider that Redding person an Oregonian. The reality is Californian economics and politics are dominated by the LA and SBA hellholes. the “surrounds” are merely scenic wastes that count for little but places for the city populations to diffuse into on the weekends. Well, the Central Valley is an exception with Big Ag.
For better or worse the days of killing a major Sierra Nevada canyon and river with a million acre foot reservoir are over. Thank Goodness. Silting I don’t think is a problem for the existing reservoirs. Not as much water flowing into them over the last few years is. I don’t know the science or politics of water diversions up in the delta. I do know something about the ruthless nature of Big Ag. Over the last few years as the water allotments from the Isabella reservoir have decreased, and ag land prices have increased, a Bakersfield corporation has purchased several thousand acres of desert in the Indian Wells Valley and is developing it into pistachio production. I won’t go into that sorry situation except to say I could give a hoot about growing high profit snack food compared to conserving water in an already severely over-drafted aquifer,
I guess the point is 33 million people still live in a dream world.

David Wells

Just announced Julia Slingo says that her IBM super computer if programmed in the right way can make the jet stream work in the opposite direction but first you must sign up to be completely green, this is the only way to save your life for the long term according to the models and remember its Gods work, humanity is a cancer and if it wasn’t for there existence none of this would really matter at all

Mario Martini

It seems to me that while the warmists have the hysteria the deniers have the data.

I wouldn’t attribute all this to lack of storage. I lived in CA all my life. Grew up in LA and moved to Northern CA for college and stayed. Since I was a kid, there are over 3 times as many people in the state and of course taking its toll.
1/3 of the state provides the other 2/3 with their water. While Marin county seemed always to be conscious of water use, or doing rationing, lawns were green in LA and nobody was rationing. For instance, Palm Springs used to be a teeny desert town with only a 2 lane highway going to it from LA. Now there are 126 golf courses. Palm Springs sits on the largest aquifer in the US, but with all the water use the aquifer is subsiding. So they solve the subsidence with diverted water from the Colorado River. Muy inteligente! Why aren’t those Southern CA using that aquifer for LA instead of golf courses? This will not change until people suffer, as things usually are.


Holy vortex Batman! We are doomed.

Letter To Nature – Scott Stine – 16 June 1994
Extreme and persistent drought in California and Patagonia during mediaeval time
STUDIES from sites around the world1–5 have provided evidence for anomalous climate conditions persisting for several hundred years before about AD 1300. Early workers emphasized the temperature increase that marked this period in the British Isles, coining the terms ‘Mediaeval Warm Epoch’ and ‘Little Climatic Optimum’, but many sites seem to have experienced equally important hydrological changes. Here I present a study of relict tree stumps rooted in present-day lakes, marshes and streams, which suggests that California’s Sierra Nevada experienced extremely severe drought conditions for more than two centuries before ad ~ 1112 and for more than 140 years before ad ~ 1350. During these periods, runoff from the Sierra was significantly lower than during any of the persistent droughts that have occurred in the region over the past 140 years. I also present similar evidence from Patagonia of drought conditions coinciding with at least the first of these dry periods in California. I suggest that the droughts may have been caused by reorientation of the mid-latitude storm tracks, owing to a general contraction of the circumpolar vortices and/or a change in the position of the vortex waves. If this reorientation was caused by mediaeval warming, future natural or anthropogenically induced warming may cause a recurrence of the extreme drought conditions.

Kip Hansen

to dearieme ==> The True Demand remains independent of the cost in the case of California water. When the citizens of California and their representative government set about facing the issue, the first thing they will have to consider is the cost of meeting whatever portion of the True Demand they feel is possible.
to Doug Huffman ==> re: The John Muir Trail. My late father attempted the John Muir (in bite-sized pieces) solo in his 70s and 80s. He would take nothing but sugar, instant coffee, trail mix, and sleeping bag. He managed about 50% before health forced him to quit.
to troe ==> “Maybe the new bullet train will solve the problem.” Just as likely as “climate hubs” I guess.
to Bloke ==> It always seems to surprise people, even Californians, to be reminded that California is a desert. Many city dwelling Californians have no idea at all — really.
to tteclod and Cooper ==> Yes, those rules will be back in force. Toilet flushing rules, no running the tap when brushing teeth, turning off the shower while shampooing your hair (instead of letting it run). The teachers checking the bathrooms in schools. Handles being removed from outdoor faucets of buildings. Municipalities checking fire hydrants for leaks. No lawn watering, no car washing.

Reg. Blank

Obama says “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.”
Let me correct that for you
“A naturally changeable climate means that weather-related disasters like droughts, wildfires, storms, floods are potentially going to be costly and they’re potentially going to be harsh.”
Also, “ask Congress for [a ton of cash] in new funding for a ‘climate resiliency’ program to help communities invest in research, development and new infrastructure to prepare for [naturally occuring occasional periods of ‘bad’ weather]”. This seems like a tiny step closer to reality to me rather than spend a bazillion tons of cash trying to arrogantly change the weather to blandify it enough for what a small subset of humanity thinks it wants and windmills.
It’s a shame really that “the climate” doesn’t work on human time and physical scales, and doesn’t care about any inconvenience for the “bags of mostly water” wandering around a speck of dust in space.

Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.

A thoughtful and interesting post on California water realities! Economists would add that just as prices, property rights, and markets play key roles in coordinating supply and demand in much of the rest of the economy, the lack property rights and market prices contributes to California water problems.
Most have read the stories of people growing rice in the desert outside Sacramento. Lack of transferable water rights leads to “use it or lose it” practices in some areas (and now some California rice farmers are trying to raise salmon in desert rice fields).
In other areas, plentiful supplies of water flow under the desert and property owners haven’t yet legal permission to offer that water for sale (see “Water From the Desert: Entrepreneurs Tap into Unlikely Water Sources” http://perc.org/articles/water-desert-entrepreneurs-tap-unlikely-water-sources ).
Water markets issues are discussed in Aquanomics (info. on book here: http://www.independent.org/publications/books/summary.asp?id=96 ) Here is excerpt from description of Chapter 6: “Stephen N. Bretsen and Peter J. Hill argue that multiple rights to veto water transfers has hampered the transfer of water from lower-valued agricultural uses to higher-valued industrial and municipal uses. This problem is made worse when exclusion rights and use rights are not bundled together for all rights holders. The high likelihood of lawsuits to invalidate water transfers—even after they have been contracted for—also raises the cost of potential transfers and undermines economic efficiency. … Another obstacle to water markets is the evolving public-trust doctrine. What began as a legal principle to protect a public right to access to waters for the purposes of navigation and fishing has evolved into a doctrine that accommodates public rights to almost every conceivable interest in water.”
I’ve been posting on California water issues for some months (marine natural resource policy is the debate topic for the Stoa homeschool debate league this year): http://astoundingideasmarineresources.blogspot.com/search?q=California+water

Jeff L

The pattern in 76/77 was very similar to this winter with brutal cold & snow in the midwest & east ,,,, and of course all the climatologists were quite sure then that it was because of global cooling / the on coming of the next ice age.
The reality is ridge in the west / trough in the east = dry in CA, cold & snowy in the east … all driven by cyclical patterns in the oceans & atmosphere .


Great essay! I am always impressed by the well thought out articles on this site. Just forwarded this one to several folks. What struck me as obvious in this scenario of CA drought problems is the constant greed. Water is a commodity needed for human life yet, folks still move to these dry barren areas ( see Nevada & Arizona) yet expect water to be provided for them, somehow. Meanwhile, the taxing authorities and political agendas and developers move right along building that voter/tax base with no regard for the future. If all this is truly a “man-made” problem then perhaps “man” aught to move out and quit reproducing in the sand dunes…..just sayin


• A drought is an act of Randomness;
• A water shortage is an act of Government.

Dr. Bob

And then there are Floods in California as has been discussed here and elsewhere. Wikipedia lists the larger ones–http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Floods_in_California
And if you have a government that doesn’t plan for them, they are devastating. That is why damns are built.

North of 43 and south of 44

Reg. Blank says:
February 19, 2014 at 6:21 am
It’s a shame really that “the climate” doesn’t work on human time and physical scales, and doesn’t care about any inconvenience for the “bags of mostly water” wandering around a speck of dust in space.
I think that should be “ugly bags of water” instead of “bag of mostly water” but my Star Trek trivia isn’t quite up to snuff.

California droughts often go hand-in-hand with people in the east of the USA freezing their socks off. That bad drought in 1977 went along with all the hullabaloo surrounding the ice-age-scare of that time. It is absurd Alarmists now try to link that same “ice age” jet-stream pattern to Global Warming.
Not many years after that 1977 drought California had terrific rains, and houses were sliding down hills in mudslides.
I spent years “California Dreaming,” but only lasted 2 years when I finally got there in 1982. While I was there I don’t think I ever met a person over the age of eighteen who was actually born there. It seemed a society without roots, a bunch of people who were (like me) running away from some cloud in their past.
It must be very strange to be a native-born Californian, and to have seen the flood of people arriving over the past fifty years. I imagine they wish all the invaders would do what I did: GO HOME.
California sure was a beautiful place, but the people, (I never met Anthony,) seemed to lack a down-to-earth common-sense and pragmatic morality that comes from having traditions and roots, (however I suppose it is hard to grow roots without water.)

Chuck Nolan

$1B won’t cover the litigation costs from NGOs.
They’ll stop progress by any means.


So there i was having a read of droughts in the past ,
and came across this,
“However, Stine (1994)
pointed out that too much emphasis was being placed on
temperature change during the MWP at the expense of
evidence for highly unusual hydroclimatic variability at the
same time in other parts of the world. He therefore suggested
that the MWP moniker be replaced by the more general
‘Medieval Climate Anomaly’ (or MCA) moniker to avoid
prejudicing future palaeoclimatic analyses”
I don’t really believe it but was this a case of , even back in 1994, trying to erase the Medieval Warm Period.


As the paper admits,
“Causes and implications for the future
The occurrence of remarkable megadroughts in geographically
separate regions of North America during the MCA period and
the transition into the Little Ice Age is very troubling. The
climate system clearly has the capacity to get ‘stuck’ in drought
inducing modes over North America that can last several
decades to a century or more.”
They are really going for the MCA in the paper!

Kip Hansen

Reply to Ron Braud and Jimbo ==> Sounds like the ~ 13th Century mega-drought referred to in most literature for the Southwest.
Reply to Rhys Jaggar ==> UC Davis is California’s leading agricultural university and the primary reason that California produces fully half of America’s fruits and vegetables today. No one is shying away from their knowledge or expertise. Many of the ideas under development there are what may be referred to as “ahead of their time” — in the sense that they are not yet capable to being translated into successful commercial operations under existing conditions. However, ideas that were “pie in the sky” when I was at uni are now standard features on commercial farms all across California. Five years ago, in the Dominican Republic, my wife and I helped manage a project which reforested denuded hillsides with a permaculture mix of native trees, coffee bushes, and understory crops. It was a good fit for the culture there.
Reply to sherlock1 ==> California can use all the help you can send. Even bottled rain would be appreciated!
Reply to J. Arbona ==> At first I thought this was a lame idea, but on checking it out (always a good idea!) I found that Australia (Perth and Sydney) already use wind to power RO plants to provide at least some of their drinking water, See http://tinyurl.com/ohawrcz
Reply to Randle Dewees ==> My guess is you agree with me — most Californians — these being the city dwellers — don’t realize they live in a desert.
Reply to Leslie ==> Of course it isn’t all lack of storage. Storage is just like a battery — it helps smooth out the supply problems between rainy seasons. Marin County is one of the blessed non-desert parts of California. Almost Garden of Eden, now heavily populated — not so forty years ago — it was heaven then. I do not understand anything about how California makes decisions about water.
Reply to Reg. Blank ==> Yes, I think funding ‘resiliency’ is better than flushing money down the toilet too.
Reply to dfbaskwill ==> “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.” Classic. +10
Reply to Gregory Rehmke ==> I did try to warn my reader s that California water issues were a lot more complicated.
Reply to Jeff L ==> Thanks Jeff, for filling that bit out.

Henry Clark

Part of this reminds me of the environmentalist mindset.
In a nutshell, it is like this:
Population exceeds the number of hair dryers by 200%. We need to eliminate 2/3rds of the population.” (Other solutions, e.g. producing more hair dryers for a fraction of 1% of income/GDP, are too alien to consider or dishonestly dismissed).
Only in this case substitute a few words and numbers (“freshwater” for “hair dryers” and so on).
The cost of the cheaper forms of modern large desalination plants is minor: about $0.50 per cubic meter, about $0.002 per gallon. (For instance, Israel’s Ashkelon plant is $0.52/m^3 as noted in http://www.water-technology.net/projects/israel/ while there are a number of other examples).
Being just $0.002/gallon, that is easily affordable if needed or desired (contrary to mathematical illiteracy / stringent creative dishonesty otherwise by enviro-types). To put that in context, typically U.S. cities not using desalination have municipal water prices of such as $24 to $73 per month for a household using 12000 gallons a month (400 gallons a day), meaning $0.002 to $0.006 per gallon. Of course, the latter figures also include distribution costs to scattered individual residences, chlorination, and so on. But, in short, such desalination wouldn’t much raise net costs for cities in coastal regions, especially, since, after reverse osmosis, the water is already purified.
And, yes, agricultural water can be covered too (like an illustration of how California could easily technically produce even 100% of agricultural water by desalination, not that such would ever be needed, is http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/progress/arithmetic.html although modern desalination plants are even cheaper).
Whether or not desalination is needed as opposed to other measures like just more reservoir usage would be a separate question and topic (though I don’t over stress “conservation” as people balance consumption versus cost to the appropriate degree under market prices while “needing” more conservation than that is just bad/ideological planning and management; let people pay the “unaffordable” $0.002/gallon extra cost of desalination if they want). But, as usual, environmentalists create the shortages they so desire (e.g. blocking proper reservoir usage), then turn around and pretend such were intrinsic consequences of natural limits or “climate change.”
(Someone could say this is not fair to all environmentalists, and that is so under a broad definition of the label, yet I reference the strain both stereotypical and dominant: anti-human).
An engineer’s mindset (an old-style engineer, not an enviro-ideologue) is needed.


This issue and article reflect a very long history. The common sense Kip injects is hardly ancient history, but our schools no longer teach the fundamental geography (both physical and human) that explains reality. California has been a haven for urbanites because it is “hot” and “dry”, an interesting attraction viewed from the global warming meme. The issues today have existed for my entire lifespan (and I’m getting older than dirt). When I started a university career in the 60’s, both taking and teaching natural resource management, the major water topic of discussion was a massive plan known as NAWAPA. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed a massive system of water transfers from Alaska and Canada to drought areas in the U.S. This was a political hot potato in Canada because once water is supplied and dependency established little political control remains at the supply side. I made my students read a book called Canada’s Water for Sale to gain a political perspective. The NAWAPA plan collapsed because it was so big (hundreds of major engineering projects) that no one could see it happening. The water problem, however, was not only obvious, but also “imminent” back in the 1950-1970 time period. If you are not familiar with NAWAPA it makes for interesting reading and is well-covered on the web.

Alan the Brit

Great post! I visited California with my best friend in 1981. We were just 22 & 23 (me) respectively. It was a fleeting visit sadly of just two weeks + 1 day. We stayed in San Fran at 27 & Cabrillo? with my friend’s ex-physio, a wonderful lady & native New Yorker, who had worked at Stoke Mandeville Hospital spinal injuries unit in the UK, where my friend was recovering from an automobile accident in which he broke his neck at 16. I was his arms & legs. We are still the best of friends to this day. We stayed in SF for most of that time touring the local sites, the Nappa Valley (oh heaven!), & stayed in LA for about 3 days! We drove down via Monterey & Carmel, which belies the desert nature of the state imho. We drove back along Highway 405? which was long & straight, but it took us through quite arid landscapes. Developed a taste for Coors (the best beer west of Colorado I was repeatedly told!) & pancakes. Janet had told us that despite the apparent greenery (vegetation not doomsayers) the state had a history of fairly regular droughts, which surprised us. We even watched the “Chuck & Di show” in a bar in downtown SF in the wee small hours. The Prince of Fools as he became known was regarded as a bit of a fool even then as he was obsessed with talking to his plants. A question was once asked on a Saturday lunchtime BBC Radio 2 ( I think now Radio 4) show called “Gardeners’ Question Time”, dedicated to answering all things about plants, trees shrubs, flowers, lawns. A member of the audience (who always asked the questions) once asked if plants could benefit from somebody “talking to their plants”? The remainder of the audience & some of the panel were engaged in mild tittering! The answer…………………….”not really although there may be some small benefit from the tiny amount of Carbon Dioxide being breathed upon them!” I would love to return for a refresher holiday one day, when I get time. I loved it there, maybe I wouldn’t so much today? I live in hope.

Henry Clark

Just to put in further perspective my prior comment and its referenced $0.002/gallon cost of desalination of practically unlimited seawater (placing an upper limit on what the pre-distribution appropriate cost of water would be under intelligent management, whether literally using desalination or whether finding other methods like reservoirs to be even cheaper):
California’s governor recently said there was a possibility of drinking water shortages and that “I think the drought emphasizes that we do live in an era of limits, that nature has its boundaries”.* One rather gets the feeling he jumps on an excuse to believe so.
* http://www.usatoday.com/story/weather/2014/01/17/california-drought-emergency/4581761/

Randle Dewees

There are no plentiful “flows” of water under the deserts – anybody saying this is looking for a quick buck. The water in most desert closed aquifiers was emplaced after the last ice age (fossil water), and recent watershed recharge was exceeded by ag and community use decades ago in most areas. Any place that has seen wide spread pumping of ground water for ag (Barstow, Apple Valley, Victorville) has also had those aquifer depleted, precipitating adjudication.
There are several areas in California on the verge of ground water crisis. The valley I live in (Indian Wells Valley) is one of them. My well is going down 2 feet a year and probably has just a few years left. When we drill another well it will be 600- 700 feet deep instead of the 450 feet of the existing hole. The new farming production wells here are 1000 feet deep, wonder why? They, of course, don’t care that the pumping depressions created by their 2000 acre-feet/year wells are going to destroy surrounding private wells. Or that the aquifer will be irretrievably damaged. This is water mining, and profit is the only motive. Kern County does not allow the outright exportation of water, but sending hay south to dairy farms in Corona ( 8000 acre-feet/year for Meadowbrook Dairy, there’s an ironic name), and growing pistachios nuts (Mojave Pistachio – when producing in a few years, 15,000 acre-feet/year) is effectively water exportation on a massive scale.
just to add some perspective of IWV ground water usage. The largest user is Ag at about 50 percent, followed by the city of Ridgecrest, Trona Minerals, and the Navy, in roughly that order. The private well owners out here account for just a few percent


Well if it were anyplace else than California they could build Fisher-Tropsch reactors to make clean fuels, use the wast heat to generate steam and turn turbines for electricity and use the low grade waste heat from the turbines to run MSF desalination. 3 birds with one stone.
But could you imagine the ecofoodfight that would ensue if someone actually tried to do this?

Louis Hooffstetter

Jeff Glassman says:
“• A drought is an act of Randomness;
• A water shortage is an act of Government.”
And as Milton Friedman noted:
“If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there’d be a shortage of sand.”

James the Elder

To put that in context, typically U.S. cities not using desalination have municipal water prices of such as $24 to $73 per month for a household using 12000 gallons a month (400 gallons a day), meaning $0.002 to $0.006 per gallon.
Holy Crap!!!! I live in the boonies, but on a public water system run by a PA company. I pay $35.15 per month for a base of 3000 gal. If I blow my “bandwidth”, it’s $0.18/100 gal. additional. The down side is no lawn watering, but the native grasses and weeds are still green.
400 gal./day is waste on a monumental scale unless one has a large family and truly needs it.

Joe G

This is the 21st century and we are still dealing with droughts and floods. We have the technolgy, we can do something about droughts and floods.
For thousands of years humans have been able to take water from one place and bring it to another. This was accomplished with tunnels, canals and aquaducts.
That said, my proposal is to connect existing water systems- rivers, streams, lakes, etc. using technology we already have. To accomplish this we can dig canals, install tunnels, pipelines and aquaducts.
This way when one section of the USA is dry/ in a drought stage, the sections of the USA that have rain can share that bounty with those who are less fortunate.
Another advantage of my system is that it could, if applied properly, alleviate flooding.
It will also put many Americans back to work. The only issue is where is the money going to come from?
One solution is the 1%- it would be an investment. They pay now and then we ante up when when we pay our water bill.
Phase 1
Phase 1 would set up the country in zones, and to install controlled spillways along major rivers and their tributaries in those zones, starting with known flood zones of populated areas.
These spillways would lead to (holding) reservoirs for future use including redistribution to/ from another zone (Phase 2).
We need to refill our aquifers- the Ogallala aquifer, is one of the largest systems in the world and I am sure she could use a good drink. And the Ogallala feeds a great deal of farmland, which feeds us.
Another thing to think about is if the ice sheets melt and ocean levels rise, we could mediate that rise by controlling how much water flows back via our river system by using these spillways to divert some of that flow.
Diversion rate = ice sheet melting rate
We can even use the wind and sun to power the flow up hills and mountains. More jobs.
This way, instead of continually reacting to floods and droughts, we can control the horizontal. We can control the verticle. We can change the focus- we can increase the freshwater fish population and farm land.
We can put America back to work and get us out of this ridiculous debt.
Write to your congress-people and Senators and tell them of this plan. If enough people speak up perhaps they will listen. But you can’t win the lottery if you don’t play…

Kip Hansen

Reply to Engineer Clark (x2) ==> Interesting how inexpensive large RO can be, nice input. A previous commenter suggested wind to RO, as used in Perth and Sydney. The island of St Thomas , USVI, which I recently vacated, has a combined diesel power plant and RO water plant. Los Angeles has huge oil cracking plants in the Torrance area that could use their excess heat to make desal water as a by-product.
Reply to R2Dtoo ==> NAWAPA was “ahead of its time”. Obviously needed and would have solved a lot of today’s problems, but they just couldn’t quite see that far ahead.
Reply to Alan the Brit ==> Thanks for the story! “Monterey & Carmel, which belies the desert nature of the state imho”…it is the nature of California that the very costal edge — sometimes just the first mile or two from the coast inland, to the first crest of the coastal hills, is very fine indeed, as the moisture from the sea continually dampens the plants and soil. Just over that first hill, starts the desert or the chaparral (vegetation consisting chiefly of tangled shrubs and thorny bushes). From Santa Cruz to San Francisco this extends across the whole peninsula to the bay.
[Make sure all of your readers know the abbreviation RO. Mod]

Craig Moore

Now we learn that the Cali is exporting vast quantities of water to China… in the form of alfalfa. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-26124989

Weather Dave

I returned to San Francisco in early ’69 after a paid trip to Vietnam. All of this post is a trip down memory lane. As a resident I remember the pipeline across the Richmond Bridge to bring water to Marin County and all of the requirements already mentioned to save water. As an old weather forecaster though I can point out that the ‘ridge’ west of the state has always been there. The eastern North Pacific has a semi-permanent High Pressure Cell residing off the western side of the states; just like the eastern South Pacific has a semi-permanent High off Peru/Equador; the SoPac High of course being a key player in the ENSO cycle.
Someone from GB mentioned sharing the Jet; well, California does. Called the Pineapple Express, bringing a warm, moist air mass roaring in from near Hawaii. Often bringing flood conditions too.
So, if someone wanted to gather up synoptic maps for the last 100 years, sorted in groups by season, there probably wouldn’t be much difference in them.

Granny and I get along fine on a bit more than 20 gallons per day into our 2000 gallon holding tank. 100 days between pumpings is the objective, but at 60 days I’m out with the dip-stick increasingly frequently. The per-pump-out fee is $80 and $30 for disposal by the community, so ideally the Honey-Wagon arrives at the last moment. The private 250′ well water is roughly free and I’m expert at repairing and tuning zeolite resin ion-exchangers.

Matthew R Marler

I lived through drought after drought as a child. I grew up through the wildfire seasons that followed dry summer after dry summer.
You didn’t live through a drought as severe as this one.
I think Californians have increased their problems by their policies over the last 50 years regarding energy development, water and other resources. Details such as sacrificing $billions of agricultural productivity to the delta smelt, AB32 and the building of solar farms, resistance to the desalination plants powered by waste heat from electricity generation, and the proposal to destroy the Hetch Hetchy reservoir are mind-boggling. But this drought really is unusual.


Old cowboy adage:
Whiskey is for drinkin’, water is for fightin’.

Matthew R Marler

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.
That’s a swell idea but the Obama Administration is absolutely opposed to building more dams.


Easy Peasy! California should be great for agriculture as well as a great place for people to live. This Southern California winter has been amazing. Yes, there is no rain, but this happens frequently, and especially during cool periods (negative PDO, e.g.,). And other years there is an abundance, often too much. Good living only takes foresight and planning — and using the market at least as much as government. The government we have now hates agriculture and people — commies, but they don’t know it. The elites are scarfing it up; greedy ones git all the goodies through scaring people and getting government (our taxes) subsidies. It’s got to stop.
1. Desalination plants — now it is cheap.
2. Water canals/pipelines from Canada and the upper Midwest (especially for when it floods there — lots of areas across the prairie states that can bloom too with intelligent management of water.
3. Sensible building and management of dams — keep some rivers “wild”, the one’s that do not destroy everything in wild floods, and use the other rivers for water storage. Take a look at what the “free flow” of water has done to Canyon Lands and other Great Basin, Southwest desert places that are magnificently beautiful to look at, but can you live there and make a living? They get ripped to pieces by water.
4. Sensible management of forests and mountain/shrub areas — just like the native Americans did. Take a look at what a mess (trees, brush growing thickly everywhere) some of the southern Sierras are where there has been no forest management. Then take a look at the burned over areas. A tragedy. We can do much better.
5. Development of energy sources — we got lots.
6. I like that we are more careful and thoughtful today about the way we develop.
7. Then get out of people’s way.


When I lived in California in the 70s, the papers were all about the draught. In restaurants you had to ask for water. When my wife asked me what will happen told her nothing. It is all hipe. She wouldn’t believe me. I told her take a look at our water bill. The more water you used the the less you paid by the gallon. It didn’t make any sense. Is it the same now?