Disentangling California Drought

Here is Jim Steele’s newest column article for the Tribune and 5 other Marin papers,~ctm

Pacifica Tribune column, January 16, 2019

What’s Natural?

Disentangling California Drought


Devastating droughts are a great concern. Droughts disrupt ecosystems, agriculture, and drinking water supplies. Contrary to headlines suggesting we have only 12 years before descending into climate hell with more severe droughts, historically, Californians are not experiencing more severe droughts. Despite low stream flows and withering plants, there’s no agreement on how to best define drought. Different methods suggest different severities for the same drought. Thus, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent assessment, downgraded their ability to detect the causes of drought to “low confidence”.

Ocean circulation determines how much rain reaches the land. Each summer, California naturally experiences months of drought because storms carrying ocean moisture are blocked. Every few years, a rainy El Niño year alternates with drought producing La Niñas. But 20 years of more frequent La Niñas can cause 20 years of drought. To address natural precipitation shifts, California constructed ~1400 dams, storing water during wet years that can be released during drought years. Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy reservoir supplies about 25% of San Francisco’s drinking water and 17% of its electricity. Misguided attempts to remove its dam would be disastrous for humans with scant environmental benefits.

NOAA scientists analyzed California’s 2011-2014 drought concluding it was dominated by a La Niña and natural variability. In contrast, their models suggested any greenhouse contribution was “very small”. Similarly, drought-sensitive tree rings suggested the extremely low precipitation was not unprecedented nor “outside the range of natural variability”. For 1200 years, extremely low rainfall happens a few times every century.

However, because higher temperatures can theoretically increase evaporation and dry the land, some researchers define drought by calculating the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI). Despite using the same tree rings, the PDSI transformed a natural California drought into the worst in 1200 years, evoking global warming fears.

What to trust?

Most scientists agree the PDSI is biased towards worse droughts, because it assumes higher temperatures always dry the land. However, the opposite is also true! Without moisture to absorb heat, drier conditions produce higher temperatures. Studies using more accurate measurements than the PDSI find no increase in global droughts.

Before significant CO2 warming was possible, Dust Bowl years from 1928-1939 and the 1950s drought were the most severe 20th century American droughts. La Niña-like ocean temperatures blocked rain storms and triggered the Dust Bowl while plowing up native grasses made it worse. More concerning is 2 century-long megadroughts between 900 AD and 1400 AD. Trying to survive increasing dryness Native Americans created dams and irrigation canals. But those droughts finally led to the demise of once thriving Pueblo Cultures such as Mesa Verde.

Will our modern water infrastructure protect us if drought history repeats?

Reducing our carbon foot print or whacky plans to shade the earth from the sun to lower global temperatures will have no effect. Lower temperatures may in fact increase major droughts. Droughts during the 1750s, 1820s, and 1850s-1860s were similar to the 1950s. During the cool 1500s, the southwestern United States and Mexico suffered decades long droughts of “epic proportions”.

Coincident with the Pueblo Culture’s demise, drought is detected in sediments of San Francisco Bay. Droughts reduce stream flows that normally flush the bay, allowing salty ocean water to encroach deeper into the Bay’s delta. Past droughts caused the Bay’s Suisun Marsh to become 40% saltier. Suisun Marsh is now considered the only sustainable habitat for a critically endangered fish, the Delta Smelt. The current theory for the Delta Smelt’s demise is agricultural diversions of freshwater raised salinity to intolerable levels. That perceived competition for freshwater has pitted farmers against efforts to save the smelt. Learning how the smelt survived a thousand years of much higher salinity might provide a win-win solution.

Agricultural and urban needs also compete with salmon survival. One promising win-win solution is having juvenile salmon develop in irrigated rice fields after hatching. Experiments show young salmon grow much bigger in rice fields. Additionally, low stream flows hamper salmon migration. But when enough water is naturally stored as groundwater, seasonal groundwater release can maintain adequate summer stream flows. Unfortunately, landscape changes have caused stream channels to cut downwards, draining local groundwater and drying the land. Restoring streams and groundwater would provide great benefits.

During my research in the Sierra Nevada, a meadow we were monitoring began to dry; willows died, and bird populations crashed. Many suggested it was just what global warming models predict. However, we determined a railroad track built over 100 years ago had caused the meadow’s stream channel to cut downwards, draining its groundwater. I initiated a watershed restoration. Vegetation quickly recovered, and wildlife increased. Despite California’s years of extreme drought, the restored meadow remained wetter than it had before restoration and before the drought.

So, I warn: knee-jerk reactions simply blaming climate change for devastating dryness, blind us to real causes and real environmental solutions.

Jim Steele authored Landscapes and Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism.

Contact: naturalclimatechange@earthlink.net

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January 17, 2019 10:11 am

A few years ago NASA published a paper asserting that the drought in the west of 1934 was the worst in 500 years. 500 years would be the time when the Pueblo indians abandon settlements.

January 17, 2019 1:55 pm

“This method identified droughts lasting from A.D. 892 to A.D. 1112 and from A.D. 1209 to A.D. 1350. Judging by how far the water levels dropped during these periods — as much as 50 feet in some cases — Dr. Stine concluded that the droughts were not only much longer, they were far more severe than either the drought of 1928 to 1934, California’s worst in modern times, or the more recent severe dry spell of 1987 to 1992.”

Tom Holsinger
January 17, 2019 10:19 am

The American Southwest seems to be undergoing a long-standing cyclical REGIONAL climate change. The 20th Century was its wettest century in the past 2000 years. This regional climate change cycle may have lasted the entire Holocene period.

This cycle seems to be returning us to at least the historic average of much less (@70%) rain and snow over the past 2,000 years. Many paleo-climatologists have believed for years that a mega-drought is in progress.

An extreme drought by historic Southwest standards means a drop to 35-40% of the 20th Century average precipitation (rain and snow combined) for a decade. Two droughts that bad lasted CENTURIES in the past 2,000 years. See:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00D4EWHPU/ref=oh_aui_d_detailpage_o02_?ie=UTF8&psc=1, _The West without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climatic Clues Tell Us about Tomorrow_, Ingram, B. Lynn, and Malamud-Roam, Frances, 2013, University of California Press


http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/02/drying-west/kunzig-text, _Drying of the West_, (February 2008), National Geographic, Kunzig, Robert

Reply to  Tom Holsinger
January 18, 2019 12:57 am

Southwest is called a desert with occasional El Nino winters.

Reply to  Tom Holsinger
January 18, 2019 1:00 am

A drought is not a thing. It is not enough water to meet social demand which depends on the amount of demand and the amount of rain. If the population grows and causes more demand and the water infrastructure is not upgraded, as has occurred in California, then we get more droughts. Ultimately, with enough population, the droughts are permanent, with regular rainfall. Earlier today, all of California except Salton Sea desert area was in rain and snow.

Russ Wood
Reply to  Donald Kasper
January 20, 2019 5:56 am

“If the population grows and causes more demand and the water infrastructure is not upgraded, as has occurred in California, then we get more droughts.”
Signed – City of Cape Town

Joel O'Bryan(@joelobryan)
January 17, 2019 10:26 am

“So, I warn: knee-jerk reactions simply blaming climate change for devastating dryness, blind us to real causes and real environmental solutions.”

– Green-socialist motto:
Never let a (manufactured) crisis go to waste for grabbing more political power.

Knee jerk reactions are part of the Green-socialist’s path to power over an ignorant population.

Tom Halla
January 17, 2019 10:30 am

Looking at estimates of droughts in California in paleo terms, the current situation is entirely normal. So someone claiming to find a clear effect for climate change is almost certainly cherry picking records.

January 17, 2019 10:36 am

CC is an easy scapegoat for water problems in California. I’ve lived through several droughts in California and the political speak always follows the same pattern…… the blame is heaped on agriculture and wealthy home/estate owners. The fact that California’s population has over quadrupled since 1950 yet the water storage has not increased proportionally is never discussed. The crying and blame game reaches a crescendo just in time for nature to step in and solve everything. Then water is forgotten until the next drought. Most California agricultural products are shipped out of state yet utilize 80% of the water. California doesn’t have a water problem, it has a priority problem.

Reply to  markl
January 17, 2019 12:42 pm

Doubled. Not quadrupled.

Reply to  Donald Kasper
January 17, 2019 1:09 pm

No, quadrupled from 10M+ in 1950 census to 39M+ 2017 census.

Reply to  markl
January 17, 2019 1:20 pm

I have an engineer brother, 55 years in California. His observation is California does not have a water problem. It has a water management problem. I have to agree based on just a few visits. We drove the Central Valley at different times of year and saw massive broadcast sprinklers widely in use through the heat of the day.

January 17, 2019 10:38 am

Jim can expect to hear “INCOMING” soon enough.

The courage to speak truth to power despite known repercussions is an awesome thing to witness.

Thank You Jim

Reply to  troe
January 17, 2019 11:10 am

Yes, he is indeed a brave man. Eco-loons are often hateful and violent.

January 17, 2019 10:48 am

Today we have a high speed rail line cutting deep into revenue resources instead of going into climate/drought mitigation projects. Not much has changed.

Don B
January 17, 2019 10:51 am

Californians need to learn about what was normal for 3,500 years. Drought is normal.

“BEGINNING about 1,100 years ago, what is now California baked in two droughts, the first lasting 220 years and the second 140 years. Each was much more intense than the mere six-year dry spells that afflict modern California from time to time, new studies of past climates show. The findings suggest, in fact, that relatively wet periods like the 20th century have been the exception rather than the rule in California for at least the last 3,500 years, and that mega-droughts are likely to recur.”


Old Woman of the North
January 17, 2019 10:52 am

Retaining water in the landscape has been successful in Australia too. Peter Andrews has spent years developing his methods. He puts “leaky dams” and other obstructions into waterways where natural landscapes suggest areas where water had formed an outflow from the stream to a meadow.
There is now a foundation formed by the estate of Mr Coote from some farms that Peter Andrew advice has restored, and several million dollars to be used to educate people in using these methods. The foundation is located near Canberra, the property is named “Bulloon” and is open periodically for groups to see the results of restoration.

AGW is not Science
January 17, 2019 11:03 am

“Knee-jerk reactions simply blaming climate change for ANYTHING blind us to real causes.”

There, fixed it for you.

Old Woman of the North
January 17, 2019 11:04 am

Update on my previous message.
Peter Andrews developed Natural Systems Farming method of retaining water in the land.
See Muldoon Institute set up by Tony Coote’s estate to educate people on Natural Systems Farming.

R.S. Brown
January 17, 2019 11:26 am

The weekly report from University of Nebraska-Lincoln:


Joe Ebeni
January 17, 2019 11:58 am

I am a rare 4th generation Californian with ancestors arriving in San Diego in 1869 and 1887. When they arrived they described the area as a desert with the only trees sustained by creek/river beds and nascent irrigation. Journals and reports described the various situations and particularly in the 3 or 4 years before 1915. The year 1915 was the culmination of a brutal 3 year drought throughout Southern California resulting in substantial agricultural and ranching losses. Low reservoir levels put municipal water distribution at risk. San Diego city leaders turned to a con-man—“The Rainmaker” Charles Hatfield. They promised him $10,000 if he could produce substantial rain by the end of the year. Hatfield set to work on his scheme in December of 1915.
In January of 1916 the big story was of a LOT of rain, independent of “The Rainmaker”. A natural atmospheric condition, a strong low pressure area, settled in over Southern California and the rains came. Perhaps today the phenomenon would be associated with the “Pineapple Express” or the “Atmospheric River” or “El Nino”. Light to medium rains were reported for several days and then increased to torrential force on January 17 and 18. The saturated ground could take no more. Hillsides collapsed in landslides, dry riverbeds overflowed their banks and reservoirs were completely filled. Roads were washed out and both railroad and road bridges were destroyed. Homes and farms were flooded and livestock drowned. Rail service was cut, trains were marooned and telephone and telegraph communications were knocked out. The city was isolated from the north with wireless being the only means of communication. North County communities were to be without communication for over a month. A second deluge of rain came on January 26-27; especially hard hit was the watershed at higher elevations. On the Otay River, Lower Otay dam was at risk. It was an earth and rock fill dam with a central core of steel plates. It was 134 feet high and 565 feet wide at top and held a reported 42,000 acre feet of water. Rising water could not be checked even by an open outlet gate and other heroic efforts of workers on site. Shortly after noon on 27 January 1916, they sent word downstream along the valley floor to evacuate; most of the inhabitants heeded the warning. The water rapidly rose above the spillway, overflowed the dam itself and eroded the downstream base. There was a catastrophic failure of the fill; the internal steel core ruptured shortly after 5 PM. “…..the dam opened outward like a pair of gates.” A wall of water slammed down the narrow canyon, spread across the valley floor and raced to San Diego Bay several miles away. An estimated thirteen billion gallons of water drained out in less than three hours. The torrent scoured the canyon and Otay Valley of everything—ranches, chicken farms, citrus groves, orchards, houses and farm buildings. It then slammed into and destroyed the railway embankment and bridge at the base of the valley and carried rail cars into the lower San Diego bay. Sections of the dam’s internal steel core were found over 10 miles from the dam site. Charles Hatfield was never paid. When communications were restored it was realized that the storm had impacted all of Southern California and was an “Act of God”. Besides, the contract was never signed. Later, while surveying the roads downstream from Lower Otay, my Grandfather (a county road official) was injured during a road collapse. Family stories indicate he continued to be affected by a head injury for the next 4 years and he died in 1920. Tu understand the climate of California, especially of the central and southern parts of the state, all you have to do is view the arroyos, canyons and ravines and think through what must have happened to create such a tough and varied terrain.

Jim Steele
Reply to  Joe Ebeni
January 17, 2019 1:49 pm

Thanks for the personal history Joe!. And you are spot on regards “all you have to do is view the arroyos, canyons and ravines and think through what must have happened to create such a tough and varied terrain”. You think like a wise ecologist!

I am amazed at how many people build in flood plains during drought years, not thinking about why that food pain exists.

[Food pain? Food Plain? Flood pain? Flood plane? ‘Tis flatly not clear what correction is needed. .mod]

Reply to  Jim Steele
January 18, 2019 4:00 pm

First “flood plains” was correct. Second “food plains ” was a a typo/autocorrect that I missed. The context should have helped to realize that typo

Reply to  Joe Ebeni
January 18, 2019 11:59 am

This story apparently watered the seed for an idea for a screenplay – “Chinatown”. Of course it needed sexing up and a villian tossed in, but I’ll take the result any time I have a spare couple of hours.

January 17, 2019 12:23 pm

Holly 5hit! Someone let the heresy actually be published in Marin County? Oh, the PAIN!

Jim Steele
Reply to  fxk
January 17, 2019 1:43 pm

Indeed a welcome event. So support one of your local Marinscope Community Newspapers

January 17, 2019 12:40 pm

I was told yesterday by a neighbor in Lancaster, CA (north of Los Angeles) that he received a letter threatening to cite him for having a dead lawn. This was from the city. The lawn died due to the drought of summer before last where we were ordered to cut back water use. I live down the street from him, and got a letter of demand to cut back 90%? Yeah I know, the bull in the press said cutbacks would be 30%. Why do I waste so much? It is called Residential Agricultural property here and I have livestock. No, I don’t live in a one bedroom apartment and need to flush my toilet less often. So, I cut back half, was fined double, which works out to the same bill. I still have all my landscaping. The plants were stressed, but are recovering. Now that the drought is over, Lancaster is granting a one time reprieve for homeowners to replant all their landscaping the state demanded they kill last summer. You know, the drought Gov. Brown claimed would last 1200 years, and was unlike any the state had ever seen in 4.5 billion years. Okay, so it lasted 6 months. You cannot make this stupid shit up. Welcome to California. Kill it. Plant it. Kill it. Plant it. The cycle continues.

James Clarke
January 17, 2019 12:41 pm

WUWT publishes a lot of ‘mainstream’ climate science, apparently for the same reason that Quint has the sheriff throw chum in the water. It often becomes a feeding frenzy as readers move in for the kill and tear the offending/irrational science to shreds!

What a refreshing change it is to read the words of Jim Steele. It is almost like a different language! Mr. Steele writes in the language of real science. It is clear, knowledgeable, rational and far-reaching. He doesn’t have to use obscure terminology or complex acronyms to pretend that he is smarter than lay people. All the facts are considered and the conclusions are derived directly from the observations. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

No blood in the water on this one. Well Done!

ferd berple(@ferdberple)
January 17, 2019 1:04 pm

Pretty soon Climate Science is going to need some new names:


I predict the press and IPCC adopt “Planet-Searing-Drought” by 2025 at the latest.

January 17, 2019 1:53 pm

Seems pretty self evident that droughts are caused by shifts in wind and ocean current patterns. What those shifts are caused by, well, like anything else to do with climate, is a subject of study.

The climate alarmists would have us believe that all draughts are caused by global warming, which is caused by increasing atmospheric CO2. But that claim is obvious poppycock because cycles of drought and wet, and warm and cool, have always been part of earth’s very complex climate behavior, both globally and regionally.

One big clue: the Sahara has been a desert for roughly 5,500 years … long before global warming began after the end of the last glaciation period. Certainly long before atmospheric CO2 began to climb in the 20th century. It began the current interglacial as a desert .. then about 10K years ago got wetter and shifted from a desert to a savanna type environment … then about 5,500 years ago shifted back to desert … all without help from any SUVs or electrical power generating stations.

January 17, 2019 1:57 pm

Great article, Dr. Jim Steele!

January 17, 2019 3:07 pm

Its about time that both the Greens and the politicians realise that there are parts of the earth that will always be part dry and part a bit wet. And that such parts will not safely carry much life. . That includes both animals and us the tip animal. .

We here in South Australia have the “Goider line”a line drawn by a ssurvaver way back in the past, where any farmer could only expect one crop in three to be any good. So best to run sheep or goats.

Accept that dryness can be a normal thing, with thousands of years of evidence to prove it, no CO2 figures needed.

But the Media and the politicians always want to frighten us.


Bill In Oz
Reply to  Michael
January 18, 2019 11:12 pm

Michael, that the Goyder line in South Australia

Don K
January 17, 2019 3:09 pm

Another very good article Jim.

john york
January 17, 2019 4:15 pm

“Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy reservoir supplies about 25% of San Francisco’s drinking water and 17% of its electricity. Misguided attempts to remove its dam would be disastrous for humans with scant environmental benefits.”

Yeah, but just think of all the crying and breast beating that would ensue amongst the most liberal people in the state. Can you say schadenfreude? I would love to see the stand off between the Sierra Club, Green Peace, and Earth First vs Pelosi and the rest of the eco-frauds living in San Fran.

Reply to  john york
January 18, 2019 12:27 pm

John York, You mean “Green Piece”, i.e. Give Us Our Piece of the $$$ or we’ll make big trouble.?

January 17, 2019 4:22 pm

It was North of the Goyder Line which is too dry for grain farming, its desert country as one goes further North. Some grass and bushes is all that occurs North of that line.

So about 40 per cent of this State is too dry. It ends up with the border of the Northern Terrotory which becomes tropical, thus has the Monsoon, or Big Wet as we call it.
Australia is a big country, from the cold of Tasmania in the South, to the tropics of the North which is near the Equater, but a lot of it is desert, so cannot carry a large population.


Jim Whelan
January 17, 2019 4:45 pm

I live in Southern California and we are currently in our third week of almost continuous rain. This is a new kind of “drought” I’m waiting for the new term (like climate change instead of global warming) but for now I’ll just have to accept that it’s a drought.

Steve Reddish
Reply to  Jim Whelan
January 17, 2019 11:11 pm

How about “sun drought”, as in rain drought alternating with sun drought.


Rhys Jaggar
January 18, 2019 2:36 am

It would be most inappropriate to remove major dams until aquifer recharge were completed, which might take the 21st century or more to achieve. However, the question Californians should ask themselves is whether groundwater alone could supply all needs if recharge programmes were in full swing, since aquifers lose little water from solar evaporation.

If the answer to that question were yes, then dam removal could begin and free flowing rivers could return, provided that seasonal flooding could be managed through aquifer recharge programmes.

Tom Schaefer
January 18, 2019 5:09 am

I wanted to comment of the photo of the dry lake bed. From the time I was ten, I spent a large amount of time fishing in a lake near our home. 5 years later, around 1975, construction on a large number of home began in the watershed of the two tributary streams that fed the lake. The previously clear water was immediately muddied, and within two years, the shallows, previously abundant with game fish, were dead and silted almost to the surface. Paradise lost.

Why can’t the state of California dredge out these drought-induced dry lake beds and increase the capacity of the reservoirs while improving the thermal profile of them for life

January 18, 2019 6:12 am

If the pmdi uses precipitation in its calculation, the records are skewed. The state precipitation cakculates annual precip from jan to dec rather than july to june which would isolate each winter, rather than splitting late winter of the year with the following years early portion of winter. Otherwise el ninos (2016) get muted and droughts as well (1977). Water districts tend to at use oct to oct, better than jan to jan, but it really should be july to july or such. That puts droughts in order of severity at 1977, 1976, 1925 and then 2015, and restores the 2016 el nino back into the record for california.

Bill Parsons
January 18, 2019 5:07 pm

some researchers define drought by calculating the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI). Despite using the same tree rings, the PDSI transformed a natural California drought into the worst in 1200 years, evoking global warming fears.

What to trust?

Most scientists agree the PDSI is biased towards worse droughts, because it assumes higher temperatures always dry the land.

I seem to remember a different PDSI last time I looked. Has the website itself been transformed in (say) the last 10 years?

Ulric Lyons
January 18, 2019 6:25 pm

“Before significant CO2 warming was possible, Dust Bowl years from 1928-1939 and the 1950s drought were the most severe 20th century American droughts. La Niña-like ocean temperatures blocked rain storms and triggered the Dust Bowl ..”

La Nina wasn’t particularly strong through the 1930’s. Surely the dominant driver of drought for the US continental interior is the warm phase of the AMO.

comment image

Jim Steele
Reply to  Ulric Lyons
January 18, 2019 7:43 pm


I would not be surprised if the AMO was involved and I have read papers suggesting it was. However for a newspaper article for lay people I did not want to go to deep into the weeds. For many a layperson just the word “oscillation” is an overload.

So the La Nina-like cause was based on Seager (2014) who wrote “Seager et al. (2005) and Herweijer et al. (2006) presented SST forcedatmosphere model simulations for the entire post- 1856 period of instrumental SST observations and showed that the three observed nineteenth-century droughts, the Dust Bowl, and the 1950s drought were all simulated by the model and argued that persistent LaNina states in the tropical PacificOcean were the essential cause of all.”

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