California Drought a Big Deal, but Misconceptions Abound

Imagine a hurricane that only moved a few miles a day. Unlike most hurricanes, which slowly weaken when they sit over the same water and leach the energy from it, this slow hurricane only grows stronger as it continues its crawl towards populated areas. Imagine the media hype, the terror, the rush to prepare and evacuate.

In terms of impact on human lives, the drought that is currently strengthening in California is likely to be much like that hypothetical hurricane. Sure, it might ‘miss’ at the last minute and deliver only a glancing blow, but at this point it appears devastation is likely. It won’t bring the same direct loss of life as a hurricane could, but its effects on the economy and ecology of the area may be felt for decades, if not centuries. It’s too early to say for sure, but this could be the Big Drought the people in the know have been talking about for years. I hope I am wrong, but I suspect I am not.

There are, however, a lot of misconceptions bouncing around. Unfortunately, most of them don’t make the situation look much better when resolved… (warning… this is long)

“This is the worst drought California has ever had”

If only that were true. We don’t know how this will end, but in terms of amount of available water, this is unlikely to get close to other events of the past. This scary little 2005 article describes how tree rings reveal numerous droughts striking both the Sierras and the Colorado River watershed at once. The 1800s were a time of extreme weather fluctuations, and in addition to at least one massive flood, the area was hit by several droughts. One of them, along with overgrazing from introduced cattle, may have dealt an essentially fatal blow to the native grasses and wildflowers that previously occurred over much of the state. I have read an account, though I can’t find it now, of a year around that time where Santa Barbara went an entire rainy season without a drop of rain aside from drizzle from fog. There are also accounts from when the Spanish first came to California of a much drier climate. And all of these pale in comparison with the dark secret hidden in some of the granitic lakes of the Sierras… submerged forests. These and other evidence point to droughts that lasted decades, where the forests crept into the basins of drying lakes – and probably died back most other places. If a drought like that were to return (which it will, some day)… well, what would happen to California would make what happened to the Rust Belt look like a minor population blip.
You see… this isn’t a ‘big deal’ in terms of rainfall over the grand scheme of things. But, there are now 38 million people in California. All of them depend on water that falls in the Sierras, in the coast ranges, and what is left of the Colorado River after Phoenix and Las Vegas is done with it. In terms of number of people affected, it may be the worst water shortage in California’s history.

“The governor needed to suspend CEQA/environmental regulations, because people are more important than fish”

Regardless of the importance of human life versus fish life, this is the mother of all false dichotomies. There are not, for instance, bans on watering your lawn in California right now. LANDSCAPING MAKES UP HALF OF ALL RESIDENTIAL WATER USE IN CALIFORNIA.
What the governor is actually saying is that having a freakin sterile postcard of green surrounding your mini-mall is worth obliverating fisheries and destroying whole wetlands, rivers, lakes, and communities. It’s how water has been managed since Mulholland’s day and it is not changing. If everyone got rid of their lawn, except for parks and sports fields, and if people gave up washing their cars and filling up backyard swimming pools they use twice a year, we might get through this drought without any irreversible impacts to the agricultural economy or to wetland and riparian ecosystems that help regulate and clean water flow.
It’s not going to happen though. The band is gonna keep on playing as the ship sinks into an abyss of suburbian dystopic green sod. And if you don’t live in California, don’t think you are immune to this selfish train wreck. Food prices will skyrocket due to failed crop yields before most people get rid of their lawns.

“This is definitely going to be the worst fire season ever in southern California”
Well… fire ecology is complicated. In the Sierras, if a lot of trees die, there may be some nasty fires. But these are a long time coming due to a combination of inappropriate forest management (clearcutting followed by fire suppression), introduced invasive plants, bark beetles, and to some extent climate change. But in the chaparral-covered mountains of LA, the brush may not be any more ‘tinder dry’ come next fall than it was last fall. Chaparral is always pretty flammable after the long dry summer. And assuming it stays very dry, there won’t be as many grasses and weedy plants as most years, so there will actually be less fine fuels. On the other hand, the fire season may be much longer which increases the chance of a bad fire. so it could go either way.

“It’s OK to keep watering my lawn”
No. Please don’t. You are taking water out of the reservoirs and aquifers, and water isn’t coming in to replace it. Do the math.

“Well, LA IS a desert.”
No, it’s not.

There’s more ranting where this came from, but this blog entry is already long enough, so I’m going to leave it at this: the rains and snows could come and turn this into a minor drought rather than a major disaster. Or they may not. We may be entering one of those multi-decade droughts. We just don’t know. All we can do is to try not to be dumb and wasteful with our water. Sadly, for California, even that may be too much to ask.

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