Why Rain Is Not the Answer to California’s Desperate Search for Water
Thursday, February 19, 2015
CRUEL IRONY: The nation’s top climate science denier has taken power over environmental policy in Congress — just as actual climate scientists have forecast California’s worst drought since the Middle Ages.
Far more than a shortage of precipitation, the state’s four-year drought represents the start of a 1,000-year event, new research shows, propelled by atmospheric warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions.
“The current California drought is exceptionally severe in the context of at least the last millennium,” concluded a recent study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. The state’s drought is shaped not just by rain and snow scarcity but also by “record high temperatures,” noted two climatologists, who live in the real world.
Back in the Beltway, however, James Inhofe (R-OK) last month assumed chairmanship of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where his evangelical Christian views on climate change now hold sway over efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
“Climate is changing and climate has always changed and always will,” Senator Sooner promptly declared. “The hoax is that there are people who are so arrogant to think they are so powerful they can change climate. Man can’t change climate.”
As policy makers from Santa Barbara to Sacramento earnestly seek ways and means to relieve California’s parched condition, Inhofe’s political ascendance highlights one broad obstacle to addressing the existential threats of climate change and drought. Sadly, it is but one of several baked-in, intractable impediments framing the crisis.
Mega-drought. The latest scary report on California’s drought is based on historic measurements of tree rings, which grow narrowly in dry years and wider in wet ones. Similarly, a separate study, published last week in Science Advances, points to a looming “mega-drought” throughout the Southwest in this century, comparable to that which destroyed the Ancestral Pueblo culture.
“Our results point to a remarkably drier future that falls far outside the contemporary experience of natural and human systems in Western North America,” the authors wrote. “Future droughts will occur in a significantly warmer world with higher temperatures than recent historical events … ”
A real-time illustration of the problem: Rain drenched the state in December, and runoff temporarily boosted reservoir levels; however, because temperatures were warm, snow formed only at very high elevations, so there was little buildup of Sierra snowpack, the crucial source of sustained water supply.
Population. Environmentally conscious Californians so far are meeting the state’s goal of reducing overall water consumption by 20 percent by 2020. But the supply surplus produced by conservation still won’t meet forecast demand as population grows.
That is the conclusion of an investigation by the Sacramento Bee, whose reporters surveyed 370 local agencies, then compared their demand forecasts to Department of Finance population projections.
“The key to this is, our water sources don’t increase as population grows,” a Natural Resources Defense Council analyst told the newspaper. “If population is to grow, we need to figure out a way to do it with the same amount of water.”
Geography. One fundamental fact has shaped California’s water wars: Most of the state’s water is in the north, while most of its people live in the south; most recently, for example, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and the Central Valley received less than an inch in early February, as up to a foot fell in northernmost counties.
However, the war briefly halted in 2014, when Capitol pols forged a rare bipartisan agreement on Proposition 1, a $7 billion bond ballot measure. Voters bought it, 2 to 1.
Alas, the mini-era of good feeling ended quickly.
Committee hearings on how to spend the billions began last week, and the complex crosscurrents and bitter conflicts of water politics — fish vs. farmers, conservation vs. development, coastal vs. inland — swiftly resurfaced.
Notably, the California Water Alliance, representing Central Valley interests, attacked Save the Delta, an influential environmental group, over the need to build new, low-elevation reservoirs to collect and save more warm winter runoff.
“Millions of Californians should be very concerned that some extremist groups and individuals are pushing to move storage project dollars away from the creation of new water storage,” the pro-ag group charged. “Voters need to know that they will not become victims of a bait-and-switch … ”
As combat resumed, the State Water Resources Control Board was to convene this week for hearings on a range of possible anti-drought next steps, from greater rationing to more wastewater recycling.
“Astronauts drink their own pee and have been for some time,” Chairperson Felicia Marcus noted at the last board meeting, “but here you’re drinking someone else’s pee.”
So there’s that.