Just a quick reminder that, no matter how much El Niño drenches us this year (or doesn’t—we’re actually behind the curve on rainfall), California is still kind of up dirt creek in the long run.
I think that’s worth remembering as we gaze longingly to the skies, parse the intricacies of meteorological models, and discuss their “what ifs” and “probablys,” and our “hopes” and “fears” about the rain and snow.
Those are words I see a lot in the internet discussions of the California drought. Weather buffs, for all their obsession with the high-tech minutiae of the field, still end up sounding like so many Merlins wondering if the eye-of-newt-to-frankincense ratios are off in the potion they’ve whipped up to beseech the Northwind.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of the advancement of predictive science. It’s just that I see people looking to meteorology not just as technicians or out of curiosity but for answers on whether we’ll be OK. Filtered through the news, the effect is even worse—the jet stream is cast as a fickle savior. It’s scientific language projected onto an essentially religious relationship with the weather that probably goes back to the days of bone divination and smoky fires beneath cave paintings.
Let us all hope harder that we get enough rain to get us through another year of this madness.
But it doesn’t matter how hard we hope, how bad we want it, whether the models are right or not, or whether you’ve been naughty or nice this year. It doesn’t even really matter if it rains a lot this winter.
California—and the Western United States—faces a water crisis of its own design. We knew this long before we understood climate change, before the current drought put our state’s agriculture in doubt, triggered massive forest fires, and threatened to kill off 20% of our trees.
The real issue in California is a gigantic water management problem that has political origins—and only political solutions (with perhaps a bit of help from technology). Climate change and a historic drought have merely helped reveal the rottenness of our system. The mining of millennia-worth of groundwater; diversion of rivers hundreds of miles from their courses; the use of old, inefficient technologies; verdant golf courses in the desert; a frontier-era finders-keepers scheme for water rights: it all sounds pretty dumb, because it is.
It shouldn’t be a shocker that a system built by ambitious men for their own personal gain—whether Gold Rush prospectors, displaced Southern cotton kings, or resort developers, the motivations have been about the same—is failing to serve the public interest.
All the smartest weather researchers and journalists already know this. But I’m a bit worried the popular attitude of supplication to the weather gods (of which I am also guilty) is distracting us from the true source of our H20 woes.
Would that more of us directed our angst and dreams toward political action rather than pulling our hair out and wishing for rain. Things like further reducing our consumption of water, subsidizing more efficient technologies, banning wasteful practices, making sustainability and equity a headline in every one of our efforts at economic growth, and taking an active part in international movements to mitigate climate change.
Many Californians are already involved in these activities, but not enough. And definitely not as many as worry about the weather.