It really doesn’t matter how much it rains in California this year 

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.

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Neat trick, wizard!

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.

Reno NWS

This year is less of a cataclysm than last, oh thank goodness!

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.

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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.

California is literally sinking

This can’t be good: NASA tells us that the Central Valley is dropping 2 inches a month because of groundwater pumping. It’s a process that has been going on for a century or more, but with the extreme drought the pace has picked up significantly. Per the Sacramento Bee:

A report earlier this week by UC Davis said farmers are pumping an additional 6 million acre-feet of groundwater this year, compared to 2011, the year before the drought started, to compensate for shortages in deliveries of surface water from the State Water Project and the federal government’s Central Valley Project.

Continue reading

Nature going nuts in California

Mountain lions are roaming the streets of San Francisco. Great white sharks are massing just a few feet off the shore in Monterey.  California is in the midst of the worst drought in centuries, but it increasingly looks like there will be a historically strong El Niño this year. (Someone called it a “Godzilla”El Niño… we’ll see.) And while temperatures hit 112 in Red Bluff earlier this month — that’s way up north in the Central Valley, toward Shasta and Lassen — it appears to be snowing and/or heavily hailing in the High Sierra since yesterday. (Keep an eye on this fantastic webcam for an impressive daily timelapse — the source of the screen grab in my tweet.)

It’s the End of Days, I tell you. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

Flipping out intelligently over California’s drought

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Everyone is flippin’ out about California’s drought, and with good reason. Skim the excellent California Weather Blog‘s last few months of posts, and it’s clear that the state* is going through a period of warmth and dryness that it has not experienced in thousands of years. And evidence over the last decades points to us being in the middle of a climactic shift with wide-ranging but hard-to-predict effects.

But as the flip-out reaches a crescendo, I’m finding the quality of the conversation on the drought to be a bit uneven.

Take this NYT story. The work of five reporters, it asks questions such as the following:

Can Los Angeles continue to dominate as the country’s capital of entertainment and glamour, and Silicon Valley as the center of high tech, if people are forbidden to take a shower for more than five minutes and water bills become prohibitively expensive? Will tourists worry about coming? Will businesses continue their expansion in places like San Francisco and Venice?

Which have the feel of comments thrown around during an editorial meeting, but which end up having very little to do with the rest of the article, terrifying as they sound. We’re also told the California Dream may finally be crumbling because desert communities are replacing lawns with palo verde trees and cactus. For me, this particular anecdote is a hopeful sign of innovation and adaptation — as is any reconsideration of the cancer-like sprawl that’s characterized much California development in the last 60 years. It’s the upside of the drought, in a way: forcing people to confront the limits of their environment, and using human ingenuity to keep moving forward.

There’s much to be confused about in this article. “Mother Nature didn’t intend for 40 million people to live” in California, a USC historian tells us. But did Mother Nature “intend” for North America to have 530 million? For Planet Earth to have more than 7 billion? Of the many observations that the Times could have chosen to quote, this one seems more on the useless end of the spectrum.

And what about little details like the fact that much of desert SoCal draws its water not from the extreme-drought afflicted Sierra Nevada, but from the slightly less dried out (but massively over-allocated) Colorado River watershed. (Compare precipitation in the Rockies to the Sierra in the image below, from the aforementioned California Weather Blog.) The report does not even mention the Colorado or the Sierra.

Then the story tries to link the drought to the affordable housing crisis in San Francisco and Los Angeles, which is quite a stretch. When we say we have to cut back on housing developments, what I assume we’re talking about are McMansion subdivisions in the exurbs with expansive lawns and golf courses, not high-density apartments in a NorCal city. And as Mother Jones has reported, the major strains on the state’s water come from other sources, mainly agriculture.

But the Times article essentially glosses over the all-important facts about who is actually using water in California, and what they’re providing to the state in return: Agriculture, which drinks up 80 percent of California’s water (as we find out toward the end of the article), accounts for just 2 percent of its GDP (which the article does not mention).

The picture that begins to emerge is not a comprehensive assessment of the impact of the water crisis, but a secret wish for a Walking Dead/ Mad Max-type drought-apocalypse society in which those surfing, sun-tanned, different-priority-having Californians finally get their comeuppance.

Artist’s depiction of hydro-militias in the water wars of 2030. (Source: http://walkingdeadaily.tumblr.com/).

Of course, the drought is cause for great alarm, and for a reevaluation of economic priorities across the West, including rethinking the way we grow and by how much. But it is not, as you might guess from reading only this article, a new and surprising situation. Those of us who grew up in late-1980s California remember well the fun of drought-themed school recitations: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow, if it’s brown, flush it down!” Since the early days of river-rerouting, California’s fantastically shortsighted exploitation of its water resources has ensured near-constant crisis in years that have even a little less than normal precipitation. It’s absolutely not surprising that climate change has tipped the state over the edge. (See the late Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert for the classic history of Western water mismanagement.)

Here’s the problem with all of this: When we miss the long-term context of the crisis, and the Hobbesian droughtpocalypse fails to materialize, there’s a risk that the next time we have a good rain year, we forget all about the changes we need to make and just celebrate the short-lived surplus.  Which is what often happened in 2011, when the West got dumped on, and everyone wondered if we could stop worrying.

California does have solutions available. The question is just whether people are civic-minded enough and have long enough attention spans to adopt them — and whether we’re courageous enough to stand up to wealthy agricultural interests.

But in the somewhat confused conversations about the drought that I’m seeing, there’s not a unified push for these measures. Slideshows of empty reservoirs are great fodder for “These photos of Californias drought left me speechless”-clickbait, but they don’t necessarily tell us what’s really going on. Elsewhere, you’ll find people talking about their personal decisions to change consumption habits — certainly not a bad goal, but hard to use to effect really meaningful change in statewide water use. Take this viral-friendly graphic from the LA Times. Connect this to policy, and you’ve done something meaningful. Get a few conscientious consumers to avoid the mango bin at Wholefoods (even though most of the fruits are not grown in California), and you haven’t accomplished much.

Worse, until we have a less-panicked conversation, there will be space for right-wing responses to the drought like this absurd, opportunistic column by Carly Fiorina, which accuses liberals of pitting the endangered Delta smelt against California families.Besides highlighting the need for more poetic names for our endangered species, arguments like these are just populist propaganda for big agriculture and other water-guzzling business interests, who can’t be bothered to figure out how to be slightly more water-efficient for the common good. Until there’s greater clarity on the challenges California is actually facing, though, such arguments will find a toehold. (As an aside, how crazy is it that there are people who view it as waste any time a river actually reaches the ocean?)

Instead, what we need more of is this sort of sober analysis, posted to Robert Reich’s Facebook page a few days ago.

Why did Governor Jerry Brown exempt Big Oil and Big Agriculture from his order this week to cut water consumption by 25 percent? Big Oil uses more than 2 million gallons of fresh water a day in California for fracking, acidizing, and steam injections – nearly 70 million gallons last year alone. Meanwhile, California’s farmers consume 80 percent of the water used in the state and generate only 2 percent of the state’s economic activity.

Oddly, the Governor’s order focuses on urban water use, which makes up less than a quarter of the water consumed here. California could save the same amount of water by requiring its farmers to increase water efficiency by 5 percent.

That’s what I call an intelligent flip-out.

*Note: I’ll soon be back in California somewhat permanently, which is partly why I’m taking such a renewed interest in my home state.

Valley Fever: A poetic interpretation

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Valley Fever is a nasty, sometimes incurable and even deadly fungal infection that afflicts hundreds of thousands of people , as I learned in an article in this week’s New Yorker, by Dana Goodyear.  It is particularly prevalent in the American West, thrives in dry, dusty environments, and takes its name from the Central Valley of California, where it first gained notoriety and continues to be a major problem. Now I finally understand all the lyrics to Bakersfieldian Merle Haggard’s “Tulare Dust.”

Reading Goodyear’s piece, and in light of what I know of the history of this part of the country, I can’t help but feeling like Valley Fever is a kind of retribution for our torture of a rich land, a kind of fuku a la Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Or a Godzilla — a sleeping monster awakened by the hubris of man.

Of course, if you pressed me on it at all, I’d back down on this story right away. The facts are more complex, it’s unproveable, it’s a mystic theory at best if not downright superstitious, and it doesn’t do much for the thousands suffering debilitating symptoms from cocci infection to ruminate from afar on the big historical arc of Valley Fever’s emergence.

Still, if you will indulge me, here is my poetic recipe for how to summon up Valley Fever:

1. Arrive to a rich land unknown to your people. Chase its denizens into the hills and pay thugs to kill those who evade capture.

2. In the valley (now mostly vacant from humans) that John Muir described as “like a lake of pure sunshine, forty or fifty miles wide, five hundred miles long, one rich furred garden of yellow Compositae,” decide you will make a farming empire. To this end, drain the biggest fresh water lake west of the Mississippi.  Tulare Lake was the terminus of the southernmost salmon run in the United States, a vast wetland of tule marshes and grizzly bears that served as a stopover for hundreds of thousands of migrating birds. By 1899, after about five decades of intensive diversion for agriculture, it was gone.

3. Don’t stop there. Dam every tributary to keep the damn thing dry.

4. Divvy up the vast fertile valley bottom — one of the most productive areas in the United States — among a handful of rich mega-farmers who use their sway to get government-subsidized water rights. These farmers’ monopoly on water and land will keep the waves of migrant laborers who come from Oklahoma, Texas, the middle South, and later Mexico and Central America, indigent and landless.

5. But then the soil becomes exhausted, the people desperate. Drought grips the land. The inland sea is now a desert. The earth  has become saline.  Dust storms punish the grim towns.

6. As they become untenable, convert the cotton farms and orchards to prison yards, sewage dumps from distant cities, and bleak tract developments promising a simulacrum of suburban paradise, tidy faux-bucolic neighborhoods that end abruptly at empty fields and cement walls on the edges of freeways.

7. Reap the whirlwind, quite literally. Unleashed in the dust at the bottom of the lake, stirred up by plowing, drought, and construction, are deadly fungal spores that infiltrate every nook and cranny, riding high on billowing clouds of Tulare dust.

A compelling moral narrative? I think so.

Here’s the extended reading list that brought me to this version of events:

The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of A Secret American Empire, by Mark Arax.

Cadillac Desert: The American West Its Disappearing Waterby Marc Reisner.

Ishi Rediscovered by Robert Burrill.

Indian Summer: Traditional Life Among the Choinunme Indians of California’s San Joaquin Valley, by Thomas Jefferson Mayfield.

“Showdown at Tejon Ranch,” by Edward Humes in California Lawyer Magazine, June 2007.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.

Help me complete my list of Central California history reading in the comments, please.