The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

The California Drought Continues


California is still in a drought. It has been for four years straight. The rains in December, while dramatic, were not enough to break the drought. Voluntary water reduction has not worked, so the state has now enacted mandatory restrictions, but these do not apply to the heaviest users of water in the state. The drought is not likely to ease up.

There are a couple of subtleties here.

One is that California water years run from the end of September to the beginning of October–that means that the December rains count as part of this water year, not last, a point that could conceivably confuse some people who look at the records. No mere technicality, the concept of a water year reflects the principle that it is impossible to water the land retroactively–December’s rains could not have changed the dire straights of 2014 no matter how heavy they were. They could have eased the situation for 2015, but have not. Instead, precipitation for the year is already at or below average. To ease the drought, precipitation would have to be above average in order to make up the deficit.

Another is that the scary headline, that California only has one year of water left, refers only to stored water and not ground water or any new water that might come into the state over the next year. The figure also refers to a year of normal use and, thanks to the new regulations, use should be well below normal. So the situation is not quite as dire as it may seem. But it is dire enough.

Finally, droughts are relative. A drought is when there is less water than the users of water want–in practice, when there is less water than is necessary for whatever normally goes on at any given locality. That is why we don’t say deserts are in a state of permanent drought. But the relative nature of drought also means that any drought in California is worse now than it would have been a generation ago because there are more people in the state demanding water. This is one of the reasons the current drought is so historic.

And yes, climate change is relevant. These three years of drought have also been the hottest in California’s history. As the planet as a whole warms up, hot years like these become more likely. Hot weather increases evaporation and transpiration, meaning that the land needs more precipitation to get the same amount of soil moisture. That, too, makes any drought worse. It makes the possibility of another regional mega-drought, one lasting decades or centuries, even more serious.

But the very fact that demand makes drought worse also means that lessened demand could ease the drought. California could use less water.

Which is exactly what it’s doing now, of course, but I’m talking about something a good deal more radical. For example, California is an arid state, so why is it a major agricultural area? Why are there green lawns and swimming pools? I am struck by the fact that the water restrictions specify what people are allowed to do with water (e.g., not water lawns every day) not how much water they are allowed to use. The latter would, of course, make more sense–estimate how much water there is available, divide by the number of people, that sort of thing. But that is not how we normally do things–we don’t start with what we have and figure out how to adapt to those limits, we start with what we wished we had and go into debt in order to get it.

With water, going into debt means exhausting reservoirs and aquifers.

Much has been made of the fact that the water restrictions do not apply to California’s agriculture, despite the fact that it’s responsible for about 80% of the state’s water use. The simple, obvious explanation is that “big agriculture” has somehow gamed the system, although it is hard to see how it could, given that agriculture is only responsible for 2% of the state’s GDP. More likely, the fact that farming feeds people is relevant, as is the fact that almost, pistachio, and walnut trees, which together account for much of California agriculture, are long-lived perennials. If they die in a drought, that is a long term loss for the state–even for the country. If California’s agriculture fails, or if the industry has to pay a true free-market price for access to the region’s limited water, food prices across the country will respond.

California’s water woes are not just the result of global warming (in part), the situation also exemplifies why global warming is a problem to begin with–at bottom there is a fundamental refusal to treat the limits on our available resources as real. But layered on top of that are serious logistical, political, and moral complications that make a supposedly simple fix–use less–harder to realize. Is the US as a whole really willing to give up California’s agriculture? The irony is that, if we did stop sourcing our food from the other side of the country, we’d use less fossil fuel and contribute less to global warming.

The final thing that strikes me about the coverage of the drought is that while some people are clearly acknowledging that this is a new, climate-changed normal, I have not found anybody using the drought to call for reducing emissions. No one (that I have encountered) is demanding climate-sane political representatives and climate-sane policy to please save California. I hear people talking about maybe adapting to the new normal, but nothing about changing the disastrous course that is creating it.

California has 55 Electoral College votes, more than any other state in the country.

Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

4 thoughts on “The California Drought Continues

  1. Pingback: Looking Back | The Climate Emergency

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  4. Pingback: I’m Singing Happy Birthday | The Climate in Emergency

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