California Drought Update

We’ve been in a drought for the last four years and now it looks like we’re in for a fifth year.  The promise of a wet “El Nino” year is fading by the day as dry and unusually hot weather has descended across the state.  Last week we had days in the 70’s and one day that set high temperature records by reaching 80.  Little rain is in the forecast.

The rain has been here the last couple of months and rainfall totals are just about normal for the year to date.  The snowpack in the Sierra is normal and the skiers have had actual snow to ski on.

Not that I understand why you’d want to leave a nice warm house to slide down a cold wet mountain on a couple of sticks with the real possibility of bodily injury.

Still the snow serves its purpose as the melting snow fills the reservoirs and provides water for us to drink in the summer.  Likely we’ll end the year with just slightly under normal, but that will be enough to prevent water rationing from getting worse.

My take on all the evidence at hand suggests that we just need to get used to having less water in the state.  Not that anyone should be surprised as most of California is basically desert with a fringe of semiarid grass lands topped with a few snowy mountains.  Has been for several thousand years.

Two big factors reduce the available water: Population growth and climate change.

Over the last century population has grown from about 3 million people to about 38 million today. We haven’t received more water – except what we steal from the Colorado River.  There’s not much water here to start with and adding lawns, swimming pools, showers, laundry and car washes for an extra 35 million people is a fairly big problem for a desert.

I know there are people who’d like to deny that things change, but they do.  As a child I recall a lot more rainy weather around here and if you look at the historical rainfall graphs one thing you’ll notice is that the number of above average rainfall years is declining.  Which really impacts our water system as we depend on those wet years to carry us through the dry.

Recently I’ve been doing some reading about 19th century California and have taken note of the descriptions of rain and winter in Northern California.  In his book, “Two Years Before the Mast,” Richard Dana describes storms along our coast that we’ve not seen since the 1980’s.  Dana’s book is about a trip taken from Boston to California aboard a merchant vessel.  His ship spent two years trading goods from Boston for hides and tallow.  His descriptions of pre-gold rush California are fascinating and especially his notes on how a Pacific storm kept his ship off the coast of what is now LA for about five days. I haven’t seen a storm like that since the 80’s.

Change is normal and to be expected.  Just look at the geologic record of our state an you’ll find plenty of evidence of past changes. Dry spells and wet spells have come and gone.  Some of these events have lasted for hundreds of years. That we’ll have less water in the future seems to be the current trend.

At some point in our distant future that might change and we’ll have a different weather pattern. Maybe we’ll revert to a rain forest or have the great central valley again covered in a vast inland sea.

The question then is what to do about the situation?  Here I offer a few solutions fix the long-term drought problem:

  1. Everyone just move.  Seriously.  In the past, when humans have faced a lack of water, they just packed up and moved to where the water is.  Do you think Canada would mind if 30 million of us moved up there?
  2. Stop farming.  Agriculture is the largest consumers of water in the state.  Stop producing food and we’ll have more water for the swimming pool.  Food? Who needs food, we should all be on diets anyway.
  3. Conserve.  Most of us use more water than we need.  To live a person really only needs a gallon a day for drinking, cooking and basic sanitation.  The average American uses between 80 and 100 gallons per day.  So just don’t worry how you smell.
  4. Recycle.  Many water districts in the state are moving to recycling waste water back to drinkable.  Orange County has one of the largest programs.  My local water district has had a “purple pipe project” for years.  This takes treated water from sewage treatment plant and makes it available for irrigation and industrial users.  Most of our golf courses and many new buildings use this water for lawns and landscape irrigation.  They are planning to expand that system to provide drinking water from it.
  5. Solar Desalination. We’re right next to this big body of water, the Pacific ocean, and being desert have a lot of sun light.  Desalination takes lots of energy, but we also get a lot of energy from the sun.  There are small pilot projects that use solar energy to convert sea water into drinking water.  Larger projects using fossil fuels are already in operation.

There are plenty of reasonable solutions to the problem.  However, given the nature of humans in groups and the oddities of both California and US democracy, expect reason and common sense to fail.

I actual expect that our governor will sign legislation that will authorize the National Guard to contract for railway tanker cars to bring water down from Quebec and distribute it in compostable paper containers to the general population in library parking lots.  He’ll also sign a bill that outlaws desalination because of the environment damage it can cause.

Till next week,
Andrew

About Andrew Reynolds

Born in California Did the school thing studying electronics, computers, release engineering and literary criticism. I work in the high tech world doing software release engineering Then I got prostate cancer Now I am a blogger and work in my wood shop doing scroll saw work and marquetry.
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40 Responses to California Drought Update

  1. Hi Andrew. London recycle their water it use to be eight times a day. Thank you for linking my poem Sphere! Best Wishes. The Foureyed Poet.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think we should stop caring so much about that stupid fish, too. Here in socal things appear to be worse. We normally 3. something inches this time of year. Instead it’s been .048 or something like that. Boo. The way they talked about this “monster el nino,” I was hoping for floods!

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  3. inesephoto says:

    What a tragedy. Plus, a tragedy of ignorance.

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  4. Don’t worry… Either the mega-earthquake that’s been predicted for so long will happen and half the state will just drop into the ocean or the super volcano in Yellowstone will erupt. In either case, there won’t be as much competition for that sprinkler system and car wash water afterward. Assuming you are left with a yard and car…

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    • As we say here, “blame San Andreas, it’s his fault.” Where I live, my front yard will be a nice beach when that half of the state drops off. Locally, I am more interested when the next eruption for Mt. Shasta or Mt. Lasen might happen. Yellowstone will just take out Idaho, Washington, Oregon and parts of Montana and Wyoming. Well the winds might deliver parts of the resulting ash down here, but most will head east to New York. But once the boarder guards up north are buried in ash, they won’t notice us building a pipeline down from the Columbia River. It might work…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Annika Perry says:

    Great post with lots of information – something needs to change! We live in one of the driest parts of the UK (supposedly!!), less rain than the Sahara desert and often have hosepipe bans in the summer and told to recycle water, not have baths etc. Then at the same time a broken water pipe gushing water into the street will be left unfixed for weeks – the hypocrisy is dazzling. See you’re not a real fan of skiing either! 😀

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    • We’ve have some reports of amazing water wasting here. I heard one report that said just fixing the leaking pipes could save millions of gallons of water. Then I read that the local water company is running low on cash because they aren’t selling as much water due restrictions so they now don’t have the money to fix the pipes and are only fixing pipes that burst.

      I have a motto I live by, “If you can see snow, you’re too close.”

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Yes. What the heck happened to the El Nino? It’s not happening, and we’ll have to wait another few years now.

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    • I didn’t say too loud at the start of the season, but I never had much hope for El Nino. For next year they’re now predicting La Nina. My personal read on the data is that we’re in for a drought lasting at least a decade, maybe more.

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  7. pommepal says:

    Interesting thoughts Andrew. We are much the same over here in South East Queensland. For 10 years 2000 to 2010. we had serious drought. rigid water restrictions, dams very low. Then in 2010, 2011 and 2013 it rained in fact it poured, floods every where, dams overflowing and the council encouraging us to use more water (revenue raising???) but statistically the droughts will return. Then what??? They did build a desalination system but it never worked and is now just a huge rusting white elephant.

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    • We’ve got a couple of white elephant desalination plants that were built in the 1990’s. They are expensive to operate. One city here built one, started using it and then the rains came back so they stopped. After a few years they decided they would never need it and sold off major parts to make some money during the recession. Now they’re have to pay almost what the plant cost to replace the parts.

      and they recently raised our water rates because we’re not using enough water to cover the cost of operating the water pipelines. Yes, we use less and pay more.

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      • pommepal says:

        Same here Andrew. The plant was ready to use when the floods came so was never turned on. Now it has all rusted up. When the dams over flowedThe council actually gave us a free weekend to use as much water as we wanted. Of course that was just to get us used to using it again…

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  8. Debra says:

    My fascination with water started about 15 years ago when I heard William Mulholland’s granddaughter give a mini-lecture following the publication of the book she wrote about her grandfather. We really never did have enough water! Then I attended another lecture about two years ago connected to the 100th anniversary of the aqueduct, and the speaker was talking about how we will all be migrating to Canada at some point! I think we’re in real trouble if we don’t do something about population growth. That’s my number one harangue. I’m so disappointed in our lack of anticipated rainfall that I could cry! But I probably need to hold onto my tears–I may need them later for moisture!

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    • Mulholland is an interesting figure in California history. Without his plans and the aqueduct, LA and much of southern CA would still be a waste land. We can’t keep shoving more people here without providing the water.

      I hope Canada has enough.

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  9. Pingback: Early Morning Rain – Ohm Sweet Ohm

  10. You make some good points in this post today, Andrew. I have a theory that the State of CA should open up the old Med Fly Inspection stations at the border. These relics left over from the ’70s & ’80s could ensure that every visitor entering the state brings with them a gallon of water for each person in the vehicle. LOL!
    Ω

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    • Good point and another thing to assign the Guard to do. Just one fine point, it should be one gallon per person per projected length of stay. Or say a fine of $100 per person per day to pay for the Canadian tanker trains.

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      • All kidding aside, you have made some good points about the need for water conservation. The landscape here in Marin is changing. People are Xeriscaping and returning to low-water use native plants.

        Our local Water District has been promoting the use of multi-zone wi-fi sprinkler controllers. They can be programmed by the type and number of plants/trees per zone and they connect to an online weather service that sends out a forecast that allows it to meter the amount of water to each zone based on predicted temps, rainfall and humidity.

        The Aussies have been using them for years and the golf courses and large apt. complexes are switching over to them from what I have heard.
        Ω

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        • Good points about landscaping. I got rid of my lawn years ago and now have more native plants and other lower water consumers. Also I’ve got a multi-zone drip irrigation system. It request a bit of constant maintenance but it’s reduced my water bill. I’d like to get one like you mention that has a predictive system. I do that manually now by setting zone times by hand. Sadly, I don’t update that as often as I could.

          Andrew

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  11. Margie says:

    Here’s an interesting story about the drought history in California:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/14/science/californias-history-of-drought-repeats.html?_r=0
    Previous ‘megadroughts’ suggest that our climate does keep changing, even in the absence of extensive human habitation.

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    • Yes, I’ve read those studies. What seems to be happening is that current human activity is accelerating the change and likely pushing it to higher extremes than has seen before. The other thing that is happening is a large scale denial on the part of the general public and government that things do change and we need to be planning for a changing world. Assuming that we can build one water project that will last forever is just silly and short sighted.

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      • Margie says:

        The National Climate Assessment says that most of the USA’s droughts of the past century, even the infamous 1930s Dust Bowl “were exceeded in severity and duration by droughts during the preceding 2,000 years.” The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that California’s drought was primarily produced by a lack of precipitation driven by natural atmospheric cycles that are unrelated to man-made climate change.
        Of course, assigning blame for the cause doesn’t change the need to adjust to change!

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        • Which is really the point. Assigning blame might feel good, but it generally leads to finger pointing which is counter productive. Also, there is no one reason why, natural change and human change both impact our world. Trying to say it is all one or all the other is to deny the complexity and interwoven nature of world we live in.

          We’d be better served by learning how to adapt to the changing world we find ourselves in.

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  12. I have made big changes in my water use–all for the good: shorter showers, different way to wash dishes, that sort. The biggest change would be capturing rain water. From what I understand, California captures less than 30% (compared to Nevada who captures 70%). We even have the money to change that but there’s something about an endangered animal? Don’t really know.

    Me, I’m taking your advice as soon as the housing market recovers and moving.

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    • There’s a lot of endangered animals out there. Another big problem with rain water collection has been storage and surge. Much of the water we get from storms comes in large amounts in short period of time. Our storm water systems just aren’t able to capture and store that. Again it’s another place in city planning politics where reason and common sense will fail.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. jfwknifton says:

    One other indication of the direction that the climate is taking is whether any birds, say from Mexico, are being seen more frequently. Here in England, Mediterranean birds such as egrets are beginning to breed on a large scale. Before 1990, they were very rare.

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    • With the recent warming of the ocean along our coast, we’ve seeing sea creatures in Northern California that are normally only seen in the south. I’ve also noted that our fruit trees are blooming earlier in the year. Plenty of signs were the climate is going.

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  14. Is that true about the Governor Brown Legislation? I hadn’t heard about that. It would be more profitable if we built a water pipeline from up North to California than oil pipelines. Bottled water can cost more than $3/bottle vs $2.99/gallon for gas.

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    • Bottled water is way more expensive than gas. Now if Canada wanted to really make money, a water pipeline right now could be profitable. The last paragraph is speculation on my part. So far other than the governor endorsing a few water bonds and encouraging conservation, I’ve heard nothing from Sacramento that tells me they anything other than waiting for rain.

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  15. Tell me one thing, How come we are getting all these folks from your fine state, They are just plain weird, They came here thinking we don’t wear shoes and no indoor plumbing. Boy was that a susprise for them. But they could not beleive how advance we are here. Many where tell stories about how backware we are. No manners,no fine hotels or nothing to do but listen to country music all day and drink moon shine. Hell come on out to Nashville and get a jar of shine and listen to the talk !!!

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    • Many of the egotists in this state are convinced that anyone outside of the LA basin are backwards. The rest of us encourage them to go forth and get educated.

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  16. PiedType says:

    Here at the source of the Colorado River, the snowpack is currently at 100% or higher. So for one more year, at least, you should get your usual amount of water (minus whatever the states in between take). But last year was our third warmest on record and we’ve been abnormally warm so far this year, and that doesn’t bode well. As you’ve pointed out, states that draw from the Colorado need to stop building and watering golf courses, filling swimming pools, and expanding subdivisions and agricultural operations as though there were an infinite supply of water. There isn’t. Mother Nature knows that. That’s why she didn’t put forests and grasslands in New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada.

    Did I mention I have a rather pessimistic outlook on the subject of water in the west and southwest?

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s mostly Southern Cal that draws from the Colorado. This year they had above average in some areas and with OC and San Diego joining the recycling programs plus putting desal plans in operation, I expect the strain on the river will lessen.

      and it’s not just a California problem, it’s all of the west.

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      • PiedType says:

        In the west, it’s always been about the water. I first started worrying years ago when I read that because it is tapped so heavily, most years it no longer reaches the ocean. It disappears somewhere in the Mexican desert.

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        • Very true, little of the Colorado reaches the sea and now even the dams along the Colorado rare fill to capacity anymore. The Southwest could be in for big trouble in the next 10 years.

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  17. Carrie Rubin says:

    Lots of interesting information here. How wonderful it would be to achieve solar desalination on a grand scale. The good it could do.

    Liked by 1 person

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