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:
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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,