Durable Growth, Environment

Whither the drought?

1410190001 Dry FountainAs December reaches its midpoint, Californians are looking with hope toward El Nino and the rainfall that it’s predicted to deliver.  The oft expressed hope is that El Nino “will end the drought.”

Perhaps it’s a Christmas Grinch mode, but I find that the hope misses the point.

It’s not that I doubt the El Nino predictions.  I don’t have enough meteorological knowledge to have a useful opinion either way.  But there seems to be a strong scientific consensus on the likelihood of strong precipitation from El Nino and I’m a believer in scientific consensus.

My concern is deeper.  As much as anyone, I hope for good rain this winter.  But my wish isn’t for drought-ending rain, but for rain that will position us better when the drought reasserts itself.  I suspect, and fear, that the drought is perpetual.

I’ll make two independent arguments for perpetual drought.

The first is climate change.   If there are readers who want to debate climate change, please go elsewhere.  This isn’t the forum for that debate.  As noted above, I’m a believer in scientific consensus and the consensus on this massively studied subject is strong.  I’d be pleased if we’re not sliding into a cataclysmic change to our planet, but believe that possibility is remote.

Within the climate change theory is an expectation that the weather will bounce more quickly between extremes.  The higher energy in a warming system will provide the motive force to change between more severe weather events.  At the same time, it’s likely that the overall rainfall on the planet will be greater, as the higher temperatures will increase evaporation, which will in turn result in more rainfall as the hydrological balance is maintained.

So a possible model for California in a changed climate world would be several years of severe drought followed by winters of heavy rain, some of which will fill depleted reservoirs and much of which will fall at such high rates that it’ll run off before it provides much benefit.  Sound familiar?

A data point supporting this climate change scenario is a study from the Woods Hole Oceanography Institution in which the researchers report that the current drought, when considering both the paucity of rainfall and the higher temperatures, is the worst within the 1,200 year study window.

Some argue that droughts are a periodic element of the California climate and that the current drought is no different.  But the Woods Hole report refutes that, finding that the current drought is worse than anything in our memories.  Regardless of the side one takes on the climate change debate, it should be unnerving that the ongoing drought is worse than any California drought since at least when Charlemagne ruled France.

Even worse, the Woods Hole report was issued in December 2014, with a note that the Pineapple Express was expected to shortly ease the drought.  From our vantage point in December 2015, we know that the Pineapple Express delivered a couple of strong storms, but the drought soon reestablished itself and has continued for another year.  So the Woods Hole report, as scary as it might have been, understated the situation.

My other perpetual drought argument is an idea put by Faith Kearns and Doug Parker of the University of California Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources.  Kearns and Parker propose that California, with its huge supply of arable land and natural shortage of precipitation, has always been in a state of drought, with every gallon of water that can be saved from other uses or made available by new water projects having a potential use in agriculture.

By their argument, California has been a state of drought or impending drought since John C. Fremont rode through the Central Valley in the 1840s and described it as a desert filled with otherwise arable land.

Kearns and Parker further argue that water is subject to induced demand, which each new water supply project encouraging growth that puts the state back on the edge of drought.  They draw a parallel to the theory of induced traffic.  (Oddly, they describe the theory of induced water demand as still gaining traction, while induced traffic is commonly accepted.  In my experience, I regularly interact with people who are far from accepting the concept of induced traffic.)

Based on the attitude sometimes taken toward the wine industry in the North Bay, I know that some feel no obligation to conserve water in order to expand agriculture.  But I’ll argue that perspective is wrong.

In the modern economies, cities, states, and nations thrive by having products that can be exported.  This article from the New York Times graphically depicts the extent to which California agriculture feeds the country and the world.

Perhaps I don’t personally benefit when another bottle of wine or pound of almonds is sold to New York or Japan, but California benefits and that will provide indirect benefits to me, for which I’m willing to conserve water.

And I agree with the argument of Kearns and Parker there will always be that connection between water conservation and agricultural production.

So there you have it, two independent but complementary arguments that we’ll never again be free from drought.

What are the implications for our way of life?  To begin, the movement toward low-water use landscaping and indoor water conservation must continue.  The current drought rules, although needing some tidying up, must remain in force.

But even more importantly is the understanding that our use of water goes far beyond the amount we pull from a faucet.  As just one example, many sources of energy require water, so driving to an out-sized home at the urban fringe costs us water both for the gasoline and the home heating.

Urbanism would address both.  Walkable urbanism is a rational response to perpetual drought.

Our frontyard fountain has now been dry for nearly two years.  I don’t expect to ever run it again.  I miss the quiet burble, but it may be time to convert the fountain into a planter.

I’ll be leaving shortly for a pre-holiday visit to in-laws living in a community in the extended South Bay.  It’s a town I’ve visited several times in my role as dutiful son-in-law, even having taking a number of photos of the urbanist aspects, both good and bad.  In my next post, I’ll share photos and my updated urbanist impressions of the town.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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