Defining Ideas

Lessons From California’s Drought

Wednesday, February 3, 2016
Image credit: 
Barbara Kelley

By the end of 2015, it had begun raining and snowing throughout California after fifty months of drought.

Meteorologists had long forecasted that the cyclical return of the so-called El Niño Southern Oscillation—the episodic rise in temperature of a band of ocean water that develops in the central and east-central equatorial Pacific—would end the drought.

The warmer Pacific alters winds, air temperature, and atmospheric pressures and thus tends to reroute northern storms to their proper course over the Western United States. If the current storm track persists through March, California’s drought may well come to an end.

Was California changed by the catastrophic drought—and did the country at large learn any lessons from it?

A recently released documentary, Dead Harvest, by filmmaker and writer Ray McNally chronicles the human side of the four-year drought. McNally shows how a natural challenge turned into a human calamity—not by the mere indifference of government officials, but rather by their ideological policies that deliberately ensured water shortages throughout the state and that were often targeted at agriculture of the Central Valley.

Indeed, anyone who has driven across the southwestern Central Valley in the last four years would have noticed hundreds of boarded-up rural homes and vast tracts of unfarmed and now feral—but otherwise once rich—farmland. Since 2011, the cutoff of surface irrigation water deliveries and the subsequent efforts to make up those losses by unprecedented pumping of groundwater to save irrigated farmlands have depleted the aquifer in drastic fashion. 

The Central California water table has fallen in depth anywhere from 50 to 500 feet—the severity predicated on the distance from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. That decline has prompted the drilling of thousands of new private wells, but at costs often quadruple the pre-drought rate. The huge demand for limited drilling rigs, the need to drill to unprecedented levels to find water, the soaring power bills to pump from greater depths, and the increase in permanent orchard and vineyard acreage all conspired to spike agricultural expenses. In sum, the drought has warped agriculture in paradoxical ways. 

Small rural homes with dry wells, especially along the western corridors of the valley, are now often abandoned. If they had been rented out, several years of rental income would not have paid for the exorbitant cost of new replacement domestic wells. Most valley residents, especially those retired, could not afford the $60- to $100-a-foot expense to drill down hundreds of feet to tap falling water. Droughts in the future will probably continue to thin out rural living in the central part of the state.

Another irony is that the drought has spiked the radical transition away from open row-crop ground and deciduous tree-fruit to the planting of nut orchards, almonds especially. On the West Side of the valley, water deliveries were all but ended. The water table in some places has fallen below 1,000 feet. Wells and new pumps often cost $250,000 and more. Only the record net profits from almonds (between $5,000 and $9,000 per acre) allow new wells to be drilled. The larger the farm, the more frequently profitable almonds are planted, the more reasonably an operation can afford the cost of buying scarce surface water or drilling deeper—and the more likely smaller farmers sell or lease out their ground to those with the capital to make the costly transition to almond and other nut orchards.

The paradoxes continue. Almonds and other nut crops—as well as pistachios and walnuts—are the most mechanized of all California crops. By the time they reach production, they require no hand-pruning, thinning, or harvesting—vastly reducing the soaring expenses for manual farm labor at a time when perhaps a million acres have already gone out of production along with the loss of thousands of farm jobs.

Almonds also are moving eastward, as West-Side corporate concerns hedge their bets by buying and renting Valley ground closer to the water-rich Sierra Nevada Mountains—and ripping out vineyards and deciduous fruit orchards to plant new almond orchards.

Almonds require about three acre-feet of irrigated water per year, comparable to tree-fruit and vineyards. But only almonds, which have grown from about 100,000 acres in the 1970s to nearly a million acres today—and in the last forty years have increased average production from about 1,000 lbs. per acre to nearly 3,000 lbs.—guarantee enough profits to pay for the vastly increased costs of purchasing scarce surface water, or of pumping from increased depths.

In sum, the drought and the state’s poor response to it, accelerated the trend to ever-larger corporate farms, ever more mechanized farming, and ever greater mono-cropped agriculture—amid an increasingly emptying countryside. 

In the midst of the drought, several million acre-feet of precious stored water was nevertheless released to San Francisco Bay, due to environmentalists’ lawsuits and state bureaucratic partisanship. The green hope was to return the San Joaquin River to its mythical nineteenth-century past, through massive water releases that upstream would allow reintroduction of migrating salmon, while downstream saving the three-inch delta smelt. 

Yet both opponents and supporters of these controversial diversions of irrigation water can now agree that the efforts failed miserably. For all the draining of reservoirs and the multimillion-dollar efforts to truck fish up and down the river, there are not now viable salmon runs from the Pacific to the Sierra Nevada. Smelt populations also continue to decline—largely due to factors that had little to do with agriculture water use, but much to do with Bay Area communities’ treated wastewater releases into the bay and to invasive predatory fish species.

Government failure was not just due to acts of commission, but of omission as well. In four years, not a single new reservoir was begun, despite warnings that the state’s reservoir capacity long ago was fossilized—designed for a state of 20 million people, not the present 40 million.

Had the state begun work on a few of the long-planned tertiary reservoirs of the now neglected California Water Project—the Sites, Los Banos Grandes, and Temperance Flat projects—the reservoirs would now be nearing completion and ready to capture nearly four-million acre-feet of additional water runoff, should 2016 prove to be a “wet” year. 

If Californians have learned anything, it is that droughts are survivable only to the degree that the state’s reservoirs have water, that water projects must follow their original and contracted purposes (irrigation, flood control, hydroelectric power, and recreation), and that finite aquifers are replenished only by surface irrigation water deliveries that both recharge the water table and preclude the need for subterranean pumping. Because of the state’s failure to initiate a new reservoir, the next drought will hit 50 or 60 million state residents—with the ability to survive only a year or two, not four years, of reduced rain and snowfall.

The environmental movement helped to intensify rather than alleviate the drought. Both Governor Brown and President Obama—contrary to the exegeses of reputable climatologists and meteorologists—ignored the demonstrable and historical role of the El Niño effect. Instead they quickly politicized the drought by blaming generic global warming as the culprit, and then suggested that the cure was a reduction in carbon emissions. There is some irony in the fact that what seems to cause California’s frequent droughts is not the supposed man-caused global warming of recent years, but a natural and slight cooling of the Pacific Ocean that, as its centuries-long wont, helps to alter storm pathways over Western North America.

But building a $100 billion-plus high-speed rail or mandating that California public utilities over the next four years meet targets of 33% renewable energy use will not prevent a periodic drought. Such boondoggles will only ensure less funding for proven drought solutions, such as building more reservoirs, pipelines, and canal transfer systems.

The California legislature has dealt with a number of issues since the beginning of the drought in 2012—mandating transgendered restrooms, outlawing the use of hunting dogs in the pursuit of bobcats and bears, and proposing a vast increase in the state gas tax in a state that currently suffers the continental United States’ most expensive gasoline prices. Yet reservoir construction was not among such high priority considerations, despite voters’ overwhelming passage in 2014 of a $7.4 billion water bond that included the building of one or two new reservoirs—none of which are even close to being started.

Forests suffered as well. Perhaps there are now 12 million dead trees in the Sierra Nevada and other state and national forests. Another 1 billion trees are stressed and vulnerable to parasitic bark beetles and diseases. They too may succumb if 2016 does not prove to be an unusually wet year. In a logical world, there would be emergency government efforts to harvest these dead trees, to eliminate the specter of future forest fires, to stop the spread of tree infestations and disease, and to capture hundreds of millions of dollars of precious timber.

Yet in recent years California environmentalists have all but ruined the state’s timber industry—presently less than a third the size of what it was 60 years ago. Given the power of green activists, and given that California’s appetite for new homes, wood decks, and fine woodwork has not diminished, the state, once an exporter of wood products, now imports 80% of its timber.

Environmentalists now apply the same prohibitions to salvaging the logging of dead trees that they have so successfully applied to the harvesting of live ones. California forests look terrible, with large swaths of brown and dead evergreens. Trails are clogged with fallen branches and stumps. The worst forest fires in modern memory have been synonymous with four years of drought.

No matter. To the state environmentalists, drought-stricken and now dead trees are natural phenomena that are part of larger biorhythms, providing food for insects and worms that in turn will fuel bird and rodent ecosystems. Better to let dead trees rot or burn than turn them into wood for California housing.

The drought may end in 2016. But its injurious and man-caused effects will continue. To paraphrase the French diplomat, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, officials in Sacramento “have learned nothing, and forgotten nothing.”