Climate of Fear XVIII.

Environmental record-keeping is really pretty new. It’s a function of the rise of both Science and the State during the 19th Century. In the case of California, systematic record-keeping only began in 1895. Beyond the formal records, policy-makers are forced to rely upon scientific studies and interpretations. Some geological studies indicate that “megadroughts” lasting a decade or more occur in the Western United States every 400 to 600 years.[1] We may be at the beginning of such a megadrought. It may last thirty years or more.

Since 2000, the whole of the West has been suffering from drought. This has created many different kinds of problems from crop failures to massive wildfires.[2] California offers a study of a particularly acute case. During the winters of 2012-2013 and 2013-2014, a large high pressure area prevented winter storms in the Pacific from blowing in-land to the great Sierra Nevada mountains along California’s eastern edge.[3] Three-quarters of California’s water comes from the snowfall in the Sierra Nevada. Come Spring each year, the snow melts and runs down streams and rivers into the rest of the state. Much of the water also seeps down into the aquifer of the great Central Valley. The high-pressure area cut rainfall in California to 42 to 75 percent of normal.[4] In addition, the absence of the cooling effect of on-shore breezes and storms helped bake California. That evaporated much of the water that did reach the ground.

By September 2014, 82 percent of California had been designated as either in an “extreme” or an “exceptional” drought. How to respond? Well, California is both a cluster of major cities and suburbs and a major agricultural state: it produces about 70 percent of the top 25 fruits, nuts, and vegetables. So, 80 percent of California’s water is used for irrigation of its farmers’ crops. To cut water to farmers is to cut the legs off a major industry. Instead of hitting agriculture, governments tried to limit non-agricultural water use. To begin with, the California Water Resources Control Board began fining people who watered their lawns or washed their cars without using a water-saving nozzle on the hose; Los Angeles—harking back to the oil shock of 1973—limited people to watering their yards on alternate days. That didn’t have much effect. Huge numbers of urban consumers pushed back against such restrictions.

Faced with limits on taking water from rivers, farmers turned to drilling into the aquifer. That’s a short-term—and destructive—response. There is a limited amount of water in the aquifer. A “water rush” equivalent to the Oklahoma “land rush” will privilege those with the most money for drilling operations and force smaller farmers to the wall.

In 2014 the state legislature passed a bill to regulate the use of groundwater (i.e. the drilling). This enraged farmers, who saw the groundwater as their own property. The basic question is whether a lot of people who use relatively little water (at most 20 percent of the total) should suffer hardships for the sake of relatively few people who use relatively a lot of water in order to produce valuable products. What if it was a question of electricity use, where urban areas consume far more than do rural areas? These questions aren’t just about California. They go to how we think about the environment and the economy in general.

[1] This cuts across the argument of supporters of androgenic climate change, without invalidating their arguments.

[2] Disclaimer: my son is a National Forest Service wildlands fire fighter. Actually, it isn’t a disclaimer. I just want everyone to know that I’m proud of my boy for doing a hard, demanding, and dangerous job when most kids want careers with Wall Street or Disney World or the US Gummint.

[3] “California’s epic drought,” The Week, 26 September 2014, p. 9.

[4] Apparently, no one attributes the high-pressure ridge to global warming. Inevitably, people make do with claims that “global warming” is intensifying the effects of the drought. Arguably, this is what climate-change denial on one side elicits from the other side: potential overstatement.

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