Driest year in California history sparks arid memories and previews the warmer world we're creating
STATE OF DENIAL
California is on a collision course with reality. Whether or not it's this drought that wakes us up, at some point we'll awaken to the fact that a growing population can't survive on dwindling water resources without a major shift in how we operate.
"California does not today live within its means. We want more water than nature is naturally providing, even in normal years," said Dr. Peter Gleick, president of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute and a world-renowned expert on water issues whose research has fueled United Nations studies as well as his own books. "Some of the most serious impacts of climate change are going to be on water."
That's particularly true for California, whose large population and huge agricultural and other water-dependent industries belie a Mediterranean climate that is actually quite fragile and susceptible to droughts and the impacts of climate change.
"You've got 30 million people perched on the edge of a physical impossibility, unless we act with huge speed," said Bill McKibben, an author and researcher who founded 350.org, one of the leading advocacy organizations for addressing climate change.
Gleick and McKibben are leading voices on the related issues of water policy and climate change, respectively, and they both told the Guardian that this drought should finally get people serious about conservation, efficiency, reducing our carbon output, and generally living in greater harmony with the natural world.
"The current drought ought to be a wake-up call to tell us we have to start thinking about our water resources differently," Gleick told us, calling for far greater efficiency in how we use water, particularly in cities and the agriculture industry. "California has made great progress over the last several decades, but we're nowhere near where we could be or should be."
From low-flow toilets and shower heads to smarter irrigation techniques and recycled wastewater, California has made tremendous advances in its water efficiency since the last big drought. But Gleick and McKibben both say California needs a seismic shift in its thinking to grapple how a growing population can function within a changing climate.
"The assumption has always been that as we get larger populations, we'll figure out their resource needs," Gleick said, pointing out that climate change challenges that assumption and calls for more proactive thinking. "We need to do a better job at planning for future resource needs."
Times of crisis can trigger that kind of shift in thinking. Gleick said Australia's "Millennium drought" from 1995 to 2009 began with basic conservation measures and eventually led to a complete overhaul of water rights, "policies that we haven't even contemplated" in California.
But Californians may soon be forced into such contemplations.
"It's physics in action. This is what happens when you start to change the way the world has worked throughout human history," McKibben told us. "Some people will be empowered to act, and some will have to go into denial. A truly interesting test will be Jerry Brown — he 'gets it' on climate, but he'd love to frack as well apparently. He's like a Rorschach for the state."
Brown's call to work with nature and one another is encouraging, but neither Gleick nor McKibben were willing to wager that Brown is ready to lead the big discussion Californians need to have about our long-term needs.
Yet Gleick says something will have to start that conversation before too long: "It's either going to take a more severe drought or better political leadership."
FIRES IN JANUARY
California is a tinderbox right now, with a high risk of wildfires that could get unimaginably worse by this summer.