Driest year in California history sparks arid memories and previews the warmer world we're creating
"We're experiencing conditions in California that we typically see in August," CalFire spokesperson Daniel Berlant told us. "We never really moved out of fire season in Southern California."
And that will only get worse as global warming changes California's climate.
"As summers get longer, it extends the window for fires," Berlant said. "It's a clear sign that this generation is seeing more and bigger fires."
Farmers are also worried, facing the prospect of fields going fallow.
"There is considerable anxiety on farms and ranches throughout California," Dave Kranz, spokesperson for the California Farm Bureau, told the Guardian. "We know it's going to be bad, we just don't know how bad."
He described ranchers selling their animals before they reach market weight and farmers considering whether to plant field crops and how to keep trees and vines alive if things get bad.
"You have people irrigating crops in January, which is a very unusual occurrence," Kranz said. And if the rains don't come this winter, "hundreds of thousands of acres of land would be left unplanted."
Kranz said that "farmers have become significantly more efficient in their water use," citing stats that crop production doubled in California between 1967 and 2005 while the water used by the industry dropped 13 percent. "We talk about more crop per drop."
But Gleick also said the fact that agriculture accounts for 80 percent of water use in California must be addressed, something that Kranz acknowledges. For example, he said Central Valley fields that once grew cotton, which takes a lot of water, have mostly switched to almonds. Pistachios are also big now, partially because they can be grown with saltier water.
"Farmers adapt, that's what they've done historically in response to weather trends and market demands," he said.
"There's only so much water and much of it is spoken for for the environment," Kranz said, acknowledging species needs but also complaining about much of the last big rains, in November and December of 2012, were released to protect the Delta smelt. "We should have saved some of that water."
While the 1927-28 winter was the driest on record in the state, dropping just 17.1 inches of rain, this winter already looks worse, with just 3.5 inches falling so far as of Jan. 27. That could change quickly — indeed, a chance of rain was finally in the forecast for Jan. 30 and Feb. 2 — but it doesn't seem likely that we'll get enough to end this drought.
"Right now, we are saying the odds do not indicate a Miracle March, which is not good," a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center told the San Jose Mercury News on Jan. 16 following release of its three-month forecast.
The worse it gets, the more heated the political battles will become over how to address it.
"You're going to hear a lot of talk about additional water storage," Kranz said. "We're paying now for not creating more storage 10-15 years ago. Droughts happen in California."
But even Kranz and his generally conservative constituency is talking about tweaks to existing reservoirs — such as increasing Shasta Lake's capacity and expanding the Sykes Reservoir in Colusa County — rather than big new dam projects.
Gleick agrees that the era of building big dams in California is over. "You can't build a new dam in California, with their enormous political, economic, and environmental costs."
And that makes the challenges this state faces all the more vexing.
PAST AND FUTURE
California has dealt with drought many times before, including several that lasted for a few years. The last sustained drought was in 1987-1992, but it wasn't nearly as dry as earlier droughts, such the 1928-1934 drought, the worst one on record.