Driest year in California history sparks arid memories and previews the warmer world we're creating
I remember the dead lawns, 90-second timed showers, empty fountains and pools, and water cops issuing tickets for washing one's dirty car. "If it's yellow let it mellow, if it's brown flush it down," went the toilet edict they taught us in school. Water was too precious to just wantonly flush away.
I was 8 years old in 1976-77 during California's last severe drought, but I retain vivid, visceral memories of that time. Water was an ever-present concern. I learned how dependent we are on the natural world and the role that individual responsibility plays in collective action, particularly in times of turmoil.
Everyone's yards were brown; nobody's cars were clean. We were in it together.
But even deeply implanted memories and learned behaviors fade. I may still feel subtle emotional pangs when I watch the water running down the drain when I shave or wash the dishes, yet I'd content myself with the knowledge that water is a renewable resource and we were no longer in a severe drought.
Or at least I was able to do that until this season. California experienced its driest year in recorded history in 2013, and it's still not raining as we go to press. Yes, there are welcome predictions of finally getting some rain this week, but not the sustained precipitation we need to make a difference.
If current long-range weather forecasts hold true, this winter could be even drier than last winter, causing by far the most severe drought in state history, worse than '76-'77, even worse than 1923-24, the driest winter ever and the beginning of a seven-year drought.
"We're facing the worst drought California has ever seen," Gov. Jerry Brown told reporters on Jan. 17 as he proclaimed a state of emergency, invoking powers to redirect water resources and asking Californians to reduce their consumption by 20 percent.
Yet as dire as this situation may be — and we'll have a better idea by the end of March, when more stringent water restrictions will be enacted if we don't get some serious rainfall by then — one of the scariest aspects to this drought is that it may be just a preview of things to come.
This could be the new normal by the end the century. Most reputable climate change models predict California's average temperature will increase 3-8 degrees by 2100. That's enough to radically change our climate, causing shorter winters with less precipitation, and more of it coming in the form of rain than snow, undermining the elegant system of storing water within the Sierra snowpack.
That also translates into more extreme conditions, from more flooding in the winter and spring to more dangerous heat waves and wildfires in the summer and fall — and more frequent and severe droughts.
"People should reflect on how dependent we are on rain, nature, and other another," Brown said at the end of his news conference. "This is Mother Nature. At some point we have to decide to live with nature and get on nature's side and not abuse the resources we have."
That theme of interdependence was one he returned to several times during that 14-minute event. Brown was governor during that last big drought in '76-'77, and when a reporter asked what lessons he took from that experience, he said, "We're dependent on rain, we're dependent on one another."
He expressed confidence that Californians will find their way through even the most severe drought, although he acknowledged it will exacerbate existing conflicts between cities and rural areas, farmers and environmentalists, and Northern and Southern California as each fights for its interests.
"This takes a coming together of all the people of California to deal with this serious and prolonged event of nature," Brown said. "This is going to take a lot of support and a lot of collaboration on the part of everybody."
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."
California is a tinderbox right now, with a high risk of wildfires that could get unimaginably worse by this summer.
"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.
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.
Officials try to learn from each drought, studying what happened and trying to develop long-term solutions, such as the water banking and distribution systems established during the 1976-77 drought. Yet a study by the Department of Water Resources in 1978 also concluded that we're essentially at the mercy of nature.
"The 1976-77 drought has again shown that finite nature of our resources and our limited ability to control nature," read the introduction to the report "The 1976-77 California Drought: A Review."
DWR's then-Director Ronald Robie warned at the time that there was no way to predict when or how severe the next drought might be. "We can be assured, however, that drought will return," he wrote, "and, considering the greater needs of that future time, its impact, unless prepared for, will be much greater."
Those words could carry a special resonance now, but it's even scarier given long-range climate change forecasts that Robie wasn't taking into account when he wrote those words. California estimates it will add more than 15 million people between 2010 and 2060, crossing the 50 million people mark in 2049.
"California could lead the nation into renewable energy. You've got the sun. But it would take a 21st century statesman. I guess we'll find out whether Brown's that guy — he could be, freed from the need for political popularity after this next election," McKibben said, calling Brown "a true visionary in many ways, but also a politician. What a fascinating gut check!"
Gleick said that he sometimes gets asked whether climate change is causing the current California drought or other specific weather incidents, and he said that question misses the crucial point: "All of our weather today is influenced by climate change."
As the climate changes and the world warms, that becomes the new normal for California and other regions, affecting all of its weather patterns. "As goes our climate," Gleick said, "so goes our water, and we're not ready."