Pay Attention: There’s a Drought in California


Yesterday after Sunday service at the Zen Center while people were milling about with tea and cookies, I overheard someone mention the drought in California. Oh, there’s a drought in California? a young man replied, politely, with the same tone of voice one might use to say  Oh, you put pickle juice in tuna salad? Or, oh, Thanksgiving is on the 26th this year?

I’m sure lots of people not in California don’t know there’s a drought in California, but the Zen Center tends to draw an ecologically hip crowd of college-educated people who refuse to use plastic shopping bags and who compost food scraps for eventual use in some community garden. Or I assume that’s what they’re doing with the compost, although maybe they’re shipping it to poor farmers in Iowa. It occurs to me that Brooklyn could generate enough compost to cover Iowa every year, if it tried hard enough.

Yes, peeps, there’s a drought in California. Pay attention.

There’s an article in today’s New York Times that ought to be alarming the stuffing out of all of us.

As a drilling frenzy unfolds across the Central Valley, California’s agricultural heartland, the consequences of the overuse of groundwater are becoming plain to see.

In some places, water tables have dropped 50 feet or more in just a few years. With less underground water to buoy it, the land surface is sinking as much as a foot a year in spots, causing roads to buckle and bridges to crack. Shallow wells have run dry, depriving several poor communities of water.

Scientists say some of the underground water-storing formations so critical to California’s future — typically, saturated layers of sand or clay — are being permanently damaged by the excess pumping, and will never again store as much water as farmers are pulling out.

“Climate conditions have exposed our house of cards,” said Jay Famiglietti, a NASA scientist in Pasadena who studies water supplies in California and elsewhere. “The withdrawals far outstrip the replenishment. We can’t keep doing this.”

California really does supply the majority of the fruits, vegetables and grains we eat in the U.S., and while new food suppliers could be found seems to me there could be additional cost. The loss of California as a food-producing powerhouse could have wide-ranging effects, on the economy as much on in our diets.

And it’s not just California. Aquifers in the Midwest, the Great Plains especially, are running dry, also, which could affect corn and cattle production. Probably will affect them, actually. Fracking doesn’t help.  Charles Pierce wrote in 2011:

Make no mistake. You screw with the Ogallala Aquifer and you screw with this nation’s heartbeat. Twenty percent of the irrigated farmland in the United States depends upon it. Pumping the water from it is all that has kept the Dust Bowl from coming back, year after year. Any damage to it fundamentally changes the lives of the people who depend on it, their personal economies, the overall national economy, and what we can grow to feed ourselves. Absent the aquifer, and the nation’s breadbasket goes back to being a prairie, vast grasslands that the people who first crossed them referred to as a desert. You end up with dry-land corn and some dry-land wheat. And the aquifer is far easier to empty than it is to fill. The technology to fully exploit it has existed only since the 1950’s, and portions of it are already dangerously low. It won’t be fully recharged until the next Ice Age.

Let’s just say we aren’t making smart decisions about resources these days. I doubt most people know this is happening. We should be paying attention.

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  1. Dan  •  Apr 6, 2015 @11:32 am

    All good stuff we learned about in Ecology classes in the 70s. Pierce was spot on, amazingly so for a journalist.

    Easterners just went through a wet winter, so drought is hard to get their heads around (just like eastern righties have a hard time thinking that the West just experienced a 500-year hot winter). How many here even remember the 100-year drought Texas and surrounding states just climbed out of?

    There are patterns out there, and there are imagined patterns. Most people don’t see the real patterns because they are not neat and tidy, and have exceptions (distractions) within their data. Righties see imagined patterns because their handlers make sure only the “relevant” data are presented over and over and over and…

    We DO live in interesting times, no “May you live…” involved at all!

  2. c u n d gulag  •  Apr 6, 2015 @11:54 am

    Those of us who know about the drought, didn’t find out much about it from our MSM.
    I got most of what I know from liberal websites.

    Our lazy, cowardly compliant, complicit, corporate media companies spend most of their time, saying, “Nothing to see here. Move along, move along… Nothing to se… HEY! There’s a young white chick missing! Over to you, Wolf!”

    It’s either that to distract us, or they spend 4 years speculating on who will win the Democratic and Republican horse races, run for President, and who will win.
    All while, of course, always pumping-up the Republican candidates, and finding flaws in the Democratic ones.

  3. c u n d gulag  •  Apr 6, 2015 @12:00 pm

    Oh, and the only times they cover the environment is during or after some massive storm.
    I guess droughts are kind of boring.
    In floods and hurricanes, at least you see people in rowboats, or being rescued from rooftops by helicopters.

    As for the water wasted by fracking?“
    Nothing to see here. Move along, move along… Nothing to se… HEY! There’s a young white chick missing! Over to you, Wolf!”

  4. Bill Bush  •  Apr 6, 2015 @12:02 pm

    How many days till they start blaming the poors for taking overlong showers?

  5. JDM  •  Apr 6, 2015 @2:52 pm

    I’ve said this before here and there, but as both a former New Yorker and former Californian I noticed how things worked (and didn’t) where’re I lived and how the rest off the country reacted. With NY it was gridlockj, and severe traffic problems in general. When gridlock first started happening in NYC in the late 60s and early 70s, people elsewhere treated it like a joke, something that happened to NYers because NYers were foolish. I said at thee time that other cities should closely study NYCs problems because they were going to have those problems later. NYC was essentially doing allll these other cities a huge favor by existing and having these problems first so the others could be warned and take steps to alleviate their future problems instead of waiting until they’re stuck. Most of them didn’t taker that opportunity.

    Same thing with California’s water problems (and the West’s water problems in general). It’s the canary; the rest of the country will have similar problems with weather down the road. Perhaps their own self interest regarding their food will make their mocking of California for having water problems less, but more important than that is that they see it as a wake-up call, because maintaining a supply of clean water for increasing populations in an ever more interconnected world (water supplies are widely shared regionally) is only going to get harder.

  6. c u n d gulag  •  Apr 6, 2015 @3:35 pm

    I’ve been warning that the coming “Water Wars” will make the past and present wars over oil seem like the good old days.

  7. LongHairedWeirdo  •  Apr 6, 2015 @3:42 pm

    I remember someone posting that “well, if economic growth continues at 3% per year, then the median income will be close to 250k a year in a hundred years – do we want to sacrifice (for global warming) *now* so those millionaires don’t suffer?”

    The depths of the stupidity still astound me. “Duh… wait… if global warming is *really* bad, maybe it will prevent that massive economic growth!”

    Now, part of me has a tiny spark of nasty-schadenfreude (is there any non-nasty? Must ponder that) that said idiot might find himself among those who curse their parents and grandparents for ignoring this plainly-written disaster starting to happen. Because as someone above already mentioned, warnings about fresh water supplies, and our water infrastructure, and our fragile aquifers, are *not* new.

    Alas, we’re going to suffer because of that idiot and those like him. And somehow, it will be the fault of everyone-but-them.

  8. Bonnie  •  Apr 6, 2015 @3:59 pm

    Not sure what you all are referring to when you refer to “the west.” But, here in Washington State we don’t have a drought; and, we are very aware of California’s problems. Also, we did not have a hot winter; but, we did have a nice winter with cool temperatures and no snow. I can’t predict what the summer will be like; but, last summer was very pleasant. We get hot summers periodically; but, we haven’t had one since 2008. Right now all the cherry trees are in full bloom and the daffodils have started blooming. It is cool but lovely here.

  9. goatherd  •  Apr 6, 2015 @5:38 pm

    I have a visceral fear of drought, probably because we had a long series of dry years when I grew up and because I lived on an island where the rainfall was low and we collected our water in cisterns. That has stayed with me for half century. I am kind of crazy about water, I try not to waste a drop. We’ve had some very dry years here in NC, in the last decade. We lost eighty grape vines when they were just ready to produce and I have to tell you, if you keep animals, especially horses, the hopelessness you feel when the hay crop fails will stay with you. Horses have fragile digestive systems and if they don’t get enough bulk to push through their systems, they’ll die.

    This past year the hay crop didn’t quite fail, but, it was weak. There was a mad scramble for hay over the last few months, and it wasn’t pretty. Ironically, the hay was weak because it was wet and the pattern of rain and cloudy weather made for slow growth and not enough sustained dry weather to “make” the hay. I have about ten days of hay left and the grass is coming in. But, it’s going to be close. Last night I woke up in a bad dream about the crop failing this year because of drought. We’ll be heading out to California in late May, so it’s been on my mind.

    It seems pretty obvious that we need to pull together to manage and distribute water efficiently. But, as CUND suggested, two days after an election they start handicapping the next horse race. As a nation, we’re dysfunctional. It’s almost like one of the parties decided that they don’t want to play the “Nation State” game anymore, so their taking their toys back to Bizarro world. I guess you could read Marvin Harris about the “hydrological trap” or guys like E. O. Wilson and a host of others who have been speculating on the consequences of climate change. But, unfortunately, the people who most need to read them are too busy calculating the rapture index. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs.

    This discussion, and my little rant brought “the Archdruid Report” to mind. It’s very well written and often has information on sustainability.

    I had to hurry through this, time to feed the animals. I hope it wasn’t too disorganized.

  10. Tom_b  •  Apr 6, 2015 @7:03 pm

    “We’ve had some very dry years here in NC, in the last decade.” And we could have fracking in the state this year if the courts prove as corrupt as the legislature. You would think that after the NY ban on fracking, any state that approves it can hardly claim to have not known about the dangers. I hope every single NCGA member who voted for fracking will be individually sued for future damages; the fly-by-night wildcat speculators will simply declare bankruptcy and skip town under cover of darkness.

  11. grannyeagle  •  Apr 6, 2015 @9:01 pm

    Bonnie: Not sure what part of Washington State you are living in, but here in the southeastern portion, they are talking drought this year. Even though it seems like we have had a lot of rain, it appears we are below normal. Had almost no snow last winter, and last summer we had quite a few days over 100. We usually get a few but last year was more than normal and I’m wondering about the coming summer. Of course, we’re not as bad off as CA but one never knows what is coming down the pike.
    Since you say you don’t get hot summers, I’m guessing you’re on the coast.

  12. goatherd  •  Apr 7, 2015 @7:28 am

    No doubt about it, Tom, NC is in the Republican death grip. Every time I consider that I am “represented” by Thom Tillis and Patrick McHenry I shudder and try to channel that dark energy into something that will put some distance between the tarheel state and our golden years. Alternatively, I could just opt for a bracing cocktail, but, I’m trying to remain positive.

    “(T)he fly-by-night wildcat speculators will simply declare bankruptcy and skip town under cover of darkness.” Boy howdy, and to rub salt in the wounds, if a company realizes that it’s on the hook for more than its holdings, their BOD can dispense huge bonuses to their executive officers, etc, to deplete their funds further and THEN declare bankruptcy.

    “(O)ne never knows what is coming down the pike.” That’s for sure. We actually had a mild summer last year. I think we only hit the century mark, once. But, I’m not taking any bets for this summer. The bad hay crop put the scare on us, so maybe my thinking is clouded.

  13. dianne  •  Apr 7, 2015 @7:47 am

    We used to live in the tri-cites and I remember the beautiful Columbia River going through with all that fresh water coming down from the Canadian Rockies. How is it that more of the water can’t be used for irrigation? I’ve seen the Columbia pouring millions of gallons of water into the Pacific untapped and unused. I know some is needed for fish and wildlife but it seems a bit could have been diverted to keep crops alive. Our country will need to make good use of all the water it can spare to make up for California’s loss of agriculture.

  14. Bob  •  Apr 7, 2015 @8:46 am

    As a water user and water owner in a non-profit ditch and water company, we have been fighting the “Water Wars” since our decree was first established in the 1800s. We have been at the forefront of these battles from Denver, to all the points west of here…I personally have been to meetings and courtrooms where decisions of water ownership has been decided…win or lose, water is more valuable than oil or gas…the amount of corruption at the corporate level is astounding…and the folks charged with finding more water are unscrupulous…we are on constant alert for those who are eyeballing our water…Theft is common, lies are unending, and the threat is real…

  15. grannyeagle  •  Apr 7, 2015 @10:33 am

    There are several dams on the Columbia River and its tributaries, mostly for hydroelectric power although some are for irrigation. I live in Walla Walla which is about 60 miles from Tri-Cities. There is a lot of controversy about the dams in the Northwest as they have interfered with the natural behavior of the salmon. As I understand it, the dams prevent the salmon from returning to their natural breeding area. My position is that I want the dams removed. This is a radical position, I know, but I am of the opinion that the more we mess around with nature and trying to control it, the more we mess things up. There have been some studies that show that dams built to control flooding only end up causing more and bigger floods.
    To say that water that flows into the ocean is wasted is not to understand the cycle of water on this planet. All rivers flow into the ocean, it is evaporated and then falls on the earth in rain. It is not wasted, it is recycled. This is Mother Nature’s way. The problem in California is that humans have ignored the environmental system and by misuse and overuse of water have tried to make it a lush oasis. They first diverted the Colorado River to Southern California because there was so much and it was not being used except to carve out the Grand Canyon. So a lot of people wanted to move to “paradise” and of course that requires more water. I am reminded of that song by the Eagles (I think, if I’m wrong, someone will correct me) about the build-up of the LA area. One line goes “Call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye”. I’ve heard there is enough water in CA to last a year and I also heard an expert say that either the people have to go or agriculture has to go. Perhaps it is time to say Au Revoir.

  16. erinyes  •  Apr 7, 2015 @12:25 pm

    Here in Florida, we have had a rather wet and warm winter. I grow bamboos and tropical fruits, and they’re doing great. The lock at the South end of Big Lake Toho is open in preparation for hurricane season. Lake Toho is considered the headwaters of the everglades.
    What we fear is this unusually warm winter may make for an unusually active hurricane season. That could bring us flooding along with all the related hurricane problems; one greatly overlooked problem is water contamination from household and commercial products finding their way into the numerous waterways.
    Another fear is contamination of the groundwater by saltwater intrusion.
    I hate to say it, but the Tampa Bay area is way overdue for a direct hurricane strike, and they’re not ready for one.

  17. sluggo  •  Apr 7, 2015 @3:56 pm

    All environmental issues are local. People just don’t pay attention to the issues in other parts of the country. Do you know about ‘Mountain Top Removal’ if so, I would bet that you have a connection to Appalachia. Wetlands are a big issue in Chicago, and so on and so on….