Drought’s Over, Right?

One good January won’t reverse climate change. Photo from Reuters.

Californians always seem to have too much of something: too much sun, too much traffic, too much money, too much water in the wrong place at the wrong time, and not enough elsewhere. Our recent spate of rainy days caused massive flooding and damage, and we gritted our teeth, slowing down for all the construction equipment, muttering the magic words “snowpack” under our breath. Every day in late December and January, the local newscast would have a story that started with, “The rain this past week has everybody asking, ‘Is the Drought over?'” Researchers say…


The creek near Niles Canyon. Spikes won’t last long enough. Photo from waterdata.usg.gov.

It Ain’t Enough

Our snowpack level is at 205%. Woohoo! Creeks have flooded, hills have slid, and all the measurements that can have spiked. But don’t be fooled by all the temporary flooding.

There is good news. The snowpack is at its deepest level in 30 years. News stories like this one are saying “the drought could be coming to an end.” Dams like Shasta and Oroville are back up to 65-70%. This is cool! How many times have we driven by Mt. Shasta when it didn’t have any snow in March? That was depressing. This is good. We want rain; we want snow. Sorry to all of you stuck in snow traffic on highway 50. Too many, California, too many skiers, too much traffic. Same as it ever was.

Of course, we have two more possible months of rain ahead. There is worry that a lot more rain could wash the snow out of the mountains too early. That happened in 1997. I remember the flooding in 1997 because it started raining the day after my mom died and it didn’t stop for six months. I was quite sure the incessant downpour was caused by her giving St. Peter a piece of her mind. Which was considerable.

What the graph spike looks like, Niles Canyon. Photo by East Bay Times.

Meanwhile, our data gatherers are getting very good at this sort of thing. One thing we have now that we didn’t have 30 years ago is computer-generated data-capturing that can create spiffy graphs shared on the Internet. We had graphs 30 years ago, but not the rest of everything in that sentence. On this plot, courtesy of your taxpayer-supported California Department of Water Resources, our year is that rising blue line on the far left, which might just rival that smug green line of the 40 year high, 1982.

Our blue-line year is headed for rainy glory! Photo from Dept of Water.

The Bigger Problem

It’s great that parts of the state got more rain than it has in a while. But drought, or the variation in rainfall, isn’t the only problem. And one year of great rain isn’t going to flip a light switch to end all of this. Our new normal will be extremes–more extreme rainfall some years and a lot less in many others years. Climate change has switched the path of the Pacific storms by melting parts of the polar caps, so that it will be different going forward.

But even the change in the weather isn’t the only water-based problem. Users are also the problem.

The Colorado River which serves the Southwest has been dwindling. The graph of rain/drought has had variation and probably will continue to do so. But the graph of usage has just steadily climbed past that supply.

The problem has become so acute that the seven states that sip from that one source have actually been meeting to come to an agreement, which, of course, seems virtually impossible. The latest news was that California balked at the proposed agreement from the rest because it superseded the agreement where California got a bigger share. And California got a bigger share for the agriculture, a tricky business. On the one hand, Big Ag doesn’t conserve water and grows crops for export or that are water hogs, like almonds. On the other hand, those crops also feed this part of the country and half the rest of the U.S., so to lose water in the Central Valley is to lose food for the people that want agriculture to give them the water. What’s most likely is that a decision by reasonable people will be made too late to be as useful as it needs to be to avoid privation, but might avoid disaster. Same as it ever was.

It’s Not Just our Little Corner

Meanwhile, this is only one tiny part of the whole, isn’t it? While Northern and parts of Southern California might be singin’ in the rain, the rest of the country is in a different kind of dire straits. There’s been historic drought through the central Midwest, with Nebraska in particular hit hard. If the conversations with California water leaders have been hard, imagine those conversations with Midwestern Big Ag and the folks who aren’t tree huggers and philosophical “eco-nut jobs” like us in the Bay Area who compost and save our gray water and use reusable shopping bags without thinking about it.

Drought maps for US by taxpayer-funded Dept of Agriculture.

Iowa may have to start planting okra pretty soon instead of all that corn that gets turned into corn syrup that goes into our cereal and bread, so that might be a good thing. But Nebraska isn’t going to dig itself out of a whole with our good Pacific rainy season. And neither is Europe. They’re also going through a 30-year historic low, and Europeans have been better than Americans for a while at conserving, as they’re very fond of telling us. But it hasn’t staved off their lack of rain, either.

Taxpayer funded European map of drought.

Don’t Panic! Plan.

Despite getting lots of rain for a month, which has lessened our most immediate problem, the water shortage problem worldwide isn’t gone. Even if our drought map here has gone from purple to beige, it’s still purple elsewhere. So keep in mind:

  • It’s not always about us. What’s helpful for Northern California isn’t going to fix over-use in the Southwest, Midwest, or problems in Europe.
  • Climate change is permanent. The ship has sailed on the waters of the melting icebergs, which has permanently changed the weather. We need to keep our focus long-term, rather than on today’s snowpack or the rain from the last few years.
  • Our changes need to be permanent, too. Most of my neighbors ripped out their lawns in favor of plastic or low-water plants in the last five years; they’re not putting them back just because of one rainy season. Our neighborhood looks just fine.
  • Large-scale water conservation isn’t about us taking shorter showers. We need to support large-scale conservation initiatives, like lobbying against any new golf courses. Why can’t they play on scrub or crabgrass anyway? That would be more entertaining!

There is a silver lining. As the waters have receded, pond bottoms have unearthed skeletons (which have prompted new mystery plots (thanks Anne Hillerman!) or long-sunken warships or even… dinosaur tracks!

113 million years ago, they walked in Texas. Photo from NY Times.

Change is also opportunity!

4 Replies to “Drought’s Over, Right?”

  1. Poor Niles, (and Sunol,) they really got hit hard. They’re such cute little towns. I hope they can recover.

  2. I think the towns are getting the traffic they need to their shopping. Byways near hills are taking a while. Five minutes from my house, there’s a major street going “through town” that will be closed for likely another month, so everyone has to go around. People whose backyards were on partial hills have a lot less hill. (No one should build houses on stilts on hills.) Thanks for the comment!

  3. An excellent essay. I wonder if people will take your suggestions seriously. They should, but who thinks long-term and self-sacrifice these days?

    1. I think the problem that plenty of people do, but that the tiny bits that don’t are VERY LOUD. My favorite quote from Yeats (Second Coming): “The best lack all conviction and the worst are fall of passionate intensity.” We best need to continue with our passionate intensity, as I know you do!

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