The California Drought and El Niño

On some level it's easy to see why California has water problems: huge cities in the middle of deserts. But since packing up and leaving isn’t an option, Californian people and businesses are forced to continue coping with drought conditions that have seen historically low rainfall totals-- during the wetter season--  and reservoirs depleted to below half of normal capacity.

Like most climate issues, fingerpointing and controversy surround the causes and possible responses to the drought. Some conservative arguments claim that much-needed water resources are being kept from the agriculture in the Central Valley to protect a small endangered fish, the delta smelt. The delta smelt is found only in a certain area of the river system of Northern California, and under the Endangered Species Act, water diversions from its habitat to irrigate farmland in the Central Valley are strictly limited. Sending water from Northern California would be an effective relief for the parched south, where Los Angeles county residents are facing residential use restrictions. Conservatives consider this an example of unreasonable overregulation, and Speaker John Boehner called it “prioritizing fish over people.” However the delta smelt is an important source of food for Northern California’s wild salmon populations, and it is not a simple matter of irrational overreach. Smelts are also an important link in the wetland food chains that ensure the profitability of salmon aquaculture in California and the preservation of the state’s riparian ecosystems..

Another argument puts a large share of blame for the water crisis on big agriculture companies in the Central Valley. Agriculture in California accounts for 80% of total water usage. Much of California’s produce is not native to the Central Valley environment and are significant ‘water hogs,’ such as almonds, which are one of the most water-intensive crops to grow in an arid climate. Agriculture interests are intent on water importation from the north, but many may have to accept lower yields this year, especially among fruit and nut growers where it is not possible to leave land fallow. This translates to job losses and higher food prices. ‘Big Agriculture’ is easily criticized for its insistence on factory farming and growing water-intensive crops, but any alternative or sudden change is sure to bring massive shocks to California’s food export system.

Who is to blame? I contend that it does not matter. There is simply not enough water for business as usual. Taking a position on intrastate water projects requires background knowledge that I might have if I was a native of the state and a leading expert on the topic, but I am neither of those. My position is that long-term preparations for rainfall irregularities should be made in any place that is vulnerable to them, whether it is drought in California or flooding in the United Kingdom. El Niño, periodic oscillations in wind patterns over the Pacific, may bring increased summer rainfalls to the West Coast and some relief from the drought. But this should not result in complacency once everything is ‘back to normal.’ In the context of climate change, we don’t know what normal is anymore.

I recently encountered a metaphor to explain why the Keystone XL Pipeline should be rejected: to go ahead with more gas drilling uses the same logic as a drunk or a drug addict uses to continue their habit. They know they must quit, but no single additional event will do them in. One single beer won’t kill an alcoholic, and one single pipeline won’t warm the climate. Drawing a line in the sand presents the best opportunity to quit, even if it doesn’t seem rational in the short term. The important metric is long term trends, and this is exactly the case with extreme weather brought about by global warming. It is not scientific to point to any specific weather event and say that it was due to global warming, just as it is not scientific to deny global warming because it is especially cold in one particular area. California’s drought is not unprecedented-- the month of January this year was only the third-driest since recordkeeping began-- but the amount of damage it continues to inflict is. To avoid real harm, the trend of more common droughts is what should be taken into account, and thus California would be better-served planning for future droughts in addition to mitigating their current one.



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