Gaius Publius: California Drought, the “Bigger Water Crisis” & the Consumer Economy​

By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. This piece first appeared at Down With Tyranny. GP article archive here.


Current drought status in the U.S. Note the color-coded legend in the lower-right portion of the graphic (source; click to enlarge)

by Gaius Publius

I started to write a piece about a nice write-up of a good set of feature (and media-interactive) reports at ProPublica. The write-up is this:

California’s Drought Is Part of a Much Bigger Water Crisis. Here’s What You Need to Know.

It has an easy-to-follow question-and-answer format. The underlying ProPublica report is this:

Killing the Colorado

Both are worth your reading. Note that ProPublica report is actually a series of reports and interactive media explorations. Also, that the Moyers piece is also the next-to-last report in the ProPublica series.

The Moyers-ProPublica write-up makes a nice set of points, many of which are bulleted below, and many of which you know. Where the piece falls short is what this adds up to. Some of the details:

■ California is in a severe multi-year drought:

Most of California is experiencing “extreme to exceptional drought,” and the crisis has now entered its fourth year. In June, signaling how serious the current situation is, state officials announced the first cutback to farmers’ water rights since 1977, and ordered cities and towns to cut water use by as much as 36 percent. Those who don’t comply with the cuts will face fines, but some farmers are already ignoring the new rules, or challenging them in court.

The drought shows no sign of letting up any time soon, and the state’s agricultural industry is suffering. A recent study by UC Davis researchers projected that the drought would cost California’s economy $2.7 billion in 2015 alone. …

And a little bit of rain won’t help. NOAA scientists say it could take several years of average or above-average rainfall before California’s water supply can return to anything close to normal.

■ It will take a lot of rain to make things “normal” again: “A half-decade of torrential rains might bail California out of its

■ But the problem has huge structural components:

[T]he larger West’s problems are more structural and systemic. “Killing the Colorado” has shown that people are entitled to more water from the Colorado than has flowed through it, on average, over the last 110 years. Meanwhile much of the water is lost, overused or wasted, stressing both the Colorado system, and trickling down to California, which depends on the Colorado for a big chunk of its own supply. Explosive urban growth matched with the steady planting of water-thirsty crops – which use the majority of the water – don’t help. Arcane laws actually encourage farmers to take even more water from the Colorado River and from California’s rivers than they actually need, and federal subsidies encourage farmers to plant some of the crops that use the most water. And, as ProPublica has reported, it seems that “the engineering that made settling the West possible may have reached the bounds of its potential” — meaning that even the big dams and canals we built to ferry all this water may now be causing more harm than good.

■ According to the government agency NOAA, the drought is not the fault of global warming:

While there are mixed views on whether climate change can be blamed for California’s drought, a recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report found climate change was not the cause. Global warming has caused excessive heat that may have worsened the drought’s effects, but it isn’t necessarily to blame for the lack of rain. It’s true that recent years have yielded much less rain and snow than previous times in history, the NOAA report explains, but that’s just a result of “natural variance” and not necessarily because of man-made pollution. But in both California and the larger Colorado River basin, mismanagement of the water supply has left the West more vulnerable to both short and long-term changes in climate.

■ There are levels of “water rights,” and depending on who you are, you have a higher or lower level of right to the water. The highest level of water rights are called “senior rights.”

But the underlying rule of water in the West is that the first people to show up and claim it were the first people to get it, and everyone who came after took a place further back in line. Called “prior appropriation,” this remains the dominant thread in Western water issues, more than 100 years later.

For an example of the use of the term “senior rights,” note this from the Wikipedia page on the Colorado River (my emphasis everywhere):

Rapid development and economic growth further complicate the issue of a secure water supply, particularly in the case of California’s senior water rights over those of Nevada and Arizona: in case of a reduction in water supply, Nevada and Arizona would have to endure severe cuts before any reduction in the California allocation, which is also larger than the other two combined.

As another example, the water rights of many farmers are “senior” to the rights of many urban entities.

I’d like to comment on the third, fourth and fifth bullets above. Then I’ll add this up.

The Structural Components to the California Drought

Before I deal with the climate change / global warming aspect, I’d like to draw your attention to the other structural components — yes, I disagree with NOAA — which are indeed real. Let’s start with the river itself. The Wikipedia page dealing with the Colorado has a lot of great information in it. For our purposes, I suggest starting with this section, on Engineering and Development.


The Colorado River watershed. Note that it flows into Mexico, which also has rights to the water (source; click to enlarge).

In 1922, water from the Colorado was allocated by agreement. A later agreement added Mexico. A midway point was chosen (Lee’s Ferry) and water measurements were taken. Those above Lee’s Ferry were allocated half of what was calculated as the flow according to the measurement. Those below Lee’s Ferry were allocated the other half.

In 1922, six U.S. states in the Colorado River basin signed the Colorado River Compact, which divided half of the river’s flow to both the Upper Basin (the drainage area above Lee’s Ferry, comprising parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming and a small portion of Arizona) and the Lower Basin (Arizona, California, Nevada, and parts of New Mexico and Utah). Each was given rights to 7.5 million acre feet (9.3 km3) of water per year, a figure believed to represent half of the river’s minimum flow at Lee’s Ferry. This was followed by a U.S.–Mexico treaty in 1944, allocating 1.5 million acre feet (1.9 km3) of Colorado River water to the latter country per annum. Arizona refused to ratify the Colorado River Compact in 1922 because it feared that California would take too much of the lower basin allotment; in 1944 a compromise was reached in which Arizona would get a firm allocation of 2.8 million acre feet (3.5 km3), but only if California’s 4.4-million-acre-foot (5.4 km3) allocation was prioritized during drought years. These and nine other decisions, compacts, federal acts and agreements made between 1922 and 1973 form what is now known as the Law of the River.

The sum of the water rights by state are expressed in the table next to the paragraph that starts “The Lower Basin states also sought”. Note that these are absolute volume numbers, expressed in “million acre-feet” of water. The problem is that the measurement was taken during a very wet set of years:

When the Colorado River Compact was drafted in the 1920s, it was based on barely 30 years of streamflow records that suggested an average annual flow of 17.5 million acre feet (21.6 km3) past Lee’s Ferry. Modern studies of tree rings revealed that those three decades were probably the wettest in the past 500 to 1,200 years and that the natural long-term annual flow past Lee’s Ferry is probably closer to 13.5 million acre feet (16.7 km3), as compared to the natural flow at the mouth of 16.3 million acre feet (20.1 km3). This has resulted in more water being allocated to river users than actually flows through the Colorado. Droughts have exacerbated the issue of water over-allocation, including one in the 1950s, which saw several consecutive years of notably low water and has often been used in planning for “a worst-case scenario”.

Bottom line: Given the fact of increasing climate change, there will never be as much water in the Colorado River watershed as there was in 1922.

Other structural elements to the drought problem include:

  • Colorado River water is overused, lost and wasted (click to see numbers).
  • Urban growth in California and the Southwest generally has been strong.
  • “Use it or lose it” water laws encourage farmers to overwater their fields.
  • The U.S. government subsidizes the planting of very “thirsty” crops.
  • California farmers have “senior water rights” and use much more than half of the water from the watershed.

All of these elements are discussed in the ProPublica report. There is a terrific set of info-graphics here with easy to scan data. Click the “See more” links for interesting added information.

Taking Issue with NOAA on the “Not Global Warming” Explanation

I’ll keep this brief. The NOAA analysis that global warming isn’t “the cause” is written up in this Mother Jones article:

Climate scientists have warned for years that rising greenhouse gas concentrations will lead to more frequent and severe droughts in many parts of the world. Although it’s generally very difficult to attribute any one weather event to the broader global warming trend, over the last couple of years a body of research has emerged to assess the link between man-made climate change and the current California drought. There are signs that rising temperatures (so far, 2014 is the hottest year on record both for California and globally) and long-term declines in soil moisture, both linked to greenhouse gas emissions, may have made the impact of the drought worse.

But according to new research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, California’s drought was primarily produced by a lack of precipitation driven by natural atmospheric cycles that are unrelated to man-made climate change. In other words, climate change may have worsened the impacts of the drought, but it isn’t the underlying cause.

Even Mother Jones, in the first paragraph, does a yes-but on that analysis. Much of what NOAA says in its report is correct. But note this (Mother Jones again; my emphasis):

Over the last three years, Seager said, unpredictable atmospheric circulation patterns, combined with La Niña, formed high-pressure systems in winter over the West Coast, blocking storms from the Pacific that would have brought rain to California. The result has been the second-lowest three-year winter precipitation total since record-keeping began in 1895. But that pattern doesn’t match what models predict as an outcome of climate change, said Seager. In fact, the study’s models indicate that as global warming proceeds, winter precipitation in California is actually predicted to increase, thanks to an increased likelihood of low-pressure systems that allow winter storms to pass from the ocean to the mainland.

Maybe. Or maybe the models could be wrong, less sophisticated than they need to be, as all of these IPCC models were in predicting collapse of Arctic ice:


Collapse of Arctic sea ice extent. The blue area shows the range of data predicted by 13 IPCC models. The black line shows the mean of the model predictions. The red line shows observations through 2009. Data for 2012 fell below the 2009 mark (source; click to enlarge).

With climate, things are never as good as cautious people say they are. Scientists are inherently cautious by nature, and climate scientists are a battered bunch, so they tend toward extra caution. Common sense says climate, dryness of the entire Southwest via heat and lack of rainfall, is a consequence of global warming.

So me, I go with common sense. The drought in the American Southwest is a confluence of bad things, one of which is climate change, global warming — and that’s the one that won’t go away, that will constantly tighten the screw, until we deal with it directly. There will be upticks in rain and downticks in heat. But the trend? I think you’d have to be prepared to eat your words if you say the ravages of climate change weren’t a deciding factor going forward.

Which leads to our final point…

Those “Senior Water Rights” Are the Tip of the Social Contract War

Consider — the population of the American Southwest, not just California, continues to grow. Water continues to be less and less available. Competing interests — some very very wealthy, like the big farmers and the big oil companies doing the fracking — are in a classic neo-liberal struggle for resources (and the source of their wealth) with ordinary people, like the urban dwellers of Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and Las Vegas.

Urban people need water to live, and by and large, they’re willing to share the sacrifice with others in the state. The entitled wealthy, however, the major corporations, the mega-rich farmers, some of which are hedge funds, by and large aren’t.

First, anecdotally, from the Moyers-ProPublica article:

Well, if you believe Steve Yuhas, a resident of affluent Rancho Santa Fe, California, “we’re not all equal when it comes to water.” (Yuhas made the unfortunate mistake of complaining on social media that he and his neighbors deserve more water because they pay more property taxes, and “should not be forced to golf on brown lawns,” and was pilloried by readers of the Washington Post article that drew attention to his comments.)

The “shouldn’t have to golf on brown lawns” comment says it all. Less anecdotally:

California Water Districts Just Sued the State Over Cuts to Farmers

Drama on the California drought front: On Friday, a group of water districts sued the State Water Resources Control Board in response to an order prohibiting some holders of senior water rights from pumping out of some lakes and rivers.

This is our water,” said Steve Knell, general manager of Oakdale Irrigation District, to KQED’s Lauren Sommer. “We believe firmly in that fact and we are very vested in protecting that right.”

Water allotments in the Golden State are based on a byzantine system of water rights that prioritizes senior water rights holders, defined as individuals, companies, and water districts that laid claim to the water before 1914. Typically, those with the oldest permits are the first to get water and the last to see it curtailed.

But on June 12, the state ordered the 114 senior water rights holders with permits dating back to 1903 to stop pumping water from the San Joaquin and Sacramento watersheds, a normally fertile area encompassing most of northern California. “There are some that have no alternative supplies and will have to stop irrigating crops,” admitted Tom Howard, executive director of the State Water Resources Control Board. “There are others that have stored water or have wells that they can fall back on. It’s going to be a different story for each one and a struggle for all of them.” This is the first time since 1977 that the state has enacted curtailments on senior holders.

In response, an umbrella group called the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority (which includes the Oakdale Irrigation District) has sued the state.

It’s all on display in that story, the song of the very very rich — “I, me, me, mine.” The social war has started.

The Bottom Lines, and The Bottom Line

I have bottom lines for you, and a bottom line below that. This ProPublica piece has a modest set of solutions to a problem the authors think in time might go away, maybe. These include:

  • Farmers could be more efficient, plant less water-hogging crops.
  • Consumers could eat less meat (consider the water that’s poured into feed).
  • Public officials could reconsider “use it or lose it” water laws.
  • The government could create a “competitive water market.”
  • Government at all levels could invest in “conservation technologies.”

Keep your eye on that “competitive water market.” It’s the preferred solution of people with most of the money. It’s also a trap, a way to delay real solutions.

If you think climate change will constantly turn the screw until the social contract breaks in the Southwest, do you see these as actual solutions, as more than just good things to do? I don’t. They are good things, but as “solutions” they are very modest.

Here’s what’s more likely to happen, and more likely to work. These are the “bottom lines” mentioned above:

The social contract will break in California and the rest of the Southwest (and don’t forget Mexico, which also has water rights from the Colorado and a reason to contest them). This will occur even if the fastest, man-on-the-moon–style conversion to renewables is attempted starting tomorrow.


This means, the very very rich will take the best for themselves and leave the rest of us to marinate in the consequences — to hang, in other words. (For a French-Saudi example of that, read this. Typical “the rich are always entitled” behavior.) This means war between the industries, regions, classes. The rich didn’t get where they are, don’t stay where they are, by surrender.


Government will have to decide between the wealthy and the citizenry. How do you expect that to go?


Government dithering and the increase in social conflict will delay real solutions until a wake-up moment. Then the real market will kick in — the market for agricultural land and the market for urban property. Both will start to decline in absolute value. If there’s a mass awareness moment when all of a sudden people in and out of the Southwest “get it,” those markets will collapse. Hedge funds will sell their interests in California agriculture as bad investments; urban populations will level, then shrink; the fountains in Las Vagas and the golf courses in Scottsdale will go brown and dry, collapsing those populations and economies as well.


Ask yourself — If you were thirty with a small family, would you move to Phoenix or Los Angeles County if the “no water” writing were on the wall and the population declining? Answer: Only if you had to, because land and housing would be suddenly affordable.


All of which means that the American Southwest has most likely passed a tipping point — over the cliff, but with a long way to the bottom to go. I wish the ProPublica piece, for all its virtues, had at least considered that set of outcomes. After all, their title is pretty drastic — “Killing the Colorado.”

Now the real bottom line.

If We Try to Have Both “Growth” and Climate Solutions, We’ll Have Neither

The real bottom line — the most far-reaching — is philosophical, but it gets to the heart of a huge debate in the climate war. Which means I’m going to have to expand on this point later. In basic terms, though, it’s this.

The meme of the wealthy is that (a) climate proposals are a threat to “growth” — by which they mean literally GDP, but also by implication they mean “your big-screen, smart-phone lifestyle.” And (b) losing “growth” is a line no consumer will want to cross; not the rich, not the poor, no one. This means that the wealthy think they have a trump card, and you see it played, for example, in those Exxon and oil industry commercials hosted by “Lying Pantsuit Lady” — as in, “Like that television you’re watching? Know where its energy comes from? Yep, oil is right there in the mix.”

Can you hear the threat? “Fix the climate and you’ll have to sacrifice your lifestyle. Can’t have that … there’s a big game on this weekend.”

In response, climate solution advocates counter with an argument that says, in effect, “But wait … we’ve got a way to keep ‘growth’ and also fix the climate problem.”

To which I say, “Not a good answer” (if you click, start at 4:25 for the quote). Accepting the anti-climate-solution assumption means offering only a subset of solutions available. What do I mean by that? Saying “we can have (consumer) growth and a climate solution” is only true … if it’s actually true. What if it’s not true at all? Then what’s the solution on offer? (Hint: There is none.)

Here’s what’s more likely, using the example of the case we’ve been examining, the case of California and the American Southwest:

Any attempt to have (consumer) “growth” and a climate solution means we’ll have neither. Put differently, all fast, effective climate solutions will involve some sacrifice of the consumer economy. The only way to guarantee “growth” in the consumer economy is to have a slow and ineffective solution — until it all comes apart.

Note that the “consumer economy” is not the whole economy, meaning aggregate GDP. Did the World War II economy involve “growth” in a consumer goods sense? Obviously not, yet we survived and even thrived. The country cleared all the debris of the Great Depression in one swoop. All it took was willingness to sacrifice, something the American people were happy to do, given the alternative.

So too with the climate solutions war. To win that will take sacrifice. Something people will be willing to do once climate awareness reaches critical mass. We just have to stop listening to people who sing this song:

Thank you, George Harrison.

They don’t have our interests at heart in any case.

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  1. Ulysses

    “The rich didn’t get where they are, don’t stay where they are, by surrender.”

    Very well said. They don’t surrender to those who desperately need them to share more of their hoarded wealth, and they don’t even surrender to reality. The disease of greed infects the mind, to such a degree that the I me, me mine crowd prefers to extend clearly failed policies, and pretend that laughably absurd fantasies are real.

    Water is a great metaphor for the insane idiocy of hyper-financialized global capitalism. “Trickle down” works for the super-wealthy, and their most useful lackeys, only as long as the barrel, that the capitalists claim to “own”, still has some water left in it. The super-wealthy prefer to be the last to die of dehydration, rather than be the first to do something responsible. Why not apply their energies, and resources, to finding real solutions to real problems that threaten human survival as a species on this planet?

    Thanks for another great post GP!!

    1. financial matters

      Agree, great post GP!

      I think this focus on the social contract is spot on.

      Instead of ‘growth’ I think we should focus on redistribution to lower inequality. Drinking water makes this clear as we focus on whether people should have that or lush golf courses.

      Money represents value and it’s hard to think of something more valuable than drinking water. I don’t think this is something we want to privatize but something we want to recognize as a public good.

  2. Marc Andelman

    LA will have to find a billion gallons a day of water through re-use, recycling, and conservation. Yet, technologies in this field tend to be older than the alphabet.The sum total of federal R&D in new technologies might consist in its entirety of a $1.4 MM request for proposals out by the Bureau of Reclamation, and, that with strings, requiring 50% matching funds, except for universities. Meanwhile, to remediate salts, there is one and only one widely marketed approach to water recycling and reuse, reverse osmosis (RO). That has both high energy cost and low water recovery, so will only cause a snowballing problem. The fact is, there are better, alternative technologies in the offing, which could be used right now. I will leave that to the reader to research. Suffice it to say, R&D is at present nobodies job. Engineering firms don’t explore needed new alternatives, academics typically don’t cite inventors in publications, and, large companies have laid off R&;D to boost short term profits, raise cheap money, go buy another company, rinse, cycle , repeat.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      From above:

      the engineering that made settling the West possible may have reached the bounds of its potential” — meaning that even the big dams and canals we built to ferry all this water may now be causing more harm than good


      Here, we have to bring population and water consumption per capita to match whatever advance (way beyond just bigger dams/canals) R&D can allow us to engineer; otherwise, we are just kicking the can until the next crisis (seemingly a human expertise), when we reach the new bounds.

      And this issue we have with population explosion shows up in many other problem areas we are facing today as well.

  3. Ben Johannson

    Note that the “consumer economy” is not the whole economy, meaning aggregate GDP. Did the World War II economy involve “growth” in a consumer goods sense?

    Yes, consumption grew massively during World War II. The change was in who consumed what.

  4. ChrisFromGeorgia

    I’m afraid that getting bogged down in a debate on whether or not the drought is caused by, or even is related to global warming is not helpful to getting any kind of reality based thinking into the heads of the public.

    I see two big problems here – one is that by tying the drought to global warming, one gives ammunition to the optimists and “growth forever” crowd. They can simply say that since they don’t believe in global warming, then the drought must be a temporary thing that will resolve itself without humans having to modify their behavior.

    The second problem is that on a practical level, does it matter? California and parts of the west are going to have to radically change the way they live no matter what caused the drought. The sooner they stop thinking that more sub-divisions and fracking are the answer, the better.

    BTW one possible solution would be government incentives for relocation of businesses and families to more sustainable parts of the country (mid west, New England.) However don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. Instead I expect some attempts to divert water from other parts of the country, high costs and engineering risks be damned. If I were sitting near the Great Lakes I’d be nervous right now.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      If the Three Gorges dam changes Earth’s spin, can we look forward to out-doing that, with emptying-the-Great-Lakes-for-the-dry-West schemes?

      Perhaps they offset each other, or maybe they are cumulative.

    2. lyman alpha blob

      RE: “…one possible solution would be government incentives for relocation of businesses and families to more sustainable parts of the country (mid west, New England.)”

      I’ve got a better idea – how about doing away with government incentives to have so many damn kids? Then we won’t have so many people who need to relocate.

      I take it you haven’t visited New England very often. If you check a map you’ll notice our states are pretty small. You might be able to fit some in Northern Maine but the reason there’s room there to begin with is nobody in their right mind wants to live there. We here in northern New England don’t particularly care for our southern New England neighbors as it is – we tolerate them for a few weeks a year in the summer for their tourist dollars but we don’t miss them when they leave too much ;)

    3. optimader

      then the drought must be a temporary thing that will resolve itself without humans having to modify their behavior.

      Whether or not the drought is related to “global warming” (which a imprecise term) if the drought is due to natural causes it presumably is temporary. Nothing last forever.

      That said, from a policy standpoint, should the larger California population density and possibly more importantly the agricultural biz model be based on an approximation of minimum, average or maximum water availability? I would think somewhere between minimum and average. Pick the time frame for the estimate.

      For now they need to do water use triage starting with honest whole cost analysis of the various agricultural products. Maybe it is not economically sound to be growing alfalfa in a desert nor pursue the knockon uses for that forage product beyond local consumption? Change the alfalfa crop to Blue Agave?

    4. watson

      I think that unless CA and the rest of the west gets its act together re water rights and usage, people and businesses (including agribusiness) are going to have to relocate.

      I’ve heard this “pipe water from the Great Lakes” idea a few times now, but I wonder how many people have thought about what that would really mean. That is, it doesn’t solve the fundamental problem of water usage; Canada might have something to say about it; taking water from the Lakes will have a huge impact on all the people (and major cities) near them; big changes in the Great Lakes will also impact the Jet Stream. We’ve abandoned cities like Detroit, or the entire Rust Belt, when industry/labor moved overseas, etc. I’m not sure why CA should be different if a resource gets depleted.

      I lived in CA many years ago, and it’s not like this is a new problem. People have known for *decades* that water usage, water rights, development and agribusiness were massively dysfunctional and that disaster was a matter of time. If we could convert denial into water, California would be set.

      1. redleg

        The Boundary Waters Treaty between the US and Canada prohibits removal of water in the Great Lakes without the approval of both nations.
        So as long as that treaty holds, pumping Lake Superior to California won’t happen.
        But the treaty is subject to politics, and from more than one nation too, so that makes the treaty a speed bump given the potential profits (will TPP affect this? I’d say yes and nobody to my knowledge has brought up this little item).
        But the scale and scope of the infrastructure required to pump LOTS of water from Duluth and Chicago to Colorado will make the battles over various oil pipelines look like a kindergarten picnic.

    5. jrs

      California actually would have net migration out already if it wasn’t for immigration from south of the border. It’s not like Americans aren’t already leaving. Mostly because the economics are so bad, housing is massively expensive, the job market often poorer than elsewhere.

    6. optimader

      I wouldn’t hold my breath on Great Lakes Water being piped to California (Re: Great lakes Water Authority), Detroit property converted agricultural use would probably be more likely unlikely scenario.

      If such a water diversion for agriculture in a desert ever did come to pass, wouldn’t piping it to North Texas/Oklahoma/New Mexico be alot cheaper?

    7. Danny

      The Great Lakes can rest assured the South West won’t gets its water. The energy costs alone would be too high. More likely would be an attempt by southern states to avoid difficult decisions that it keeps facing over water availability.

      1. different clue

        Then too, one suspects that there are Great Lakestanis on both sides of the border who know enough about explosives, bombs, and other tools of sabotooge to make sure that no pipeline would survive the attempt if it came to that.

    8. MRW

      Gaius Publius says:

      Common sense says climate, dryness of the entire Southwest via heat and lack of rainfall, is a consequence of global warming.

      Common sense says nothing of the kind if you understand the ENSO cycle. Global Warming does not cause droughts.

      El Niños warm the waters off California and bring rain to California. Anyone living along the equator can tell you that warmth brings precipitation. (In fact, with the El Niño now forming, if it holds, California should expect a lot of rain this fall and winter.)

      Super El Niños happen, like the 1997 one, when the water surrounding Australia turns extremely cold. That’s the marker. They bring drought to Australia and rain to California (where the water along the coast is extremely warm).

      La Niñas bring drought to the American continent. Drought to Texas. It’s cold dry air that prevents precipitation. Cold air causes drought. And please don’t return with the argument of the super hot 1930s creating the dustbowl, although the heat exasperated the problem. It was land management issues. (Seth Godin told a conference a few years ago how poachers killed four panthers in Northern Mexico, panthers that fed on rabbits. The rabbit population exploded, ate all the grasses and created a two-year drought.)

      1. Gaius Publius

        Understood, MRW. But you’re seeing the saw-tooth effect and not the overall trend. Yes, seasonal variation. Yes, ENSO variation. But still a drying trend unless the Colorado watershed pick itself back up in terms of volume of water delivered.


        1. redleg

          The same energy increase that makes low pressure systems more intense also makes high pressure systems more intense. Further, the stronger high pressure makes the atmosphere more stable allowing weather patterns to persist over long time periods.

      2. scott

        Damming up rivers actually created drought in South America. In regions where there is daily convective precipitation, trapping water in lakes reduces evaporation, meaning less precipitation eventually.

        Take two 5 gallon buckets of water. Pour one on the ground in the morning and leave the other one sitting there. After a day in the TX sun the wet ground will be dry but the bucket will have lost only a fraction of an inch of water. If you want clouds and more precipitation, stop trapping water in lakes.

  5. Peter Whyte

    As a footnote, up here in British Columbia we are experiencing a 3 year drought with warm winters leaving no snow pack and shrinking glaciers. Growth and development proceeds nicely as planned.

    1. Gio Bruno

      This same phenomenon (low snowpack, warm winters) applies to California. This past winter northern Cal had considerable rainfall, but it didn’t accumulate as snow in the Sierra. The Sierra snowpack is the REAL reservoir of water that Cal agriculture needs for sustainability. (The man-made reservoirs are miniscule in comparison.) So, while global warming may not be the “cause” of the drought it is a serious component (rising temps means less snowfall).

      1. different clue

        If manmade global warming is indeed causing Sierra snowpack attrition through snowfall retention prevention, the global warming is indeed playing its own role in the co-ordinated causes of water shortage.

        Of course the right-wing environmentalist Garrett Hardin would have said, California does not have a water shortage. It has a demand-for-water longage.

  6. drugstoreblonde

    Sadly, I think in the short-term we can actually anticipate the Colorado River to continue a pattern of over-allocation, as CRC (Colorado River Compact) states that don’t currently draw much from their share build infrastructure in order to do so. I grew up in Utah and keep an eye on the news that comes out of there. Three years ago, there was considerable momentum to build a water pipeline from Lake Powell to the sunbelt sprawl between St George, Cedar City, and other points north and south. If the Recession hadn’t made any large project like this untenable, it is likely, give or take a dozen lawsuits concerning its routing, it would currently be in the early stages of construction.

    The same industrial push that has fed an era of waste, misallocation, and environmental degradation will likely occur again, but with ever diminishing returns. Expect more, not less plans for dams, for water pipelines, for subterranean storage, and aquifer recharge schemes. Look at Las Vegas’ machinations concerning the Snake Valley on the Utah-Nevada border, and you will get a glimpse of the pattern the near future holds.

    If one Owens Valley wasn’t bad enough, we will soon have dozens, perhaps hundreds.

    As the saying goes: things are only heating up just now.

    1. steelhead23

      You are absolutely correct. I think Gaius is way too optimistic. The public will be sold the need to “act” now, to build new, ever-more-expensive water infrastructure so that the long-term problems of scarcity can be dealt with soberly. I note that last year, taxpayers in the state of California enacted a $7.5 billion water bond in the middle of this crisis. Much of that water would continue to flow to the elite – or through their hands – and it won’t stop the problem. The elite, and it would seem much of our decision-making apparatus believe, truly believe that market-based solutions can resolve all problems, even existential ones.

  7. Adrienne Adams

    So too with the climate solutions war. To win that will take sacrifice. Something people will be willing to do once climate awareness reaches critical mass.

    I’m not pinning my hopes on this outcome. True, Americans were pretty much on board with the sacrifice of their standard of living for WWII— but we were a different country then, and the rationing was seen as a temporary measure. Americans are now also used to a much higher level of material comfort and are demonstrably loathe to lower it in any way.

    Renewables advocates seem to think that adjustment to a fossil-fuel-free society will require only minor tweaking to our current systems. If you read the analyses of folks who are actually tasked with keeping the lights on, turning off the fossil fuel firehose will have profound and permanent effects on every part of our lives: where we live, where we work, what we eat & wear, and most dramatically on our level of mobility.

    Framing the challenge of climate change in terms of short, intense efforts like WWII or the moon landings sidesteps the reality that a low carbon America will be drastically and permanently different than it is now. But no one is really willing to say that, because we understand that voluntarily austerity just won’t be enough.

    1. Ian Ollmann

      After a decade and a half of working with and being an engineer, it is usually a given that engineers overestimate the problems associated with doing most new things. They aren’t answering the question “what will it cost”, but rather “what will it cost given what I am confident I can do today”. As time moves forward however, the people on the ground learn to deal with the new stuff more efficiently, some of it turns out to have simple solutions to what looked to be costly problems, and people adjust to the new way of doing things rather than insisting on paying gobs of money for absolute 100% service parity, some of which they didn’t need.

      The key is to actually try to move forward and to iterate.

      1. Adrienne Adams

        Ian- I’m no engineer, just an interested amateur. I agree that the profession seems to be on the whole conservative, which is a good thing. However when we talk about energy we are literally talking about everything in our society. True substitution doesn’t have to be 1:1, but our economy both macro and household requires a very high level of energy certainty. The questions that need to be asked about renewables (esp. wind and solar, the current darlings) are:

        1) Can renewables scale to the levels needed to replace a significant portion of energy (now provided by fossil fuels) required by industrial society?

        2) Can we afford (both financially and energetically) to build what needs to be built within the required timeframe (general assumption is roughly 80% emissions reduction from year ~2000 levels by 2050)?

        Those are hard but quantifiable questions. It’s not really going to work if we only get 20% or 50% there. The time frame to reduce greenhouse gasses is very short and the time required to develop new technologies to commercial viability is long. We can’t afford to spend a lot of time and money on solutions that can’t scale.

        Too much ink in support of high-renewable solutions is nothing more than “rah rah renewables.” Studies like those produced by Mark Jacobson etc. that supposedly “prove” the viability of zero carbon futures are utterly lacking in specific calculations to the questions of scale and economics. Civil engineering requires detailed planning studies because once you’ve poured a million pounds of concrete it’s hard to change your mind. Too much popular writing about energy ignores the concrete (literally!) and tries to frame the problem as if every technology follows Moore’s Law, which of course isn’t the case.

        1. Adrienne Adams

          In addition: The emissions reductions needed also assume a growing human population as well as increasing per capita energy use in the underdeveloped world…

        2. Gio Bruno

          “Civil engineering requires detailed planning studies because once you’ve poured a million pounds of concrete it’s hard to change your mind.”

          Like the freeway system that encouraged today’s (unsustainable) suburbia?

          1. different clue

            Suburbia could grow more food per unit land than the farmland that suburbia displaced. . . . if suburbia wants to do so.

            1. Adrienne Adams


              “Suburbia” can’t grow anything because “suburbia” isn’t an entity. Some people in suburbia are ripping out their lawns to grow vegetables, but converting whole suburbs back into food production would be a massive & largely fruitless undertaking. Rip up the concrete and asphalt, and what do you have? Sterile subsoil, now contaminated with decades of toxic roadway runoff. Fertile topsoil is, on the human timescale, a non-renewable resource, and all the topsoil scraped off to make the ‘burbs is long gone.

              From your glib suggestion I assume that you are neither a gardener nor a farmer.

              1. different clue

                I did not envision “ripping out” suburbia. I envisioned all suburbanites turning their yards into mini-orchards/gardens/etc. Suburbia turning itself into suburbistan, if you will. With all the suburbistani families and persons continuing to stay right there in place, providing the dense-packed on-site labor force needed to perform intensive horticulture. And as various people have noted, such hi-density food production by suburbistanis would produce more food in that area then when it was farms.


                Here is an article by David Holmgren, the junior co-creator of Permiculture with Bill Mollison about retrofitting suburbia for permaculture. Presumably for food production.

                1. different clue

                  Plus also too, as well in addition . . . Peter Vail (author of Rhizome) put a 3 part series on The Oil Drum when that still existed, about sustainability in/of suburbia . . . greatly featuring the food side of sustainability.

              2. Optimader

                I would love to see the parks from my youth that have since been converted to these bloodysemipro little leauge baseball, football and soccer fields w flood lights and chemically glowing turf ect ect retooled to gardens and park(agian).
                I pay huge park district fees to have manicured sports fields where parents vicareously act out the personal failures of their own youth through their children.
                Grow stuff, orchards whatever… Farmersmarkets when its all ripe. The salaries and fantastic pension funds for the municipal park employees could actually be contributing to the common good rather than generating patient opportunities for the local orthopedic practices.

                1. Lambert Strether

                  Yes, and how much more civilizing it would be to teach children to garden as opposed to damaging their bodies and spirits with team sports. (I do seem to be a curmudgeon today, but what of that; I read somewhere in the news flow that the real danger of brain damage in soccer is not from headers, but from body contact — that is, from fouls. So, the great lesson is how to break the rules; useful for children growing up in a country whose main product is fraud. Snarl.)

                2. different clue

                  Or also . . . if all the suburbistani gardeners grew a lot of their own fruit/veg needs, farmers markets could be for the things the suburbistanis could not grow themselves. And the suburbistanis would have the money saved by growing what food they DID grow . . . to be able to pay a shinola price to the near-burban shinola farmers for the shinola food those farmers would be growing in the agri-horticulture greenbelts surrounding all the suburbistans which would surround all the center cities. Paris and maybe some other French cities were surrounded by greenbelts of super-intensive ( whence the name French Intensive) Marachier agriculture. I read that in a thumbnail history of biodynamic- French Intensive agriculture.

              3. Alex Tolley

                Fertile topsoil is, on the human timescale, a non-renewable resource, and all the topsoil scraped off to make the ‘burbs is long gone.

                Making new topsoil is quite achievable. There are a number of ways to do it and gardeners have been doing it for as long as I can remember.

                1. Adrienne Adams

                  Making new topsoil is quite achievable. There are a number of ways to do it and gardeners have been doing it for as long as I can remember.

                  OK, I’ll bite. I’ve been gardening for thirty years and at one point I grew a fair portion of my own vegetables. I can make compost, I can add fertility to the soil by importing organic matter, but I can’t make topsoil, which is the result of thousands of years of weathering and biological activity. Virtually all commercial farming mines topsoil, and much organic agriculture does as well. It takes a lot of effort to keep soil fertility levels high, let alone restore exhausted soil. It can be done on the small scale with a lot of effort, but there simply isn’t any economic incentive to preserve soil fertility and I know of no agricultural systems that are building soil faster than it is being depleted.

                  See the classic work “Farmers of Forty Centuries” for the story of pre-industrial farming and a lesson on the difficulties of preserving soil fertility without fossil fuel inputs.

          2. Adrienne Adams


            Freeways are a great example of infrastructural inertia. Complex systems in the physical world take a long time to develop, always have unintended consequences, and set up energetic pathways that are difficult to shift. A serious discussion of de-carbonizing industrial society has to acknowledge this inertia, as well as the pitfalls of picking winners.

            Freeways looked like the perfect solution to providing mass mobility—until gridlock and sprawl began to become permanent fixtures of the American transportation landscape. And still, and virtually all transportation planning in the US is dominated by freeway-oriented solutions, because it’s so difficult to envision any other system and because most people have almost no latitude to change their mobility patterns without major upheaval in their lives.

            I see the same problems with expecting voluntary mass change in energy & resource usage. How many people can afford a new passivhaus-standard home? How many people can afford a new electric vehicle? How many people can move to a transit-friendly neighborhood? And that’s just personal use: factor in aging public & business building stock, transportation needs for goods and services, expectations of mobility for business and pleasure, and you start to see that we’re trying to steer a juggernaut of embedded and entrenched energy and resource consumption.

      2. tim s

        Unfortunately, this isn’t at the root an engineering problem, but a political one. If it were an engineering problem, you might assume that most of the people involved would go into it with an open mind, good intentions and a willingness to analyze and cooperate, and maybe even sacrifice for a common goal.

        Political problems are about power and self interest, which may be the interest of the individual or specific group, typically at the expense of those outside of that circle of interest. There is very little overlap between how these two types of problems work themselves out, at least when engineering is honest.

  8. James McFadden

    The longer we use “innovative” technology to maintain growth and leverage our resources to a greater and greater extent, the greater the probability that a small fluctuation in nature will collapse this economic house of cards that sits upon an overstressed ecology (and with climate change, the fluctuations are getting bigger). Malthus was correct about growth, and technology has only postponed the inevitable. We need a cultural shift away from growth, consumerism and greed, to a world view built around sustainability, need and protection of the commons. The alternative is to condemn multiple future generations to misery because we have embraced the “I me mine” philosophy.

  9. Ian Ollmann

    > “your big-screen, smart-phone lifestyle.”

    As a point of fact, smart phones are incredibly energy efficient compared to your desktop or TV. They need to be in order to have all day or multiday battery life.

    Wasteful items:
    Cosmetic irrigation: Green lawns. “Turning the desert into a tropical paradise”
    Oversized or overpowered automobiles that get poor gas mileage
    Air conditioning

    The solution is probably to convince the rice farmers to replace their farm with a solar installation.

    1. cnchal

      . . . smart phones are incredibly energy efficient compared to your desktop or TV

      True, but not relevant. The fact that resources are dug up from all over the world, shipped to China for processing in the most polluting way possible, and then shipped back all over the world is extremely energy intensive. Globalization wastes energy by the megatons, and economists were there cheering it on every step of the way.

      1. vidimi

        not only that, but maintaining thousands of cell towers is insanely energy intensive.
        also, agriculture goes back thousands of years so there’s nothing inherently unsustainable about it.

        1. cnchal

          Modern agriculture turns fossil fuel into food, and current caloric production levels would feed between 12 to 14 billion people, yet many go hungry. There is colossal waste in food production, distribution and consumption.

          Whenever there is a food recall because of some cleanliness failure at a processing plant, all of the energy that went into producing and distributing that food is wasted and then even more energy is spent to recall and get rid of the bad food, as well as the indirect costs to care for ill people. That is before we get to the further insanity of Chinese companies buying North American food producers, and shipping slaughtered meat across the ocean for processing and back for consumption. And they want no country of origin labeling so avoiding the worst of the crap produced becomes next to impossible. I expect many people will be sickened by eating food processed in China.

          1. different clue

            This is where shinola meat will be proudly labelled ” grown AND PROCESSED in America.” Of course such shinola meat will command a shinola price.

            But as to the rest of it, yes. Shitmeat will be processed in China and sent back here or wherever. And it will sell for “always the low price, always”.

  10. Steve H.

    I appreciate the sentiment in the article. But it takes a swipe at the NOAA in an attempt to leverage a political response. This is as misguided as those who oppose the XL Pipeline without understanding they are the suckers at the table, playing the hand Buffet and Gates dealt.

    : Or maybe the models could be wrong, less sophisticated than they need to be, as all of these IPCC models were in predicting collapse of Arctic ice

    Exactly so. The particular case failed to understand how far the ice extended inland. There are rivers flowing underneath the ice which has not collapsed. Another dimension was needed to understand what was going on, and it is not possible to gather the data needed to model this.

    : Modern studies of tree rings revealed that those three decades were probably the wettest in the past 500 to 1,200 years

    The money quote. The first iteration of a model is finding a mean to regress to. A second rule of thumb in the face of increasing uncertainty is to take what is unique and intensify it; hot areas get hotter, etc. Global warming dumps more heat in the system, which not only implies more power, but secondarily more entropy, which means uncertainty. That’s pretty much the reason the term ‘climate change’ is now the term of choice.

    The author is pushing a moral / political choice which is not necessarily going to be the most adaptive. In doing so, he throws a primary ally (in terms of orienting to reality) under the bus.

    1. different clue

      “Climate change” is the choice because Frank Luntz made it the choice. He invented the term “climate change” because it sounds friendlier than “global warming”.

      If one wants a nod towards the increasing disorder brought by global heatering, how about “climate d’chaos decay” ?

      1. jrs

        Climate change is more accurate though regardless of who invented it. Overall global temperatures are rising, but on many parts of earth this just manifests as increasingly weird weather. Just global warming and it’s “but what about the polar vortex?”, “but why is the weather becoming more humid?”, “why is it raining in California in July as if monsoons were somehow normal there?”

        Climate chaos. Global weirding. The new abnormal.

        1. different clue

          Yes, climate chaos, weather weirding, anything other than “climate change”. Because “change is good”. We learned that in school, remember?

          If time permits, I will google what the reply below recommended, about who invented what term firstest of allest. If Luntz didn’t inVENT “climate change”, he worked to popularize it. But if he didn’t inVENT it, it would be interesting to see who did.

      2. Synapsid

        different clue,

        Both terms long predate Luntz’s memo and “climate change” is the senior of the two. Google “Skeptical Science climate change vs global warming” for a good overview of the history.

  11. NOTaREALmerican

    Sounds like a problem forrrrr…. Litigation MAN!!!!

    Quick, to the Litigation Mobile, there’s not a moment to loose!

    Na na na na Na na na na

  12. kevinearick

    Depression Lessons

    The media is painfully, obviously run by juveniles, who believe that herding up into a majority provides a competitive information advantage, that by controlling the narrative of History, always a false assumption that an irrational market can outlast all individual investors, ensures something other than repetition and redundancy, the latest fad and associated advertising income. Middle classes com and middle classes go, accordingly, copying the behavior right out of the womb, calling the process public education.

    What passes for science, politics and religion in the public eye has always been superstition, data specifically collected to confirm false assumptions, whatever hair-brained scheme the monkeys come up with next, to entertain themselves, to ‘live’ large. This Internet bubble, like the last, has merely increased income inequality and the number on food stamps, with a new cast of actors, Facebook instead of MySpace. The only difference between margin drug dealers at the central banks , feeding their respective majorities, is the timing of natural resource exploitation, the location in rotation.

    What your children learn on the playground is far more important than anything they learn in the classroom. The answer to how you play in an increasingly crowded HR sandbox is to build a sandbox somewhere else. Children aren’t dolls in a sandbox, but you will never convince the majority otherwise. Poverty isn’t an accident; it’s a choice to comply with the false choice of empire, masters and slaves, in a circular firing squad.

    Contrary to popular mythology, a portfolio of mythologies can only increase consumption, as evident in all the budgets, so debt relief for consumers in the actuarial ponzi will fair no better than any other remedy, proposed by accountants, the problem always posing as the solution. That much the German bank knows, which plays last-to-lose, and always loses, only to restart the game in another location. The rockstars win only to lose, and with their latest masterpiece, infrastructure globalization, find themselves trapped, along with all the other nation/states, in a virtual economy that produces nothing, but self-absorption.

    The old, old-timers, who have largely passed away, used to say that when the State destroys the family with Family Law, the country itself will be destroyed, because that is the lesson of economic depression. Productive individuals don’t accept arbitrary credit and debt, which is all the bank ever has, consumer credit reports and sunk cost collateral held by institutions notwithstanding. Tall Paul is correct, that commercial lines of credit must be re-introduced for small business, but labor will accept nothing but a system of anonymous money, for what by now should be obvious reasons.

    From the perspective of capital, labor is money and money is margin, so the point of technology is to replace labor, on the assumption that one warm body is as good as another, until they can all be replaced, which the middle class is more than happy to accept, so long as debt, which is never repaid, is issued to buy the toys, in an artificial world of make-work, aspiring to leisure. From the perspective of labor, real estate is money and money is margin.

    Capital leverages up and collapses accordingly, with artificial real estate inflation embedded in every layer, all resting on Family Law, regardless of religion, political affiliation, or pseudo-science. The fact that transsexuals can get a contract for marriage and take other people’s children, impoverished for the purpose, tells you where you are in the empire cycle. Government isn’t in the business of licensing monopolies by accident, and if the McCains are not quite careful, they are going to upend the entire US Navy.

    Funny thing about entrepreneurs like Donald Trump; they keep poking and prodding. The US has always been a top-down, centrally-controlled concern. The fact and its failure is only becoming obvious to the majority now because measured natural resources per capita are depleted, the majority is incapable of sustaining reproduction, and all it knows is capital control. Get your kids one of those empire natural resource atlases and they can skip public education all together, except to collect arbitrary pieces of paper with 10% of their time, to keep the busy-workers busy.

    Even now, the critters surround my unborn child, thinking that they are going to shoot me, employing my oblivious wife as bait, because she believes in mercy. One of the parents is always going to be the bad guy, under the law, and there is always a politician running out in front of the mob. That’s the job. Not so ironically, the critters can’t make their technology work, and so must replace it at greater cost and increasing frequency. Labor or Act of Stupidity, the choice is always yours.

    What really happened at the Hanoi Hilton, why is the VA a rat hole, and what do they have in common? That’s it; throw another rock from a glass house. Funny, how time duration between cause and effect shortens up when you have kids, when it is far to late to change your habits.

  13. BigStupid

    Yes – sustainability needs to become a priority. Nobody (industry) cared about the cost of pollution until it was ‘priced in’ (through fines, regulation, carbon tax). Nobody (industry/govt) is going to care about sustainability until it can be priced into production. Unfortunately our economic system does not look at anything beyond the cost of production – planned obsolescence is fine, gets everyone buying the same thing over and over. Once you fit the cost of proper recycling into the gadgetry a number of business models become unsustainable.

    Attempting to have infinite growth within a finite system causes problems we haven’t really started to run into until the late 20th century – abundance is the rule no more. The discussions that will need to be had go far beyond redefining the structure of water rights – we will have to start fundamentally challenging many of the assumptions we hold to be self evident. As paramedics are taught: Life before limb.

    With climate, things are never as good as cautious people say they are. Scientists are inherently cautious by nature, and climate scientists are a battered bunch, so they tend toward extra caution. Common sense says climate, dryness of the entire Southwest via heat and lack of rainfall, is a consequence of global warming.

    This is dangerous thinking – a key reason there is still so much debate on the nature and conclusions of climate science. Scientists are cautious, and the good ones are precise. Drawing conclusions based on common sense leads to the ‘it’s snowing in july so global warming is a crock’ argument. Leave the science to scientists – drawing unsupported conclusions (based on common sense) lends validity to any other arguments based on ‘common sense’. The climate is a chaotic system – more warmth means less snow pack, it also means the atmosphere can carry more moisture, the heating of the coast increases evaporation leading to more condensation inland, (insert common sense phrase here)- chaotic systems do not by their very definition adhere to common sense.

  14. Danny

    I take issue with calling this the California drought. While worse in California, it’s impacts extend across the entire west. You need only look at Lake Powell and Lake Mead water levels to understand this.

    BTW: The wonks here who want to follow water news about California(and to some extent the Southwest) should add Maven’s Notebook to the daily reading list /RSS reader.

  15. Dan

    The Colorado River issue is barely explained here. Denver and the entire front range urbanity wants and needs more of the Colorado while I live with senior water rights due to the company that takes my water dues and gives me enough water to water my garden, trees and yard. That water comes from the Colorado, the river I’ve peed in for years and years while rafting it and other tributaries. I remember Glen Canyon filling in the 1980’s, and slowly draining, while neighbors scream about Denver taking our water and letting our water go across the state line into Utah. These same people would claim that humans have never caused any changes to climate, and especially now. Coal, natural gas , and oil shale share farmers and ranchers doubt of less water, too much carbon in the biosphere, too many people, cars, and living in an extractive colony that needs money for our buried energy, our snow-covered ski slopes, and our cognitive dissonance. A group of people left their homes south of here, rock houses in spring fed caves. Surely it can’t happen to us, we’re special!

  16. Paul Tioxon

    How bad will California’s agricultural production suffer and how much will the people of Cali suffer due to drought has more answers in what seems to be the forgotten Ecology Movement from the 1970s.
    On Earth Day, one of the power house speakers was Ian McHarg who wrote the landmark book: “DESIGN WITH NATURE”. It was several years later that I saw him lecture a class. His opening statement thundered with these words: “Mankind is an ambulant pus upon the face of the Earth!!” And at the same time, The Club of Rome issued its reports on what is known as the carrying capacity of our living environment. The carrying capacity is the term which represents the available resources on the planet that can sustain life. Water is one of the notable can not do without items, that should be self evident. And humanity in its capacity to overcome its environmental limitations and adapt to circumstances or change the circumstance by means of re-engineering the living environment, is always living on the margin of allowance of the carrying capacity of the earth. If you bring water into the desert, where you get the water from and how long you can sustain its delivery is carrying capacity, even if it’s masked by the wonders of progress and humanity’s seeming endless ingenuity. And we are creative in adapting. However, the absolute limits upon resources is our limit if our imagination is not.

    At that time, the demise of places like Atlantic City were predicted because it was built on a sandbar. Las Vegas was equally thrown into the fires of the eventually doomed built up sites due to being in a desert. Southern California is too much desert, not enough of the necessary components that are the hallmark of civilizations of history. The Nile, The Tigris and The Euphrates, The Yellow River Valley of China, The Mekong Delta of Viet Nam, all of these places settled due to agriculture and the water needed to grow the food on regular, dependable basis, year after year and for centuries since then. While small communities are found just about anywhere, you will not find thousands of years old surviving settlements today outside of river valleys. Las Vegas and cities such as LA, built in desert areas without fresh water are at the mercy of the point of origin of their water supplies. As helpless as Rome with a few stone blocks knocked from the retaining walls of their famous aqueducts by invading barbarians.

    Although we are not in barbarian times, in most places in America at least, the problem of NOT designing with nature is coming back to haunt us after 35 years of a new morning in America, a dot com revolution, the project of for a new American Century. We still have to contend with basic building blocks of civilization. The absolute necessity of fresh water for drinking and growing food. The absolute necessity of adapting our built environment, our cities, towns and roads and bridges, to the larger environment within which our civilization resides. While LA may not be a castle built on sand by the sea, such as Atlantic City, it seems it built its fortune on the wishful thinking that the Colorado River would continue to give more water than actually flows along its banks. Designing with nature would be a sound basis, as sound as the thousands of year old places, such as along the Nile, or the Yellow River or even the Hudson or Delaware Rivers. Any place other than a desert. That is just asking for trouble which as always will show up sooner rather than later.

    1. Steve H.

      McHarg’s book was amazing, wasn’t it. Did with overlays what they’re still working out with GIS.

    2. different clue

      It sounds like McHarg was confusing “Industrial Western” mankind with “Mankind” in general. A lot of Industrial WesternCiv people did that/ do that.

  17. MRW

    Rapid development and economic growth further complicate the issue of a secure water supply, particularly in the case of California’s senior water rights over those of Nevada and Arizona: in case of a reduction in water supply, Nevada and Arizona would have to endure severe cuts before any reduction in the California allocation, which is also larger than the other two combined.

    BS. Can’t, won’t happen. Whoever wrote that Wikipedia entry is ignorant of what happened legally.

    The Colorado River was carved up in 1924, according to the Southern Nevada Water Authority, not 1922.

    California got approx 4 million acre ft per year (how they measure allocation), Arizona got approx 2.2 million acre ft/yr, Utah a little less than that if I remember correctly, dont remember if New Mexico got any, but Nevada only got 400,000 acre ft/yr because never in a million years did anyone think anyone would live there.

    Consequently, guess who are the water conservation experts In Nevada? The casino owners.

    Specifically Steve Wynn, who led the charge to solve it as soon as he got to town in the 80s when Lake Mead was full and the Boulder Dam was still releasing water into the lower basin. Wynn’s Mirage and Treasure Island, built years and years ago, were double-plumbed to catch all the grey water (shower, bath, sink) and he built water treatment plants in the basements so that he could use the water to irrigate his golf courses and fill his fountains.

    Then Wynn invented, or had someone invent, an absolutely revolutionary way to water the golf courses and gardens that were unaffected by the high desert heat, which evaporates 60% of the over-the-ground sprinklers. Incidentally, this invention was so revolutionary that the Arabs (UAE) came over to license his patent, and grow their deserts.

    Las Vegas soil is something called coliche (sp? pronounced co-leech-y) and about as hard as tooth enamel, which contributes to lethal flash floods when it rains. It’s like raining on marble. But the soil is really ‘hard’ as a result, meaning super alkaline. You can’t put a metal pipe into the ground without deposits forming, clogging them.

    Wynn wanted to run irrigation grids of PVC piping 20″ down under the surface to draw the roots down, and run his grey water through them to irrigate, but the problem was the tiny attachment connecting each square in the grid pattern. They would clog, and he couldn’t be digging up his golf courses to fix them. I don’t know the ins and outs of his final solution, but the connector was so revolutionary that he got an immediate patent; its coupled with a computer monitoring system tied into the water treatment plant, and is in the vanguard of desert irrigation systems worldwide. (Dan Senor’s claim in the book Start-up Nation that Israelis invented some world-renowned computerized water conservation irrigation system in the 1990s is bogus. They licensed Wynn’s invention.)

    Wynn told the other casino owners to build their casinos his way, and as a result, all the Las Vegas casinos (except the old dives) are so efficient in their water and electrical use, they return 1/3 of their water usage to the Colorado River every year. They use only 3% of Nevada’s total water–which stunned the Southern Nevada Water Authority when they metered it–even with all their perfectly green golf courses. Residential customers use 60% to 75% of the remainder, and industry the rest.

    So the next time you hear someone go on and on about the wasteful casinos, tell them this story. And these guys started addressing this problem 35 years ago, before anyone even thought of it.

    California, as usual, is behind the eight-ball on conservation, but long on lecturing the rest of us.

    1. Steve H.

      Very interesting, had not heard the whole story.

      If you like such things, Laureano’s ‘The Water Atlas’ is incredible.



  18. Thomas Tobiason

    I just finished a good science fiction book about water shortages called “Water Knife”. The story is set in Phoenix, where the water has been cut off and the society is descending into a horrific dystopia. It;s where I learned about senior and junior water rights and the unit “acre-feet” The author’s name is Paolo Bacigalupi, who also wrote the excellent “Wind-up Girl”.

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