Gaius Publius: More Evidence We’ve Reached a “Peak Water” Tipping Point in California

Lambert here: It’s hard to argue with anything Gaius says here (though I come from a state that has plenty of water, and is also more dependent on oil for heating than any other, so I feel myself in a different set of crosshairs).

Clicking through to the solutions in the last paragraph of the post, I come to “Zero Carbon Now.” It’s nice to have a metric! Assuming that Sanders is the pick of the litter on climate, here’s his plank on Climate Change & Environment:

  • Introduced the gold standard for climate change legislation with Sen. Barbara Boxer to tax carbon and methane emissions.
  • Led the opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline.
  • Secured $3.2 billion in the economic stimulus package for grants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in a program that has funded upgrades for more than 86,000 buildings and installed more than 9,500 solar energy systems.

I suppose a carbon tax, as a sort of sin tax, does “work”, but can a carbon tax get to Zero Carbon in time? If not, and if Sanders is the gold standard candidate, he’ll need to rethink his views on the gold standard solution for climate change. If so, it would be nice to have a more concrete vision of the sorts of innovation (technological, financial, social) that a carbon tax would bring about. After British Columbia instituted a carbon tax, consumption of taxed fuels per capita fell 19 percent relative to the rest of Canada. Which is good. But not zero.

So I urge you to read this post with solutions, and your own situations, in mind. And Gaius makes an important point: He’s speaking of “a” tipping point, not “the” tipping point. He writes: “It really is up to us, and it really is not too late in any absolute sense.” I agree with him wholeheartedly. And I love the parable of the refrigerator.

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.

It may be a see-saw course, but it’s riding an uphill train.

A bit ago I wrote, regarding climate and tipping points:

The concept of “tipping point” — a change beyond which there’s no turning back — comes up a lot in climate discussions. An obvious tipping point involves polar ice. If the earth keeps warming — both in the atmosphere and in the ocean — at some point a full and permanent melt of Arctic and Antarctic ice is inevitable. Permanent ice first started forming in the Antarctic about 35 million years ago, thanks to global cooling which crossed a tipping point for ice formation. That’s not very long ago. During the 200 million years before that, the earth was too warm for permanent ice to form, at least as far as we know.

We’re now going the other direction, rewarming the earth, and permanent ice is increasingly disappearing, as you’d expect. At some point, permanent ice will be gone. At some point before that, its loss will be inevitable. Like the passengers in the car above, its end may not have come — yet — but there’s no turning back….

I think the American Southwest is beyond a tipping point for available fresh water. I’ve written several times — for example, here — that California and the Southwest have passed “peak water,” that the most water available to the region is what’s available now. We can mitigate the severity of decline in supply (i.e., arrest the decline at a less-bad place by arresting its cause), and we can adapt to whatever consequences can’t be mitigated.

But we can no longer go back to plentiful fresh water from the Colorado River watershed. That day is gone, and in fact, I suspect most in the region know it, even though it’s not yet reflected in real estate prices.

Two of the three takeaways from the above paragraphs are these: “California and the Southwest have passed ‘peak water'” and “most in the region know it.” (The third takeaway from the above is discussed at the end of this piece.)

“For the first time in 120 years, winter average minimum temperature in the Sierra Nevada was above freezing”

My comment, that “most in the region know it,” is anecdotal. What you’re about to read below isn’t. Hunter Cutting, writing at Huffington Post, notes (my emphasis):

With Californians crossing their fingers in hopes of a super El Niño to help end the state’s historic drought, California’s water agency just delivered some startling news: for the first time in 120 years of record keeping, the winter average minimum temperature in the Sierra Nevada was above freezing. And across the state, the last 12 months were the warmest on record. This explains why the Sierra Nevada snow pack that provides nearly 30% of the state’s water stood at its lowest level in at least 500 years this last winter despite precipitation levels that, while low, still came in above recent record lows. The few winter storms of the past two years were warmer than average and tended to produce rain, not snow. And what snow fell melted away almost immediately.

Thresholds matter when it comes to climate change. A small increase in temperature can have a huge impact on natural systems and human infrastructure designed to cope with current weather patterns and extremes. Only a few inches of extra rain can top a levee protecting against flood. Only a degree of warming can be the difference between ice-up and navigable water, between snow pack and bare ground.

Climate change has intensified the California drought by fueling record-breaking temperatures that evaporate critically important snowpack, convert snowfall into rain, and dry out soils. This last winter in California was the warmest in 119 years of record keeping, smashing the prior record by an unprecedented margin. Weather records tend to be broken when a temporary trend driven by natural variability runs in the same direction as the long-term trend driven by climate change, in this case towards warmer temperatures. Drought in California has increased significantly over the past 100 years due to rising temperatures. A recent paleoclimate study found that the current drought stands out as the worst to hit the state in 1,200 years largely due the remarkable, record-high temperatures.

The rest of Cutting’s good piece deals with what the coming El Niño will do. Please read if that interests you.

There’s an easy way to think about this. Imagine the thermostat in your home freezer is broken and the temperature inside goes from 31 degrees to 33 degrees overnight, just above freezing, with no way to turn it down. Now imagine the Koch Bros (and “friends of carbon” Democrats) have emptied your town of repair people — every last one of them is gone. It’s over, right? Everything in the freezer is going to thaw. Then the inside is going to dry out. And everyone in your house who doesn’t already know this will figure it out. All because of a two-degree change in temperature that can’t be reversed.

When it comes to climate, two non-obvious rules apply:

  • Change won’t be linear; there will be sudden bursts at tipping points. 
  • Pessimistic predictions are more likely to be right than optimistic ones.

Most people get this already, even if they haven’t internalized it. Which is why most people already know, or strongly suspect, that California and the American Southwest have already crossed a line from which there will be no return. This revelation, from the state’s water agency, just adds numbers. Time to act decisively? Do enough people think so?

Negative and Positive Takeaways

I said that two of the three takeaways about California, from the text I quoted at the beginning, were these: “California and the Southwest have passed ‘peak water'” and “most in the region know it.” The third is from the same sentence: “though it’s not yet reflected in real estate prices”  — meaning farm land as well as urban property.

It’s just a matter of time, though. Prices will fall as awareness hits, awareness that future prices can only fall. Note that prices in bear markets tend to be decidedly non-linear. And when that awareness does hit, when land is cheap, insurance expensive and the population in decline, nothing coming out of the mouths of the Kochs — or methane-promoting politicians in the Democratic Party — will change a single mind. (In terms of our playful freezer metaphor, you know the thing’s going to end up in the yard, right? It just hasn’t been carted out yet.)

But that’s just the negative takeaway. There’s a positive takeaway as well. It’s not over everywhere, not yet. From the same piece quoted at the top, referring to the tipping point of extreme weather:

This [incidence of extreme weather] is “a” tipping point, not “the” tipping point. We have slid into a “new normal” for weather, but please note:

  • We’re talking only about the weather, not a host of other effects, like extreme sea level rise. I don’t think we’ve passed that tipping point yet. 
  • We can stop this process whenever we want to — or rather, we can force the “carbon bosses” and their minions in government to stop whenever we want to stop them. They have only the power we collectively allow them to have.

It really is up to us, and it really is not too late in any absolute sense. For my playfully named (but effective) “Easter Island solution,” see here. For a look at one sure way out, see here.

Will it take a decidedly non-linear, noticeably dramatic, event to create critical mass for a real solution? If so, we could use it soon, because the clock is ticking. It may be a see-saw course, but it’s riding an uphill train. (Again, the real solution, expressed metaphorically, is here. Expressed directly, it’s here. Everything less is a delaying tactic.)

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. ewmayer


    Drought woes in California town highlight thirsty poultry industry | Reuters

    Three takeaways: [1] Asking industry to self-regulate is doomed to failure (duh); [2] Meat processors should consider non-water-using anticontamination methods, such as irradiation of the packaged product. The granola crowd and willfully-science-ignorant types may whine about the latter (just as they do about vaccines), but they can just go elsewhere or start butchering their own meat. The water belongs to all of us, we must not let greed and ignorance continue to squander it; [3] To those of us who eat meat: Just cook your damn meat! No amount of salmonella can survive a simple well-done level of cooking. As ever, we ignore the lessons learned by our distant ancestors at our peril.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    The thing is, there is still plenty of water for domestic use in the South-west and California, even if the drought continues. The problem is agriculture, so its not a case of the region becoming uninhabitable, its a problem of growing food for the US and the rest of the world, as the region is one of the worlds key breadbaskets.

    One of the key lessons of history is that declines in agricultural productivity due to climatic changes or soil destruction is often not gradual – a lot of problems build up, and then all of a sudden a highly productive area turns into desert over the course of a few years. This can leave very few options for a society to compensate.

    1. Larry

      This is quite key. And all of my understanding of water rights in California is that they heavily favor land owners over the public need at large, so farmers are free to do with their water what they like. And our agricultural system is in no way tuned to actual population needs, but rather towards profit and global “markets”. How much water could we save by cutting meat production in half? How much water could we save by shifting crops to nutrient dense lower water needing crops? I don’t know, but these adjustments seem necessary.

      1. MikeNY

        Yes, good points both you and PK. Growing certain kinds of nuts (that take a gallon of water for every nut!) and tomatoes and lettuce and such is environmental insanity even if it makes economic sense. It can only continue if we relocate Los Angeles to Buffalo.

        1. Bridget

          Actually, tomatoes and most lettuces can both be grown beautifully with hydroponic systems, which are very efficient from a space and water standpoint. Artichokes and almonds, not so much, although I have a friend who has built greenhouses for olive trees.

    2. Moneta

      For the past few decades, producing in California made sense: the clime, infrastructure, water, economies of scale, etc. But now, every asset has been used to its limit and production will need to relocate… leading to:

      -Desalination plants
      -More investment in other states requiring ramp-up
      -Production moved to less productive climes

      Welcome to the reversal of economies of scale and JITI over the next few decades….this is what inflation is made of…

      1. Brooklin Bridge

        Maybe it will work its way back to Massachusetts with what remains of our fields of granite and glacial deposits. That will be the point at which the earth can support about 4 million people, and heaven only knows how many damned squirrels (nothing will get rid of them).

  3. Moneta

    The arguments I always get are:

    – There will be a solution such as desalination plants. When I mention that this will cost and make producers less competitive, the next argument is:

    – The problem is agriculture. There would be more than enough water if many of those wasteful producers disappeared.

    -Because of water rights, there is a lot of waste so we can focus on optimizing water use.

    IMO, real estate prices are still high because this belief system is strong and intact. The question is whether or not these arguments will stand the test of time.

    More questions:
    -Will optimization only contribute to more population growth?
    -How ugly will the water rights fight get?
    -Can business compete with higher operating prices?
    -Can California prosper with much smaller agriculture?
    -Will those changes be sudden or gradual?

  4. fosforos

    Can a carbon tax get us to “zero carbon?” Of course. As the adage goes, the power to tax is the power to destroy. What counts are the level of the tax and the distribution of its proceeds. How should these be determined? Suppose we want to reach “zero carbon” in a reasonable period–say by 2035. Using conservative estimates based on past rates of cost-reduction in photovoltaic and aeolian energy production to project the cost per kwh of carbon-free power, set a carbon tax that constantly rises over those decades so that by 2025 newly installed carbon-free power will cost less than newly installed hydrocarbon-sourced energy in every one of its applications, and by 2035 will cost less than “heritage” hydrocarbon installations, so pricing hydrocarbons out of every energy market in the world. Meanwhile the proceeds of the tax in each taxing-jurisdiction (“country”) would be distributed per capita over the entire population, so the entire burden of the tax would go onto the minority that uses most of the energy, while most of the people would get a surplus that could be used to install the now-cheaper carbon-free energy sources. Simultaneously, the central jurisdictional authority (“government”)
    would finance and construct all the infrastructure (highway recharging stations, airports designed for zeppelins, ultra-efficient grid, etc.) needed to support the zero-carbon economy.

  5. RabidGandhi

    I’m heavily pessimistic on this issue, and I think GP’s “Easter Island Solution” would be great but it’s a bit simplistic about community power dynamics.
    In his (at times brilliant at other times cringe-inducing) book Collapse, Jared Diamond looks at the Easter Island case. After much skirting the issue, he comes to the conclusion that what most likely happened was that the islanders got used to the idea that the trees would always grow back. As they cut down smaller and smaller less mature trees, there was no grand moment of “should we cut down the last tree on the island?” Rather it was a matter of slow creeping self-induced civilizational suicide.

    Thus as I see it, the hard part will always be getting collective consciousness to understand exactly the “tipping points” GP is talking about, even though they do not seem like watershed quantum moments to the general public now. But seeing this “slow creep” is particularly hard in a culture that likes to think in terms of apocalyptic big bangs (eg, climate disaster movies) instead of “boiling frogs”, and especially in light of the brutal PR battle being waged by the corporate climate denial machine.

    In all, a solution like zero carbon seems like the only way out of planetary collapse, but I just don’t see how we get from here to there. That said, the pessimism of it all should not stop us from doing everything possible.

  6. Jef

    The #1 reason stated by all entities local, state, national, global, for not committing to FF use/emissions cutbacks is that it would continue/increase very high impoverishment of the population and this is fact.

    Until we figure out a way to allow people to live/not die without requiring them to plug into industrial civilization such as it is we can propose/accomplish nothing significant.

    Anyone who says we can transition away from FFs and raise the population of the planet out of poverty, in other words grow the economy is either lying or ignorant.

    This is where someone usually brings up population as being the real issue and of course thats right so we need to discourage procreation which I believe will happen anyway when the truth of the situation is finally exposed. At the very least we need to stop encouraging and subsidizing having children.

    How about a carbon based life tax?

    1. diptherio

      Anyone who says we can transition away from FFs and raise the population of the planet out of poverty, in other words grow the economy is either lying or ignorant.

      This assumes a particular definition of “poverty”–specifically one that relies on per capita consumption to define poverty and wealth. However, if one uses a broader definition of “wealth” that includes things like positive relationships and access to life essentials (food, water, clothing, housing, education, entertainment), rather than on the amount of money a person has or the amount of energy they are able to consume, then it no longer seems so out-there to claim that we could, conceivably, reduce or eliminate FF use and still “raise people out of poverty.”

      I think one of our major problems is our (Western) definition of what constitutes poverty and what wealth. As Kali Baba, my mentor says, “simple living, high thinking.” If we could all get on that bandwagon, I think a lot of our problems would work themselves out. But no, we’re all about high living and simple thinking….{sigh}

  7. Marc Andelman

    Everyone agrees we need more water recycling and re-use. However, only one technology exists that is widely used, reverse osmosis (RO). That has low water recovery and will only cause a snowballing crisis by wasting a large percentage of the feed water. Residential systems waste up to 90%!. There exist other, off the shelf technologies that far exceed RO in water recovery, energy, and maintenance. However, hardly anyone is aware of these, and, they are trickling onto the market. Even better technologies are possible, but, it is nobody’s job to pursue these. Currently, there is zero federal R&D, and a recently closed Bureau of Reclamation funding round had all of $1.5 MM, and that with serious strings, 50% matching funds required, except for universities, which leaves out a LOT of the universe, in that many if not most researchers in water exist outside of academia, and need to get paid. Large companies, do they do R&D? Hardly. They spend what profit is left over from M&A activity to buying back and artificially boosting their own stock. A real Ponzi scheme if you ask me. So, now what, and who, is supposed to do the work needed to help fix this problem. This is not just a water quantity problem, but, a water quality one, and cities are not immune, as water quality will deteriorate as they suck from the dead pools at the bottom of reservoirs. Ground water is also known to commonly have nitrate, arsenic, and a host of other contaminants. Technologies that treat all of the above tend to be older than the alphabet, inadequate, yet, can definitely be improved upon .

  8. myshkin

    One element of a technological fix, which involves ancillary problems, would be drip irrigation. It is particularly effective in arrid agricultural settings that produce high value crops. Water savings can be up to 50% and California fits this description.
    With 65-80% of Calfiornia water for human use diverted to agriculture it seems like a logical strategy and the feds are already encouraging it with grants etc.
    Arid state’s in the Southwest are interersted enough to produce studies on it, links from Colorado and New Mexico.
    And the article from the Sacramento Bee deals with the issue.
    There are technical problems such as water ph and pressurized supplies and timing/supply and toothy rodents; it would also chanel funding and resources into a misguided, dysfunctional agri industry.

  9. Ivy

    Demand side responses are favorable, as shown with a little casual empiricism anecdata. Elasticity once again!

    Driving around various parts of California (which is essentially a desert in many areas) shows many yards being converted to xeriscaping. While that has benefited somewhat by incentive programs, there are many unpaid conversions as well.

    Lawn watering schedule restrictions (e.g., 2 days a week, 15 minutes tops per day) have made homeowners rethink how they water, and cut their overall usage. Local districts have seen 25+% reductions from prior periods. The old approach of setting sprinklers to run 10-15 minutes per cycle several days a week was just wasteful, with a lot of runoff from soils that couldn’t absorb water that fast. Shorter cycles allow greater absorption and less runoff. Periodic aeration boosts the effectiveness of watering. Progressive fee schedules also encourage more active demand awareness.

    1. animalogic

      I dont know what the situation in the US is, but in Australia one response to water problems has been to simply raise water prices. I’m not sure how effective it’s been, but i do know every summer you see many–many house lawns, even parks that have not received a drop of water for months.

  10. Ishmael

    Years ago I traveled out to Mesa Verde and also Chaco Canyon. You go to these areas and there were large civilizations living there and ask yourself why people built in these areas because there is no water and Chaco Canyon is an extreme. The answer is the climate was not the same as it is now. Even in Flagsaff if you go somewhat north of their you will see the further north built handball court similar to handball courts built in Mexico City. They probably had traveling pro hand ball teams similar to our current sports teams. Why would they build there you think because once again there is no water and once again the answer is the same the climate changed.

    Global warming has been happening since the last ice age. Yes there are times of cooling and other times of warmth. Has man increased the problem, potentially; however, it is a problem that will continue despite all of the solutions.

    Now water is $2.50 in Saudi Arabia and gasoline is $0.45 a gallon. That is how desalination works it requires high energy usage and if you were going to drive this through electrical energy then the California grid would need to be rebuilt because it is already overloaded with black outs this summer in some areas. Besides desalination the whole water system would need to be rebuilt since water now largely flows downhill and it would have to be changed to go up hill with massive pumping stations once again requiring energy.

    Probably what we are facing is not peak water but peak humanity. I have posted many times most of the southwest and just plain west is uninhabitable. They do not call it the Staked Plain for no reason.

    Of course the Peronist Pope does not want to face the main issue which faces mankind. Maybe we should stop breeding like rabbits. In California you have 40 million people living in an area which is largely desert. It was only the building of the aquefiers which changed this. Prior, Southern California could only be inhabited by a small population.

    1. Vatch

      Probably what we are facing is not peak water but peak humanity.

      Absolutely! In fact, we’ve exceeded the peak, and we will go even higher. This paradox is possible because we are stealing resources from future generations. There are temporary solutions to regional problems such as California’s water crisis; an example would be the prohibition of water intensive crops such as rice and alfalfa. But before long, the population will catch up, and we’ll be in an even worse position than before.

      1. Ishmael

        Driving across the Texas panhandle last late summer it was hotter than when I drove across the Mohave a couple of days later. So, I look over while driving across the panhandle and what do I see planted – cotton. One of the most water intensive crops there is. Where do they get their water – the Ogallala Aquifer which is being depleted. Rice is water intensive but I have seen it grown in the southwest. I could be wrong. Alfalfa is a grass probably needs more water than most but I do not believe in most cases they use anything but rain water to grow it. Once again I could be wrong.

        I do not believe we face the end of mankind just a downsizing. Without facing that most pollution and destruction of the environment is driven by too many people it will just continue. Also, allowing the parts of the population which breeds like rabbits to migrate will just cause the problem to become greater until the whole environment is just one big pile of crap. Harsh but the truth. Most migrations through out history have been driven by over population. Just in the past they carry weapons.

        One time in NM I faced a difficult situation when three or four illegal aliens came up to me and asked for money. I said no and if I was not standing in the square in Santa Fe (even though it was night and very few people were out) I am quite sure they would have killed me to take it. After I said no they started yelling that one day all of this would be part of Mexico. I thought to myself now aren’t you an idiot. Things are so bad down there you traveled up here but now you want this to become part of Mexico so it can become a crap hole also.

        We can throw lots of blame around in the ME for the extreme poverty there but one of the biggest is the huge exponential growth in population in the area since the beginning of the 20th century. Also, it should be noted that all of the money printing in the world is going to cure over population. This is a structural problem.

        Mankind needs to admit that the driver of environmental damage is mankind and more of it just makes things worse.

        1. Danny

          In case you’re wondering, about 12% of water use in California is attributable to alfalfa. Another 12% to landscaping. Rice has been grown for more than 150 years in the riparian areas around the Feather and Sacramento Rivers confluence, north of Sacramento.

          1. Bridget

            Yep. I flew into Sacramento about a year ago and was stunned to see the rice fields during descent. Folsom Lake is almost dry, and there are verdant rice fields nearby.

    2. RabidGandhi

      Nitpicking I know, but just a sidenote: Bergoglio never was a Peronist and he was often at loggerheads with the current Peronist government when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

      1. Ishmael

        I do not call him a Peronist because he was close to the Peron’s or their party, I call him a Peronist because he is mouthing the same socialist/communist policies that the Peron party support, just dressed up in a different way.

        I have posted articles about how Argentina which was considered to be the place to immigrate to in the 30’s got the way it did. How, the ratio of people not working and living off of the backs of working people started growing in the 30’s into the 60’s which then lead to the economy collapsing and that is what Pope Pinko is wanting to do again as well as establish a NWO with its own religion. Of course it would be Catholicism.

        1. RabidGandhi

          Peronism “pinko commie”? You mean Menem the Neoliberal? López Rega the AAA communist hunter? Privatise-it-all Duhalde? Or the teniente general himself who booted the slightly Marxist montoneros from the party for being too far to the left? Those peronists?

          Your follow up is even more nonsensical than your original comment.

          1. Ishmael

            Funny, I had an email in the last couple of days that labeled him Pope Pinko!

            If you are saying you do not think the Peronist as socialist well you leave me response less.

    3. Moneta

      In California you have 40 million people living in an area which is largely desert
      We don’t even have to mention climate change in the example of California… The sheer number of people living in a desert is the root cause. And maximizing the water use in that state will lead to even more population growth.

      The question is how much more investment money, energy and resources should really be going to Ca to the detriment of other states?

      1. FluffytheObeseCat

        California is and has been a net creditor vis-a-vis the rest of the nation for many years. I expect that will continue for years to come. You would do better to ask, “when will they decide to keep their hard-earned revenues at home?”

      2. Danny

        FWIW, most of the California population lives in areas not technically desert. Arid, yes. Desert, no. Agriculture, now that’s another matter.

      3. washunate

        Moneta, I generally agree with you on malinvestment, but I would echo Danny here. You’re making an understandable mistake of associating local population size with water usage. It seems intuitive to do so, but in reality, residential usage is a very small component of total water usage in the US.

        The primary issue is commercial usage, particularly industrial agriculture.

    4. different clue

      I had thought that “Staked Plain” referred specifically to the North Texas plains and that the full name was “Plain staked out for fighting duels”. Is my memory wrong?

  11. DWoolley

    History tells us the human condition includes the need for prognostications of world ending events. We need our boogieman. Whether it is nuclear war and communist or Y2K or super viruses or oxygen loss due to rainforest destruction or X – there will always be “unrefutable evidence” if we don’t begins mitigating [insert crisis] we’re all doomed. As with every crisis, real or fabricated, there is always “one last chance” Scooby-Doo.

    During the Dust Bowl years, 90 years ago, Tom Joad didn’t concern himself pondering the dirty thirties relative to the carbon emissions of his Model A. The Dust Bowl years came and went. The arid regions were resettled. The workers rights were nonexistent when compared to today. Wall Street types held true monopolies. The pendulum swung the other way over the next 40 years.

    The point being- how do we know this is the crisis to end all crisis? We don’t. There are plenty of Americans living today that can honestly state “I’ve seen worse” and many more folks from around the world who’s “worse” is much worse.

    One hundred years of recorded weather doesn’t make climate. The Koch brother are yesteryear’s Carnegie.

    Yes, things are bleak. There will be a day when we can no longer drive our SUV a half mile down the street for a $4 latte- this is our modern day Grapes of Wrath?

    A thousand years from now they’ll know if we were in an avoidable climate change condition. In the mean time, I’ll keep my “The End is Coming” placard in the attic. I’ll pick my own crisis to rail against.

    For what it’s worth.

    1. Vatch

      Yes, things are bleak. There will be a day when we can no longer drive our SUV a half mile down the street for a $4 latte- this is our modern day Grapes of Wrath?

      Amusing. You do realize that life is already far more bleak for the vast majority of humanity? Life for most people in the mega cities of Mumbai, Shanghai, Ciudad de Mexico, Cairo, and others is quite grim.

    2. msamm

      No, it won’t take a thousand years before we know. To look at your own example, It didn’t take a thousand years before we knew what was to come of the Dust Bowl.

      I would also question your historically deterministic view of disaster, “there is always one last chance.” The thing is, there is always one last change, until there isn’t. History isn’t a closed circle. And when comparing climate change to historical disasters, you shouldn’t overlook for how many there weren’t any last chances, such as the some 60% of the population of Europe that died in the Black Plague.

      Now you could argue that even in such a disaster as the Black Plague history didn’t end, at that would be true. You would probably be left open to charges of extreme callousness towards the victims of the slow motion disaster that is global warming, but still true. The thing you would be overlooking, though, is unlike past disasters we know what is causing global warming, and it is (probably) the first society-altering disaster in human history that is 100% preventable by our own actions.

    3. diptherio

      Rome has been attacked by barbarians countless times and we’ve always recovered. We don’t need to worry about these Goths….

  12. msamm

    I am a bit skeptical of the idea that “we” can stop “them” whenever we want to. Power is not something we can just decide, as a group of individuals, to take from another group, it just doesn’t work like that. Think more of a long and protracted struggle by a group of individuals who have the resources to wage that fight (be that a political fight to take over enough legislatures to affect change or something more along the lines of a revolution) and you will be getting closer to the truth. Does that nebulous “we” have the kind of organization, dedication, and resources to really take power from the carbon bosses? I think the real answer is no.

    Now I am all for being hopeful and not giving in to cynicism and despondency. But I know that there is a fine line between being overly optimistic and descent into meaningless happy talk, there is a point where you also have to be realistic. And in the spirit of being realistic I predict one of two things will happen before large-scale climate-tackling changes can occur:

    1. A scorched earth political struggle topples the carbon barons. The struggle does not descend into out and out war, but blood and tears will be spilled.

    2. And this one in my opinion is more likely, a major city, such as Miami or New Orleans, is more or less permanently inundated by the sea.

    I hope I am proven wrong, but I do not see any signs that we are headed for a better outcome.

    1. Paul Tioxon

      The coal industry has entered a rough patch. Its largest customers—electricity producers—are systematically shutting down plants that use the material. Earlier this week, SNL Energy issued a report that boosted the amount of coal-fired electric capacity it estimated would be retired in 2015—from 12.3 gigawatts to 14.6 gigawatts, an increase of nearly 20 percent. The plants being retired this year represent about 5 percent of the total coal-generating capacity in the U.S.

      But the entity that accounts for the largest portion of this year’s retirements isn’t, say, a utility in California that’s going all in on solar. Rather, it’s the Tennessee Valley Authority—the Depression-era entity that helped bring a large chunk of Appalachia into the modern age by electrifying the region in the 1930s. Coal is essentially being abandoned by its home team.

    2. Oregoncharles

      My understanding is that we’re already past the point where Miami or NO will stay above water. The real question is whether to just move them now, or hire the Dutch to wall them in.

  13. kevin

    Permaculture, dammit, permaculture for a more permanent culture, whatever species you speak of. Start last week.

  14. Steve H.

    Predictions about price should be taken with a dram of saltwater. Price appears unhooked from the underlying thermodynamics.

    The more breakdown there is, the more carbon will be used for fuel. Burning a stick is as local as you can get. Global solutions are unlikely as long as there are winners from continuing to burn carbon.

    The selection pressures of energy returned on energy invested apply to water and its derivatives as well. The conversation about meat a couple of days ago is illustrative: profits are up, domestic consumption is down, exports are making a killing in the credit column. Production is producting excellent cash returns, so that is where the flow will go, regardless of efficiency. Or compassion.

  15. John Merryman

    Like a lot of issues, it is part of a bigger picture and like many parts of the picture, it is more effect, than cause.

    Issues like these are far too large to deal with directly. We leveraged ourselves up to this point and the only intentional option we have, is to find ways to use aspects of the coming breakdowns, to leverage ourselves out of them. Reverse disaster capitalism, so to speak.

    Given much of what drives human activity at this point in time, is a desire for notional wealth, that is currently piled up far beyond anything the actual economy can support, it would seem one of the first possibilities will be to use the coming financial heart attack to address our treatment of money as commodified hope, rather than the voucher system it actually functions as.

    If we understood it as such and that the worst thing for voucher systems is excess vouchers and that the only way to keep the supply in check with need, is to tax excess notes back out of the system, rather than having them borrowed back out by the state, requiring ever more to support the interest, people would quickly start finding other ways to store value, than as abstractions in an overburdened and corrupted banking system.

    Most people save for obvious reasons; housing, healthcare, children, education, retirement, entertainment, etc. If communities invested directly into these services, it would create more public spaces, stronger community relations and presumably a healthier environment, as stores of value, not just assets to be stripped.

    Not to go off topic, but the article makes much more clear that water is a major issue, then that any direct solutions are currently feasible. So we need to look at the bigger picture.

  16. susan the other

    It is a crisis. Even if we strictly control our use of FF the planet will continue to warm because of civilization, just slower – because of all the warming effects of civilization itself. Civilization radiates and out gasses. It is unquestionably a crisis of over-population. But here’s the deal: we can’t kill everyone off. We can only gradually enforce a long-term reduction in the human population. So we gotta limit the resources each of us use for energy and convenience. Like eliminating private automobiles; coal plants of whatever ilk. Big agriculture? – it’s just not that necessary. Those are the things we can do. Reducing car emissions by 20% by 2030 is a joke. We need to eliminate cars by 2030. It wasn’t long ago that I considered buying a VW, maybe 10 years ago – but not now. And the speculation that global warming will create global wetting, and save California? That’s good for drinking water and devastating floods and landslides but not much else. So either way.

    1. Ishmael

      All we need to do is implement policies that discourage population. The tax code should put a limit on deductability. Stop immigration and that will result in population decreases around the world (the United States sustainable population is south of 200 million), Stop paying people in the US to have children as a means of making an income. Battling disease around the world is great but along with it goes the responsibility of controlling population due to revoking old habits which called for large families. Of course more support for women’s issues. I could go on and on.

      Most organized religions encourage births because that gives them more power, we need to call that what it is.

      Either we can manage the situation or Mother Nature will do the job for us and it will be ugly. I have a theory that when global diversity takes a hit then all the bacteria and viruses adapt by going after the one species which is still growing. It has happened through out human history. Another form of the Red Queen Effect.

  17. Jim McKay

    > Time to act decisively?

    Decades late already.

    California was getting a big “tap on the shoulder” during the buildup of the ’90’s, getting only temporary respite from El Nino’s which were used as an excuse to do nothing.

    Another “angle” of our seeming im-moveable & static activities we call “economic activity”, few people (even above ground living on top of this mess) are aware the manufacturing end of buildup produced toxic groundwater in Silicon Valley… a reality that cost $millions to simply clean drinking water at ground surface, not counting untold $$ and spreading the problem all over the country. Something many economists call: “Creating jobs”.

    This same situation is going on all around the country, in different stages of “process”. EPA forced Sandia Labs here (Albuquqerque) to excavate one of their “toxic dumps” (chemical waste landfill) because, after decades of neglect having dumped refuse from their Nuclear Weapons programs into unlined open pits, the waste hit our groundwater.

    Sandia’s doing it again in an adjacent “dump” (Mixed waste landfill), with our underfunded and dis-interested EPA allowing them to do nothing.

    DOE has these dumps all around the country, and gets a pass on not just cleanup… but doing work needed to detect poisoning migrating through the ground before it hits groundwater. It’s all below ground where people can’t see it, and DOE lies about it and people believe them. DOD is just as bad. Yet our budgets still overwhelmingly support bigger and more expensive weapons development, while we can’t get an “official” acknowledgement of water issues… let alone a few $$ out of DOD budgets to do something about it.

    So anyway, for those that care… our water problems are not just what’s available “above ground”, we’re being threatened by poisoning below ground that even fewer people are addressing.

    We have much bigger problems, all connected, then just good articles on Climate Change and it’s affects portray.

    > Do enough people think so?

    Not even… close. Not even to the starting line yet, and most don’t even know where that is.

    Economic activity generates the indiscriminate waste that’s both driving climate change, while simeoultaneiously poisoning our environment. Consumers “everyone”, if there’s to be alteration in our current path, with have to be willing to both give up much of what they rely on generating all this waste, and actively demand vastly different activity which not only doesn’t produce this waste, but engineers and builds solutions to it.

    Just watching the utter nonsense from our Prez candidates in both parties tells me, I’m better off planning for disaster surival then “hope”.

  18. Oregoncharles

    Darn it – we’ve got our own drought. We don’t need a flood of California refugees. We’ve already had a lot of them, including the Umpqua CC shooter. (As well as some of my political colleagues.)

  19. Oregoncharles

    About Easter Island: they didn’t. They did survive, though, in rather straitened circumstances. There were islands where they didn’t.

  20. Oregoncharles

    Not to be overlooked is the one form of geo-engineering that is a win-win: soil storage of carbon. In principle, it would be enough by itself to stop and reverse the effects of the present CO2 levels (there are limits: burning all the FF would be well beyond the soil’s ability to mitigate.) One example is a book called “The Soil Will Save US,” by Kristin Ohlson (the search gives you quite a list of other resources). That book focusses on grazing, because there’s a lot of grazing land and apparently grass is effective at storing carbon. Means that veganism might not be the best strategy.

    There’s another, ironic clue: the Earth cooled off noticeably (and still detectably) after the Black Death, because there was a lot less land being farmed. Ordinary tillage volatilizes soil carbon – and thereby wears out the land. Yes, it’s a vote for permaculture and for tree crops – which can be more productive, per acre, than annuals, while storing wood in the soil. It also means that every scrap of biomass needs to be put back. My own town has a pretty good program for that – I use their compost all the time. But sewage is a big problem, as it’s usually contaminated. You quickly get into a deep regress, trying to put everything usable back while avoiding toxics. Like glues, and some inks.

    Of course, storing carbon also rejuvenates the soil and adds fertility and structure. It’s desperately needed just on that basis. And most modern farm practices go right against it. Our gardens won’t save us; they’re just a candle in the wind. We have to change the way farming is done, and quickly. And first of all, we have to find a new, enlightened generation of farmers; most of the ones presently working are getting old. They’ll be soil carbon soon enough.

    How are we going to do that? I have no idea.

    1. BruceF

      “How are we going to do that?”

      Organic, no-till, with cover crop rotations. It’s being done right now, at scale, by Gabe Brown (in North Dakota) and David Brandt (in Ohio). Not permacultists, hard nosed farmers with decades of experience.

      YouTube of Gabe Brown on soil health –

      I’m trying to do the same with our family’s WI grain farm.

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        I think permaculture is about horticulture, not agriculture. (We can have the conversation about whether homo sapiens made a terrible mistake with the whole agriculture thing another time.) So I think your “hard nosed farmers” would be complemented if half the lawns in America were turned into gardens.

        I like “at scale.” What sort of tax regime would you recommend to build or rather grow out these techniques nationwide? Is that possible, given the state of our soil? Should soil be treated as a common pool resource or public property, or would a different tax regime suffice?

        Adding, if you’d report back on your family’s farm, that would be great!

        1. BruceF

          Yes, the more people chipping away at industrialized farming, the better. Fewer lawns/chemicals and more bacteria/mycorrhizal fungi.

          RE: taxes

          I don’t really know. My sense is that small(ish) family farms feel under all kinds of pressure. Because of the inflated value of assets – land – they can run into tax problems. 350 tillable acres in northern WI is around a million dollars. Growing Conventional corn and beans, at these prices, you’ll make 30 grand if everything goes well. And you’ll work, hard. Plus stress.

          As far as tax schemes, I don’t know of any. The small farmers that I’m aware of are pretty leery of what programs are out there, even the ones that have clear benefit. It seems any good idea will be turned to the advantage of large operators, or ignored altogether, somewhat like ACA/Obamacare v. single payer.

          Places like Rodale Institute have documented that it’s possible to do the right thing in the ground – organic/no-till/cover crop – and make more money. Time will tell if I/we can do that.


          Gabe Brown has a bunch of videos on YouTube. SARE is another resource. The University of WI-Madison has a very helpful program in organic row crops led by Erin Silva –

        2. BruceF

          I’d fully fund the NRCS soil and water people. Have them go around to every farm showing the benefits of no-till cover crop and the upside (financially) of going organic. Have them team up with Ag extension agents/university ag departments. Make no-till planters available for a free trial in every county. The few available for rent where I am are hard to book, as the planting window is pretty tight. So I need to buy a (used) $20,000 planter, figure out all the settings, and hope for the best. Implement dealers do this sort of thing, but it’s hard to know who’s telling the truth.

      2. Oregoncharles

        Thanks for the link. If you can come up with more, that would be very helpful.

        The original Permaculture books actually have quite a bit about broad-field agriculture, though the idea is essentially to get away from grains; and even more about arid-land water use, since Australia is mostly more or less desert.

    2. different clue

      Here’s a book which writes about some actual carbon re-fixers working on farms and ranches, including young new-starting-out farmers and ranchers. So it offers a possible answer to the “next generation” question.

      Since too many links at a time choke the comment-posting function, I will name another such book without a link. Called . . . Cows Save The Planet.

      There is a site called Amazing Carbon with lots of research papers and working examples of soil carbon re-buildup in action.

      About the intersection between water-supply and soil bio-carbon storage . . . Water For Every Farm by Dick Yeomans of Australia. Also findable under word-combinations involving Keyline, Keyline Agriculture, the Keyline System, etc. How to retain on the land all the skywater that falls on the land, and get it to soak in fast enough deep enough that it can support more plant growth, which can support more root growth, which can support more bio-carbon soil storage, which can support more plant growth, which can support more root growth, and onward and upward to some higher level before levelling off.

  21. washunate

    Great read and comments looking through this. For my 2 cents, I don’t see a tipping point in CA anywhere in the near future. Wake me up when the California Milk Advisory Board (and lots of other industrial ag efforts like it) is disbanded.

    A couple fun links. I particularly love how the economic impact section doesn’t even mention water usage.

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