Yves here. It’s a bit peculiar to see a post at Yale Climate Connections introduce the idea of megadrought, an enormous risk to the US functioning in anything dimly resembling a normal manner, and yet not tease out the implications. We’ll turn to the piece shortly but here are some dislocations taking place now. For sake of simplicity, we’ll limit our focus to California.
From the New York Times on Saturday, Small Towns Grow Desperate for Water in California:
Water is so scarce in Mendocino, an Instagram-ready collection of pastel Victorian homes on the edge of the Pacific, that restaurants have closed their restrooms to guests, pointing them instead to portable toilets on the sidewalk. And the fire department has asked sheriff’s deputies to keep an eye on the hydrants in response to a report of water theft.
“We’ve grown up in this first-world country thinking that water is a given,” said Julian Lopez, the owner at Cafe Beaujolais, a restaurant packed with out-of-town diners in what is the height of the tourist season. “There’s that fear in the back of all our minds there is going to be a time when we don’t have water at all. And only the people with money would be able to afford the right to it.”
Mendocino’s water shortage is an extreme example of what some far-flung towns in California are experiencing as the state slips deeper into its second year of drought. Scores of century-old, hand-dug wells in the town have run dry, forcing residents, inns and restaurants to fill storage tanks with water trucked from faraway towns at the cost of anywhere from 20 to 45 cents a gallon. Utilities in California, by contrast, typically charge their customers less than a penny per gallon of tap water.
The drought is revealing for California that perhaps even more than rainfall, it is money and infrastructure that dictate who has sufficient water during the state’s increasingly frequent dry spells. The drought and the effects of climate change more generally have drawn a bold line under the weaknesses of smaller communities with fewer resources.
The article points out that by contrast, the Lake Perris reservoir, Lake Skinner, Lake Matthews and Diamond Valley Lake are all 80% or more full.
A CalMatters post from June underscored that water scarcity this summer in California is a patchwork affair:
When it comes to the impact of drought, location is key. Rain and snow vary greatly across California’s myriad microclimates, leaving some towns, mostly in the north, accustomed to yearly refills of their rivers, reservoirs and aquifers. Others farther south have fewer natural supplies of their own, and in parts of the Central Valley, the drought never really left.
But drought resilience is manufactured, too. Decades of planning and extraordinary engineering and technology keep the water flowing to arid places.
“There is, of course, no single Northern California or Southern California when it comes to water,” said Peter Gleick, founder of the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank. “Water is a very local phenomenon. And every region and every water district has a different mix of water supply options and water demands.
This satellite image shows how full Lake Oroville, which supplies much of the state’s drinking water, was in June 2019 and how shallow and dry it is in June 2021. It’s currently holding only 41% of its historic average for this time of year. Credit: NASA Credit: NASA
During the last drought, in 2015, Californians were ordered to cut their water use by an average of 25% statewide. This time, there is no statewide emergency, no universal mandate and no standardized water waste rules.
Instead, residents are facing a patchwork of restrictions. Bracing for a crisis, towns relying on the hard-hit Russian River have imposed stringent mandates on residents and coastal communities may have to truck in water to make it through the year. At the same time, most of California’s urban hubs are prepared to weather the summer with only voluntary cuts and limited restrictions that in many cases are holdovers from previous droughts.
Oddly, these stories skip over the fact that the big water hog in California is agriculture, which uses 40% of that state’s supply, and Calfornia has long produced water-profligate crops like like almonds. The PressDemocrat helpfully provided a list of the biggest offenders:
On average, California crops used 2.97 acre feet of water per acre that year, the data show. An acre foot is equal to about 326,000 gallons, or enough water to cover an acre of land 1 foot deep.
The analysis ranked pasture first among California’s top 10 most water-intensive crops, in some cases grouped by categories (in average acre feet of water applied per acre in one growing season), followed by nuts and alfalfa:
1. Pasture (clover, rye, bermuda and other grasses), 4.92 acre feet per acre
2. Almonds and pistachios, 4.49 acre feet per acre
3. Alfalfa, 4.48 acre feet per acre
4. Citrus and subtropical fruits (grapefruit, lemons, oranges, dates, avocados, olives, jojoba), 4.23 acre feet per acre
5. Sugar beets, 3.89 acre feet per acre
6. Other deciduous fruits (applies, apricots, walnuts, cherries, peaches, nectarines, pears, plums, prunes, figs, kiwis), 3.7 acre feet per acre
7. Cotton, 3.67 acre feet per acre
8. Onions and garlic, 2.96 acre feet per acre
9. Potatoes, 2.9 acre feet per acre
10. Vineyards (table, raisin and wine grapes), 2.85 acre feet per acre
We’ve mentioned occasionally that scientists in Australia concluded in the early 2000s that Australis was not adequately compensated for the value of the water needed to produce its agricultural exports. It can’t be any better now Down Under. The same situation has applied in California for some time but it’s only becoming acute now. An early June article in Reuters, ‘Big risk’: California farmers hit by drought change planting plans, describes how some farmers are feeling pressured by higher water costs. Amusingly, it indulges farmers whinging about having to drop water-hog crops like almonds in favor of ones that are less thirsty:
Joe Del Bosque is leaving a third of his 2,000-acre farm near Firebaugh, California, unseeded this year due to extreme drought. Yet, he hopes to access enough water to produce a marketable melon crop.
Farmers across California say they expect to receive little water from state and federal agencies that regulate the state’s reservoirs and canals, leading many to leave fields barren, plant more drought-tolerant crops or seek new income sources all-together.
California farmers are allocated water from the state based on seniority and need, but farmers say water needs of cities and environmental restrictions reduce agricultural access.
Nearly 40% of California’s 24.6 million acres of farmland are irrigated, with crops like almonds and grapes in some regions needing more water to thrive.
The farmers are complaining about the state’s failure to invest more in water storage. Yet they also forget that they got lucky when the 2012 to 2017 drought finally broke. Experts were saying then that if it continued for two years more, that the impact on Western agricultural yields would have been devastating. Yet it seems many farmers failed to change course when the fat years came back (as in the extra income would have helped offset transition costs) and appear in denial that, as Yale Climate Connections suggests, the West is in the throes not of a drought but a megadrought. If that’s the case, it will force fundamental changes on farmers, residents, and consumers, like it or not.
Even mainstream outlets have taken up the idea that the West is in the midst of a megadrought due to global warming. For instance, from ABC in June, ‘Megadrought’ in West directly linked to climate change, experts say:
“Essentially, half of the severity of the ongoing megadrought has been attributed to warming temperatures alone — and without that warming, the drought would arguably not be a megadrought at all,” UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain told ABC News.
“For this reason, the temperature-driven portion of this is not going to reverse itself this century — even if we see a higher precipitation period that otherwise would have broken the megadrought,” Swain said.
Recall that megadroughts have ended other civilizations. Harvard Magazine in 2020 summarized the new evidence on plant growth that gave a more refined idea of when and how long the Mayans suffered from drought. Over an estimated 150 year dry period, the Mayans suffered 7 protracted droughts, the last two of which brought an end to their society. But why did they survive the earlier episodes and not the later ones? As the article explained:
Evidence suggests that the Maya’s success may have made the difference, increasing their vulnerability and lowering their ability to deal with the fallout from harsher, drier conditions. Even before laser evidence revealed its extent, the Maya world was known to be very densely populated — possibly too much so.
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“They had a huge population, a large urbanized population, and had made fundamental changes in the landscape,” said Turner. To support both farms and cities of 60,000 to 100,000, he explained, the Maya had cut down forests and increasingly manipulated wetlands, drawing water off into reservoirs and expanding agriculture into lowland wetlands. These moves consumed water that could not be spared during periods of drought. The Maya also unintentionally made their own agriculture less productive with their extensive deforestation. Removing trees, Turner explained, stopped the cycle by which the tree canopy would capture and return the naturally occurring nutrient phosphorus to the soil and also increased its temperature.
“The Maya had cut down so much of that vegetation and changed it in so many ways, they were amplifying the aridity that was already present,” said Turner.
One has to wonder if wildfires in California are producing deforestation on a level to harm the normal water cycle (admittedly California tree cover is very different from that of the tropics_
The US outcomes are not like to be as dire as the Mayans, at least for this drought cycle. But we are sure to see more legal and political fights over water access, particularly given that widespread measures to curtail water use on an ongoing, as opposed to emergency, basis seem awfully slow in coming.
Now to the surprisingly dry (pun not intended) take from Yale Climate Connections.
By Peter Sinclair, a Michigan-based videographer, specializing in climate change and renewable energy issues. He has created hundreds of educational videos correcting climate science misinformation, including his independent “Climate Denial Crock of the Week” series, and the monthly “This is Not Cool” series for Yale Climate Connections, which has run since February 2012. Originally published at Yale Climate Connections
The Western U.S. is shattering drought records this summer. For the first time since the drought monitor was created, over 95% of the region is in drought. Near Las Vegas, Lake Mead – the largest reservoir in the U.S. – is at its lowest level since it was built.
“This is a bigger event than the 1950s drought in the Southwest or the Dust Bowl drought in the Central Plains,” says Benjamin Cook, a climate researcher at NASA, in this new video by independent videographer Peter Sinclair. “We have to go back at least 500 years before we find any event that’s even similar in magnitude.”
Scientists have found from clues in tree rings have that intense, prolonged droughts called “megadroughts” occurred regularly during the Middle Ages. Now the West may be in another megadrought period, this one made even worse by climate change.
Climate change makes historical drought patterns more intense by increasing temperatures and thus evaporation. This poses challenges to water supplies in the West as they come primarily from surface water like the Colorado River. Much of the population growth in the Southwest happened during the 1980s and 1990s, which were relatively wet decades.
Though there have been many improvements in water use efficiency in recent decades, they have not been able to match losses from drought.
“The Colorado River drains the entire Southwest – it’s about an eighth of the U.S. The river itself is actually not that big, it’s about the size of the Hudson and if you can imagine, it’s serving 40 million people,” says Brad Udall, a research scientist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Institute. “If it suffers, everyone suffers.”