Is Western U.S. Experiencing a ‘Megadrought’?

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.

Symposium connects the dots among climate change, patient maladies, and worsening burdens on health care systems

“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.”

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    When I was a teenager I was somewhat obsessed with ‘coming ecological calamity’ popular science books, and nearly all highlighted a western US mega drought along with the drying up of the Ogalala aquifer as a potential game changer for world food supplies, not to mention settlement patterns in the US. Tim Flannery’s 2001 book on the natural history of north America gives an excellent overview of historcal patterns of climate in north American and in particular how worldwide climate changes are often amplified in the west of the US.

    The reality is though that its likely to take the form of extreme regional problems rather than a one-off collapse due to the complexity of rainfall patterns and the resiliance of local infrastructure. As the article says, inappropriate agricultural practices need to be the first thing to go, its insane that water intensive crops are grown in arid areas. Another viewing of Polanski’s Chinatown perhaps is needed to remind us why.

    1. vlade

      Cali, just like Australia, is in effect exporting water, which neither has. This is an insane practice, but when I was pointing it out to my Aussie friends around 2010, they all just shrugged “so what?”.

      I do despair on these things, as we aren’t really able to take actions even on things that are undisputable, never mind complex systems like climate change.

      There’s IMO a reason why local climate change (often a drought, often caused by humans) is the civilization killer.

      1. Colonel Smithers

        Thank you, Gentlemen.

        That applies to market gardening in Africa and the Mediterranean basin, eg horticulture for auction in Amsterdam.

        My parents and I are likely to abandon cultivation on our small holding in the tropics and may be just concentrate for our own and extended family consumption. We lease some land to neighbours and fellow parishioners. Other small farmers have already abandoned.

        @ Vlade: Did they say, “As long as there’s water for beer, Oz will be alright, mate.”

      2. The Rev Kev

        I read a CSIRO report on this topic of water export as part of crops nearly 20 years ago and was convinced straight away. But I have seen the lunacy of growing crops like rice and cotton in the middle of desert-like country for export so I do not believe that we are learning much. Here is a link to that CSIRO report for any interested-

        1. Grateful Dude

          lotsa rice here in Sacramento Valley downstream from Oroville, NoCal. Big square ponds for planting. Thousands of acres of them. Grown for Asia. Rich farmers and ranchers get the water. Lots of local politics about that.

      3. Joe Well

        Re: exporting water.

        Peru, home to the world’s second largest desert metropolis, Lima, population approaching ten million, is doing the same in the form of asparagus.

        I wonder how common this is around the world?

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          A desert can be for vegetables like a blast furnace is for steel.

          Keep feeding a desert with water, nutrients, etc. and you can keep making vegetables.

          Keep feeding a blast furnace with iron ore, coke, limestone, enough heat and you can keep making steel.

          A desert makes a very good blast furnace for vegetable production till the water run out.

  2. The Rev Kev

    This is one of those cases where the introduction to the post is actually much better than the post itsef. In fact, it could stand as a post alone. And Wukchumni has been warning us for years in comments about past mega-droughts and the fact that they are civilization-killers. He has also given us his observations on the insane agricultural practices in California and how it seems to be assumed that the water will never run out. I hope that he weighs in here. In any case I will add my own observations.

    I think that it is beyond dispute that what will be needed is a group of western States coming together so that the issue of water can be optimized to what water will be available in the decades to come. And here I am talking about the States from California clear through to Texas. Will it happen? No. I expect all these States to fight each other (hopefully only legally) to grab as much water for themselves as possible instead. Even California will have massive problems by itself. And if people think that a water pipeline from California to the Mississippi River is going to solve all their problems, I have news for them and it is all bad.

    Yves mentioned an account which say that water is a very local phenomenon (in California) and that every region and every water district has a different mix of water supply options and water demands. You think that any of these regions will give this water semi-independence up just to see their water flow to L.A. or Californian almonds while leaving them parched? No, I don’t think so either. Beginning nearly 100 years ago, you saw a wave of refugees from the dust storm States like Oklahoma heading to California out of desperation and who were nicknamed ‘Okies.’ It may come to pass that in the years to come we will see a wave of ‘water-refugees’ heading east out of desperation and who may be nicknamed ‘Calis.’ No water, no civilization. Even the Romans could have told us that.

    1. Brian Beijer

      I agree whole heartedly with your analysis except “I expect all these States to fight each other (hopefully only legally) to grab as much water for themselves as possible instead.” I think it should read “I expect all these States to fight each other (hopefully only legally) to grab as much water for large corporations as possible instead.” Or maybe, “to grab as much water for themselves in order to sell those water rights to large corporations”. I think either option is a more accurate scenario. I’m not sure that even local community councils and politicians care much about whether their citizens will be parched. As far as I can tell, ordinary citizens aren’t any politicians constituency.

    2. airgap

      Apropos of Rev’s comment; “I expect all these States to fight each other (hopefully only legally) to grab as much water for themselves as possible”, I’ve just finished a dystopian novel of what the southwest will look like when the annual rains stop and states are fighting over water rights from the Colorado River. It is Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi. I thought it a fitting read for present times. Here is a blurb:
      “In the near future, the Colorado River has dwindled to a trickle. Detective, assassin, and spy, Angel Velasquez “cuts” water for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, ensuring that its lush arcology developments can bloom in Las Vegas……..when water is more valuable than gold, alliances shift like sand, and the only truth in the desert is that someone will have to bleed if anyone hopes to drink.

      A bit over the top but an interesting book that makes you wonder about the future if the drought continues. Desalinization?

    3. Carolinian

      Cadillac Desert predicted it all and that was decades ago. Or there’s always John Wesley Powell.

      Clearly California better get busy towing those icebergs down to Santa Barbara. Digging that Rocky Mtn trench to Canada may take time.

      As for the descendants of the CA Okies headed in my direction, it’s already happening. There’s a huge building boom here.

      1. juno mas

        Santa Barbara has cut water consumption by 30% since the last drought. (The city planners took it seriously.) The iconic palm trees along the beach don’t use much water, it’s the non native, broad-leaf evergreens that were the big drinkers, and they have been replaced with succulents and native plants. (Required by the planners for project approval and access to re-claimed treatment water.) And the city has a desalinization plant ready to go. (It could get more expensive to live in an already ridiculously expensive tow.)

        As Yves noted in her preface, it is the very small enclaves that are feeling the water pinch. Oprah’s enclave (Montecito) has limited water resources (but some wealthy residents) and is trucking in water, like Mendocino.

        It’s salt water intrusion from sea level rise that is likely to be the show stopper.

    4. GF

      There is a water use structure (Colorado River Compact – see links below) already in place for the Colorado River watershed. It has been negotiated pretty much non-stop since the 1920’s. NoCal is not part of this as its water sources are not the Colorado River.

      This “mega-drought” is the first big test and AZ will loose 500,000 acre feet a year starting next year – almost all taken from farmers in the hottest and driest part of the state around Casa Grande just south of Phoenix. Committed negotiators can actually make the transition to less water go more smoothly than outright water grabs.

      A user friendly source:

    5. Wukchumni

      It may come to pass that in the years to come we will see a wave of ‘water-refugees’ heading east out of desperation and who may be nicknamed ‘Calis.’ No water, no civilization. Even the Romans could have told us that.

      Most everybody’s wealth in Cali is tied to real estate and as they say, you can’t take it with you, so I prefer that the aqua-gees be termed as ‘pauperazi’, and sadly they’ll be just as loathed in many watery states as the equity refugees that have caused home values to skyrocket there, but for completely different reasons, being a burden instead of a bad bonanza.

      I hope i’m not one of them, but shift happens.

      The claim that Ag uses up a lot of the water here makes sense when we’re flush with it, but virtually every last thing grown for food in a year like this comes from down under, as in all well water.

      Every fruit & nut tree I see in the CVBB looks like a million bucks, oh so green & vibrant, this should be a banner year for subsidence, methinks.

      But when you look at everything else not watered by the hand of man, oh how they are suffering. I was hoisting barley sodas the other day with a gent I have the greatest respect for, he’s 75 now and started working on trail crew in Sequoia NP in the early 1970’s and retired about a decade ago, and he’s one hell of an observer, and he mentioned that Mountain Misery-a quite common groundcover you see all over the place in certain altitude ranges was dying, and he’d never seen that before.

      The Blue Oaks in the foothills have been dropping leaves since mid June here, and I have a number of trees that have almost no leaves on them now. They normally start dropping leaves in late October through to the end of November. Mother Nature sent out the call to Bail Out! and the trees are screaming, albeit silently. I think we can forget about acorns this fall, which might put the black bear (saw my 4th of the year-a brown colored yearling) population into dire straits as they typically bulk up on them in November before denning. (like hibernation, except you get up every 3-4 weeks, get out and stretch your legs for a short while before another extended slumber or 2)

      I used to see 30 to 50 black bears a year pretty reliably before the 2012-16 drought hit, and have barely managed to get into double figures per year since, this coupled with one of their main sources of food going away in that one of the trees most associated with the die-off of 130 million was the noble Sugar Pine, whose pine cone (the largest by far of any pine cone) has the most nutricious nut meat of any tree in the Sierra. Imagine rice or wheat all of the sudden going away on humans?

      The idea that the reservoirs in the south are a lot fuller than the ones that deliver the largess from up north is only account of water-banking especially after the bountiful 2018-19 snow year. When we were down in SoCal a month ago, I was shocked that drought awareness seemed to be almost non existent, but then again as long as it comes out of your faucet, how would 20 million people in SoCal really have any idea just how dire things are in the water producing areas of the state, out of state-out of mind rules seem to apply, sadly.

  3. zagonostra

    The elephant in the room is man-made attempts to change the weather. I watch the sky and I listen to Dane Wigington’s weekly radio broadcast. I don’t always trust my own eyes and I don’t accept everything that I hear. But…

    There’s something happening up there
    What it is ain’t exactly clear

    It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that cloud
    Everybody look what’s coming down

    Paranoia strikes deep
    Into your life it will creep
    It starts when you’re always afraid
    You step out of line, the man come and take you away

    We better stop, hey, what’s that cloud
    Everybody look what’s coming down

  4. Randall Flagg

    Maybe it’s time to rethink where a lot of our food is grown in the U.S. Was it ever a good idea to grow water intensive crops out there and in other arid regions of the States?

    1. LowellHighlander


      Your question is exactly what I was thinking, as well.

      I used to work on a small, family-owned dairy farm in upstate New York for relatives. Water, of course, usually wasn’t much of a problem (except one summer, when it rained too much). As an economist, I wonder why no one is suggesting that the USDA be used to transfer farming, and thus farmers, out of arid regions of the country and back to wetter areas of the country, such as New York and New England. This could be done through a series of financial incentives and grants. It seems to me that securing our food supply would warrant such action.

      Speaking of which, why do Economists (i.e. those at prestigious posts) seem to have nothing to say about the Megadrought and U.S. agriculture? I would of course exempt ecological economists from my criticism here; from what I know, they have been shut out of policy positions. [My understanding is that environmental economists, because they seek to fit the natural world into marketized human society, can and do obtain positions of influence at universities and government, but not ecological economists.]

      1. CloverBee

        Yves’s list of crops being grown helps answer this: 2 & 4 are not suited to grow in colder climates (anywhere there is a chance of a freeze in the winter).

        Another weather aspect is that all of these crops can, and are, grown year-round in California, where agriculture was able to grab up extremely large tracts of land for cheap. This is not the case in other areas that have year-round warm climate and water.

        A final reason it doesn’t move is that deserts have fewer pests. The bugs that plague most of the east coast just aren’t an issue in California. It makes growing much easier. The dry climate also limits the amount of mold that can affect your crops.

        1. juno mas

          Yes, and all that cheap water from tax payer built reservoirs trapping Sierra Nevada snowfall run-off made selling water intensive, high export value almonds possible. This is another example of socializing costs and monopolizing profits.

          When you see almond farmers on TV in their blue jeans, complaining about the water crisis, they never explain that the work on the farm is done mostly by migrant farm workers who live in marginal housing; where their faucets are served by chemically contaminated wells.

          Life’s a beech in California’s Central Valley.

      2. Amused_in_SF


        Unfortunately, farming never stopped in New York and New England. You might be able to reclaim some land that’s returned to forest, or chase some suburbanites back to the cities, but you won’t be close to replacing what is lost in the west.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          California produces the nation’s ” finer foods in life”. If vegetable growing stopped in California, it would probably stop in Arizona too. Maybe it would continue in Texas and probably in Florida and the deepest South for some of the round-the-year availability of fun food that California offers. But only ” some of”.

          Michigan could grow all the survival food that Michiganders would need to avoid starvation with. Turnips, potatoes, beets, carrots, parsnips, beans and grains, etc. But not the fun foods like kiwi fruits and avocados and etc.

          1. juno mas

            California used to grow the majority of avocados; back in the 1970’s. Today it is Mexico that produces the predominate percentage of alligator pears.

            The pressure to create coastal breeze McMansions exceeds avocado groves.

            1. Wukchumni

              My dad really wanted to uproot the family in the 1970’s and commercially grow avocados in Fallbrook, but my mom was a great dissuader.

              She proposed that he plant trees @ our home in LA instead, and until my childhood haunt was sold 6 years ago, 4 large trees were producing enough for the whole neighborhood to be in high cotton, er avocado toast.

            2. drumlin woodchuckles

              That’s only because NAFTA legally permitted Mexican avocados to enter the US at a Mexican price. Abolish NAFTA and you might possibly restore some avocado growing in California. And Florida too.

      3. lordkoos

        I don’t believe there is anywhere near the amount of land available for cultivation in the eastern US compared to the west. Of course if there is no water in the west then that point is moot.

        In eastern WA where I live, we are also in a drought but not as serious as CA, as so far the snowpack in the Cascades has been holding up. Here in my county the primary crop is hay — timothy, alfalfa etc. They are drawing down irrigation from dams on the Columbia river to feed horses, much of it exported to Japan and outside the state for thoroughbreds. Some people use the wells on their land for agriculture. As far as wells, there is now a moratorium on drilling any new ones unless your land is grandfathered in. In the last 120 years or so, 60% of the water in the local millions-of-years-old aquifer has been used up. Water rights are a big deal now.

        The situation in California and the west has very serious implications for the American food supply. Arable land and water should be treated like the precious commodities they are, but meanwhile around these parts we have morons watering their half-acre lawns in the middle of a hot day. Most of the agricultural community and local governments seem clueless or in denial.

    2. Carolinian

      H.L.Mencken on farmers. I think he was mostly joking back when this kind of joking was more tolerated.

      No more grasping, selfish and dishonest mammal, indeed, is known to
      students of the Anthropoidea. When the going is good for him he robs
      the rest of us up to the extreme limits of our endurance; when the
      going is bad he comes bawling for help out of the public till. Has
      anyone ever heard of a farmer makng any sacrifice of his own
      interests, however slight, to the common good? Has anyone ever heard
      of a farmer practicing or advocating any political idea that was not
      absolutely self-seeking — that was not, in fact, delibertely designed
      to loot the rest of us to his gain?

      Deplorable bashing always evergreen if you don’t worry about where your breakfast is coming from. Of course in an era of Big Ag the above may make a comeback. It’s impossible to defend those almond growers.

      1. Sue inSoCal

        Thanks for this Yves. I can’t find the piece in the archives, but there was a NYT Magazine article a number of years ago that covered ACWA and the water district’s admission that California would soon be scrambling for water.

        Airgap, I saw a documentary on false advertising that isn’t recent. I’ve tried to find it, but can’t recall the title. Perhaps someone remembers it. Pom Wonderful billionaire was one of the worst interviews. No shame.

        A couple of things. Northern California, particularly Sacramento, is livid about the water going to never ending development in Southern California. They have adopted xeriscaping and water conservation, while it’s full speed ahead development in Southern CA and water to unsustainable farming. As far as Sacramento goes, it has built in flood zones where there were once rice fields. (Limited liability, as far as I’m aware.)

        Finally, I recently spent a night in Lost Hills while driving north unaware of this sordid history as Resnick’s company town. It is indeed lost and hopeless appearing. When leaving at 5 a.m., we observed a van pull in crammed with farm workers. They were changing their clothing with an interpreter there. I’ll leave it at that and not draw conclusions.

  5. Jackiebass63

    I remember more than ten years ago, water was going to be a big issue in the western US. Overpopulation was encouraged in places where there wasn’t enough water. We were also growing too man crops in deserts with imported water. I said this wasn’t sustainable. We haven’t learned much because we continue the same stupid practices. Common sense tells me we shouldn’t allow populating and building in high risk areas. In the US we seem to be reluctant to act until we have a crises.our reaction to Covid unfortunately illustrates this. Water or lack of it falls in this category.

  6. Colonel Smithers

    Thank you, Yves.

    It would be interesting to hear what Pentagon planners and their peers around the wold make of the latest. Their political leadership have buried their heads in the sand.

    1. vlade

      I believe Yves occasionally mentions that Pentagon was saying water would be a war-fighting-issue already in late 90s or so?

      1. Jack Parsons

        The big re-insurance (wholesale insurance) companies like Swiss Re, General Re added global warming to their models in the early 90s. Insurance companies, and especially re-insurance companies very quietly manage truly vast sums.

        Stocks are really dumb, bonds are dumb, insurance is smart.

  7. Tom Stone

    The trees are dying in Sonoma County.
    My Daughter brought it up Saturday, the Redwoods are showing the stress very visibly turning brown throughout the County.
    And The Russian River is a creek.
    I live 7 miles in straight line east of Guerneville and frequently walk along the River, it has been low enough to wade across every day for the last year.
    Toxic Algae mats appeared in June and warning signs went up “Don’t swallow the water and don’t let your dog swallow it either.”
    I supplement my diet with fish and small game, but I won’t risk eating the fish from the Russian River, There are 5,000 septic systems along the river between Healdsburg and Jenner, half of them are estimated to have failed or to be failing..
    The California water delivery ( Theft) system was designed based on rain and snowfall patterns that no longer exist, even absent a megadrought it will take many billions of $ to build a system that reflects these changes and it would only be a temporary fix.
    As to fires and deforestation, the whole Tahoe basin is ready to burn and there are more than 100 Million dead trees in the Sierra.
    The surviving trees are weakened by drought and ready to burn.

    For those that survive the next decade life is going to be very interesting indeed.

    1. Martin Oline

      Thank you for mentioning all of those dead trees. The recent beetle infestation in the west has resulted in large areas of forest with dead trees, ready to burn. This has no doubt sped the rate at which these fires have spread. All we ever hear about is the climate is warming and no other cause is mentioned for these fires.

      1. liam

        That’s because climate warming is the cause. Plants that are water stressed succumb to infestations and diseases much easier than healthy plants. A stressed ecosystem is one that’s open to infestations, which can in turn be seen as part of a feedback loop rather than as an event in and of themselves. They’re a component of a system that’s unwinding.

      2. expr

        But the increased beetle damage is related to warming
        longer warm season means more generations of beetles per season
        no hard frost to reduce beetle populations in winter
        drought reduces trees ability to defend against beetles

      3. drumlin woodchuckles

        Global warming is what has deprived the forests of the formerly normal winter chill kills which killed off generations of beetles and prevented beetles from reaching plague numbers.

        Global warming also stress-weakens trees enough to where they are unable to protect themselves against beetle intrusions.

        So global warming turns previously healthy-tree forests into beetle-feasts standing in place waiting to die. And then burn.

    2. Sue inSoCal

      Hi Tom Stone, so sad. I love Russian River country. Tahoe had a building moratorium for quite a long time iirc. But when it lapsed, it was full speed ahead development. And Tahoe is now in ruins and divers pull junk out of the water. I’m wondering if there was a boom in development where you are. I haven’t been there in over 30 years. Houses on stilts in Rio Del etc because of river flooding!

  8. Eustachedesaintpierre

    I got my first hints that all would not be well in relation to water in that part of the world in the early 80’s from James Michener’s novel Centennial, in which if I remember correctly he had concerns about either the Colorado or the Platte rivers. Back in the late 30’s Huxley briefly questioned the sustainability of agriculture in California in his Herstian novel After Many a Summer, which I read at about the same time.

    Isn’t it Nestle that gets water priority in the Golden state ?

    1. Questa Nota

      Nestlé is only one of several at the, er, trough.

      Meanwhile, Californians in those dry coastal areas like Mendocino and elsewhere like the central coast can recall reactions during a prior dry spell in the 1980s. Santa Barbara and nearby areas were under water restriction so there arose the business of spraying the lawns greenish to mask the dying or dead grass.

      Lest one think that dry spells are short-lived, I give you one from the historic record, the Younger Dryas Period.

  9. Tom Stone

    Another result of the drought is critters large and small looking for food and water coming into urban areas.
    Deer come into town looking for something green to eat and the Mountain Lions follow..
    Even Spiders are more likely to be found in your bathroom when there’s a drought, I had a Wolf Spider in my shower about a week ago and sadly ended up killing it because I couldn’t figure out how to remove it safely..

    1. GF

      We have noticed this phenomenon to here in our part of AZ. The last two years have been drier than normal during the summer monsoon season and spiders started showing up in the bathroom. This monsoon has already dumped more rain on us that the last two years combined and the season has a month and a half to go (12.3″ since June 30). We have seen no spiders this year in the bathroom.

      1. Arizona Slim

        Up to around 10.5″ for the year. Central Tucson resident.

        BTW, it’s supposed to be a rainy night.

  10. Anthony Stegman

    Water flows towards money. That has always been so. Things are unlikely to change in California for the simple reason that the megafarm owners are extremely wealthy, and thus extremely powerful. Aquatic species will be allowed to go extinct before there will be any meaningful changes to agricultural water use in the state. The plans to divert even more water from the Sacramento river have not been pulled. Big Ag expects to keep getting the bulk of California water, and the Resnicks of Beverly Hills will continue hosting fundraising galas for politicians, especially for Senator Diane Feinstein.

  11. Hayek's Heelbiter

    “You know, Yves. When you’re right, you’re right. And you’re right.”
    – to paraphrase Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes (written by Robert Towne) in CHINATOWN.
    The MacGuffin in the film was the Owens Valley Water Wars.
    Definitely worth a rewatch.

    1. Nce

      The real story of the theft of Eastern Sierra water is much more riveting in the chapter, “The Red Queen” in Marc Reisner’s classic, “Cadillac Desert.”
      And for the question:

      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.

      Western forests are far more dense than they were before settlers arrived, primarily due to fire suppression. One tactic that has been used to increase infiltration of precipitation into soil and aquifers is forest thinning. Indigenous peoples managed western forests with small fires, but today’s very hot, severe fires change soil chemistry such that the soil surface becomes hydrophobic, which increases runoff.
      So, a century or so of fire suppression has changed the “normal” water cycle in western forests.

  12. scarnoc

    To underscore the ‘locality’ of water: The mountains where I live in Southern California have had a wet summer compared to the north half of the state, with the remains of the AZ monsoons blowing over this way. It’s been raining more in the high desert. The washes on the East sides of Mount San Jacinto have been running. There is water in the creek above my property.

    We Californians need to plan for long-term dry spells, and one solution is rooftop rain collection. I have been evangelizing this to my neighbors. The problem is that even rubber cisterns of size cost thousands of dollars.

  13. Susan the other

    I’m very fond of raw almonds. Lovely flavor. I’m told it is cyanide and not to eat too many at a time. I’ve definitely got nothing against nut trees. But I’m fully committed to the idea that everything has to operate organically. Let every locality that can grow almonds do it but not for exploitation and export. Do so only as far as the environment can accommodate it. In fact, trees improve local climates and enough of them improve regional climates. It’s extreme agriculture that is insane. As usual. Let everyone have an almond tree in their back yard and an apple tree. Manage groves and forests in the wild as if they were telling us important things. Because they are. All of my closest friends (aspens, white pines, scrub oak, scrub maple, chokecherry, elderberry and service berry) let me know stuff I can’t perceive – like ‘it’s gonna be a hot dry summer so we’re not leafing out till June’, or ‘it’s an early winter so we are changing our metabolism two weeks early this year and slowing down in mid July’ – and you can smell their every move. You can smell Fall in mid July if it’s headed for a long cold winter. Trees have weather knowledge we will never have unless we learn to listen to them. And they all agree on their next move – the hillside changes in unison. A little more respect for trees would be a good thing.

  14. CloverBee

    I am curious, and haven’t seen any coverage, about what effect water-wise irrigation would have on the amount of water being used by the listed (excluding rice, obviously) crops. I have watched documentaries of farms in California, and was shocked by the continued use of flood irrigation in a DESERT, and they don’t even cover the areas they are flooding. I have never found a reference for experimental data on this, and I think it would be something most California farmers would be interested in. Does anyone have a take or references?

  15. Wukchumni

    In some fashion, the 20 year long drought in the west resembles our Afghanistan saga, in that everybody knew both situations are unsustainable in the long run, and unlike money you can’t just make more water like the mouse clique can in matters financial.

    Another really dry year here and the exodus will happen all of the sudden, not unlike events transpiring in Kabul.

  16. Michal P

    I remember learning about how California was in drought during the late eighties when I was in elementary school. There’s always some drought or other in California. The movie China Town was all about water rights. Water problems in California are hardly new. Blaming it on some boogie man (even if real e.g. climate change) is also hardly new. During the last drought you could drive down I-5 and see rice paddies. All you ever see is people complaining about it like this article instead of looking for solutions.

  17. Copeland

    I agree that water infrastructure will be the ace in the hole, at least until that too eventually fails. My town in NW Oregon (1 hour from the Pacific and 1 hour from Portland) has its insufficiently sized reservoir located in the Coast Range. Rainfall up there is between 100″ and 200″ annually, plenty for this town and many more like it, but the reservoir is not large enough to see our town through the summer. The powers that be are in the planning and permitting stages for a second reservoir, but that will take at least 10 years to complete. I believe there will be substantial pain and suffering way before it’s completed.

  18. Telee

    In the face of these realities the response of all our presidents as been to increase drilling for fossil fuels. Biden is the latest. He has already handed out over 2,000 leases for drilling and supports the line 3 pipeline to ship tar sand oil. Obama was one of the worst and of course the republican presidents were no different. In other words even in such dire circumstances we do what the oil companies want. In fact catering to special interests-Wall Street, private health care, etc. means we are unable to have any policy that isn’t approved by the rich and powerful donors who have financialized politics. The objective is to support the financialization of everything.

  19. Wukchumni

    We’re in a time of climatic extremes, so let me present something out there for next year’s winter in Cali, to break the drought-mega or otherwise.

    United States Geological Survey sediment research revealed that the 1605 flood deposited a layer of silt two inches thick at the Santa Barbara basin, indicating that it was the worst flood event of the past 2,000 years, being at least 50% more powerful than any of the others recorded based on geological evidence.

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