As he gave his State of the State speech yesterday, California Gov. Jerry Brown had reason to feel pretty good. The 75-year-old governor has helped rescue the state from fiscal insolvency and presided over the addition of 1 million new jobs since 2010. But as he spoke, Brown hit a darker note. Last week, amid the driest year for the state since record-keeping began in the 1840s, Brown declared a drought emergency for California, and in his speech he warned of harder times ahead:
Among all our uncertainties, weather is one of the most basic. We can’t control it. We can only live with it, and now we have to live with a very serious drought of uncertain duration…We do not know how much our current problem derives from the build-up of heat-trapping gasses, but we can take this drought as a stark warning of things to come.
(MORE: Can GM Crops Bust the Drought?)
Californians need to be ready, because if some scientists are right, this drought could be worse than anything the state has experienced in centuries. B. Lynn Ingram, a paleoclimatologist at the University of California, Berkeley, has looked at rings of old trees in the state, which helps scientists gauge precipitation levels going back hundreds of years. (Wide tree rings indicate years of substantial growth and therefore healthy rainfall, while narrow rings indicate years of little growth and very dry weather.) She believes that California hasn’t been this dry since 1580, around the time the English privateer Sir Francis Drake first visited the state’s coast:
If you go back thousands of years, you see that droughts can go on for years if not decades, and there were some dry periods that lasted over a century, like during the Medieval period and the middle Holocene [the current geological epoch, which began about 11,000 years ago]. The 20th century was unusually mild here, in the sense that the droughts weren’t as severe as in the past. It was a wetter century, and a lot of our development has been based on that.
Ingram is referring to paleoclimatic evidence that California, and much of the American Southwest, has a history of mega-droughts that could last for decades and even centuries. Scientists like Richard Seager of Columbia University’s Lamont-Dohery Earth Observatory have used tree-ring data to show that the Plains and the Southwest experienced multi-decadal droughts between 800 A.D. and 1500 A.D. Today dead tree stumps—carbon-dated to the Medieval period—can be seen in river valley bottoms in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and underwater in places like California’s Mono Lake, signs that these bodies of water were once completely dry. Other researchers have looked at the remains of bison bones found in archaeological sites, and have deduced that a millennium ago, the bison were far less numerous than they were several centuries later, when they blanketed the Plains—another sign of how arid the West once was. The indigenous Anasazi people of the Southwest built great cliff cities that can still be seen in places like Mesa Verde—yet their civilization collapsed, quite possibly because they couldn’t endure the mega-droughts.
(MORE: How the Drought of 2012 Will Make Your Food More Expensive)
In fact, those droughts lasted so long that it might be better to say that the Medieval West had a different climate than it has had during most of American history, one that was fundamentally more arid. And there’s no reason to assume that drought as we know it is the aberration. Ingram notes that the late 1930s to early 1950s—a time when much of the great water infrastructure of the West was built, including the Hoover Dam—may turn out to have been unusually wet and mild on a geologic time scale:
I think there’s an assumption that we’ll go back to that, and that’s not necessarily the case. We might be heading into a drier period now. It’s hard for us to predict, but that’s a possibility, especially with global warming. When the climate’s warmer, it tends to be drier in the West. The storms tend to hit further into the Pacific Northwest, like they are this year, and we don’t experience as many storms in the winter season. We get only about seven a year, and it can take the deficit of just a few to create a drought.
These mega-droughts aren’t predictions. They’re history, albeit from a time well before California was the land of Hollywood and Silicon Valley. And the thought that California and the rest of the modern West might have developed during what could turn out to be an unusually wet period is sobering. In 1930, a year before construction began on the Hoover Dam, just 5.6 million people lived in California. Today more than 38.2 million live in the largest state in the U.S., all of whom need water. California’s 80,500 farms and ranches produced crops and livestock worth $44.7 billion in 2012, but dry farming districts like the Central and Imperial Valleys would wither without irrigation. (Altogether, agriculture uses around 80% of the stare’s developed water supply.) More people and more crops have their straws in California’s water supply. Even in normal years, the state would be in trouble. If we see a return to the bone-dry climate of the Medieval period, it’s hard to see how the state could survive as it is now. And that’s not even taking the effects of climate change into account—the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report found that it was likely that warming would lead to even drier conditions in the American Southwest.
In his speech, Brown told Californians “it is imperative that we do everything possible to mitigate the effects of the drought.” The good news is that the sheer amount of water we waste—in farms, in industry, even in our homes—means there’s plenty of room for conservation. The bad news is that if California lives up to its climatological history, there may not be much water left to conserve.
According to the Ventura County Star, California’s current drought is being called the driest period in the state’s recorded rainfall history. Scientists who study the West’s long-term climate patterns say the state has been parched for much longer stretches before the earliest records of rainfall were kept, starting 163 years ago. The most recent prolonged dry period has brought concern that “megadroughts” typical of California’s earlier history could come again.
The two most recent “megadroughts” were a 240-year-long drought that started in 850 and, 50 years after the conclusion of that one, another that stretched at least 180 years. California in 2013 received less rain than in any year since it became a state in 1850. Despite a snowstorm earlier this year, the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains stands at just twelve percent of the average level, the lowest measurement in the half century records have been kept.
Many Californians think that population growth is the main driver of water demand statewide, but the demand actually comes from agriculture. In an average year, farmers use eighty percent of the water consumed by people and businesses. A “megadrought” today would have catastrophic effects on California’s farmers and other statewide industries.
Last month, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, urging residents to conserve water as much as possible. California has banned fishing in some drought-prone rivers, and the Governor has asked residents to turn off the water while brushing their teeth.
The majority of the state’s agricultural water, as well as drinking water for large parts of Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, San Diego and other major metropolitan areas, comes from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. California Governor Jerry Brown in conjunction with various other state agencies, have offered a potential solution, called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), seven years in the making. The $25 billion plan is a high-stakes blueprint to restore the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The plan features two large water tunnels and habitat restoration to protect many species of animals.
What You Can Do
While state and local leaders continue to work on long-term solutions to California’s water challenges, saving water on a daily basis will help stretch supplies. How Californians choose to use water in the coming months and years will have an enormous impact on just how bad the drought becomes.
Learn how you can conserve water through the Save Our Water website.
Get involved with these water conservation organizations:
The California Water Alliance, an educational, non-profit, non-partisan organization with over 4,000 members focused on providing comprehensive water solutions to California.
The Groundwater Guardian is a program of the Groundwater Foundation that provides support and encouragement for communities of all types (cities, counties, watersheds, schools, etc.) to begin groundwater awareness activities, motivation to continue these efforts, and recognition for their achievements. Want to get children involved? Check out the Kids Corner tab on the website!
The U.S. Water Alliance is a nonprofit working today to explore the complex issue of water sustainability and plan for the future by improving public awareness that advances holistic, watershed-based approaches to water quality and quantity challenges.
In Southern California, through the Bureau of Reclamation’s Water Conservation Field Services Program (WCFSP), Reclamation encourages and facilitates water conservation and efficiency improvements, and assists agencies in meeting their demands for limited water resources.
Learn More about the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.
Two years into California’s drought, Donald Galleano’s grapevines are scorched shrubs, their charcoal-colored stems and gnarled roots displaying not a lick of life. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Galleano, 61, the third-generation owner of a 300-acre vineyard in Mira Loma, California, that bears his name. “It’s so dry … There’s been no measurable amount of rain.”
California is experiencing its worst drought since record-keeping began in the mid 19th century, and scientists say this may be just the beginning. B. Lynn Ingram, a paleoclimatologist at the University of California at Berkeley, thinks that California needs to brace itself for a megadrought—one that could last for 200 years or more.
As a paleoclimatologist, Ingram takes the long view, examining tree rings and microorganisms in ocean sediment to identify temperatures and dry periods of the past millennium. Her work suggests that droughts are nothing new to California.
Photo of Lake Mendocino, one of two major water storage lakes on the Russian River, nearly empty on January 24, 2014.” width=
Photograph by George Rose, Getty
Lake Mendocino, a major water storage lake near Ukiah, California, is nearly dry.
“During the medieval period, there was over a century of drought in the Southwest and California. The past repeats itself,” says Ingram, who is co-author of The West Without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climate Clues Tell Us About Tomorrow. Indeed, Ingram believes the 20th century may have been a wet anomaly.
“None of this should be a surprise to anybody,” agrees Celeste Cantu, general manager for the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority. “California is acting like California, and most of California is arid.” (Related: “Behind California’s January Wildfires: Dry Conditions, Stubborn Weather Pattern.”)
Unfortunately, she notes, most of the state’s infrastructure was designed and built during the 20th century, when the climate was unusually wet compared to previous centuries. That hasn’t set water management on the right course to deal with long periods of dryness in the future.
Given that California is one of the largest agricultural regions in the world, the effects of any drought, never mind one that could last for centuries, are huge. About 80 percent of California’s freshwater supply is used for agriculture. The cost of fruits and vegetables could soar, says Cantu. “There will be cataclysmic impacts.” (Related: “Epic California Drought and Groundwater: Where Do We Go From Here?”)
Photo of a dog on an abandoned farmhouse on February 6, 2014 near Bakersfield, California.” width=
Photograph by David McNew, Getty
Farms, like this one near Bakersfield, California, have been unable to sustain crops or livestock due to the driest conditions in decades.
What’s causing the current drought?
Ingram and other paleoclimatologists have correlated several historic megadroughts with a shift in the surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean that occurs every 20 to 30 years—something called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). The PDO is similar to an El Nino event except it lasts for decades—as its name implies—whereas an El Nino event lasts 6 to 18 months. Cool phases of the PDO result in less precipitation because cooler sea temperatures bump the jet stream north, which in turn pushes off storms that would otherwise provide rain and snow to California. Ingram says entire lakes dried up in California following a cool phase of the PDO several thousand years ago. Warm phases have been linked to numerous storms along the California coast.
“We have been in a fairly cold phase of PDO since the early 2000s,” says Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center, “so the drought we are seeing now makes sense.”
That said, scientists caution against pinning the current drought on the PDO alone. Certainly ocean temperatures, wind, and the weather pattern in the Pacific have contributed to the drought, says Nate Mantua, a professor in the department of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, where the PDO pattern was first discovered and named. “But it’s more nuanced than saying the PDO did this.” After all, as its name suggests, the PDO is decades in the making.
Graphic showing the PDO.” width=
What can Californians expect?
Yet it’s only natural to want hints of what’s to come. “Water managers need to know how much water they can expect in their lakes and reservoirs,” says Fuchs.
Ultimately, how long the current California drought will last is anyone’s guess. Cantu says the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority is stymied by that uncertainty. “We need to import water, and we need to know how much we can move around,” she says. Some 4.5 million people rely on that southern California water supply, including ranchers and farmers like Galleano.
He says it would be nice to know if he is going to be able to grow any grapes at all in 2014. Asked how he would deal with a long bout of dryness, Galleano says he’d just have to “drink the wine.”