The drought is over, though California officials say it’s not, entirely. And the U.S. Drought Monitor still has approximately 90% of San Joaquin County in “abnormally dry” conditions.
Abnormally dry … after a seemingly never-ending parade of 11 atmospheric rivers, Donner Party snows, floods, evacuations, power outages and reservoir levels so high that dam operators dump water.
In Stockton — where 325 trees fell to punishing rainstorms — precipitation to date is 20.77 inches, twice the normal average. On Tuesday, the National Weather Service predicted, “Additional heavy rain and snowmelt will result in more widespread flooding.”
If this is a drought, what’s wet look like?
“That’s a fair question,” conceded Brian A. Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center. “There are still some lingering issues.”
Such as groundwater depletion, Fuchs said.
Over 5,000 wells have gone dry in the last decade. Is that a drought? By some lights, perhaps, but it’s not Mother Nature’s fault. San Joaquin Valley farmers implacably overdraft groundwater.
Lawmakers in 2017 passed a law to curtail them, then gave them a deadline of … 2040.
“Sometimes there are problems I would call man-made,” conceded Fuchs.
Climatologists and others with a sophisticated grasp of water have a holistic concept of drought that includes the aquifer, aquatic ecosystems, forest health and other things.
Also, the state beats the drought drum because it wants Californians to change their mindset and conserve.
Neither is drought, strictly speaking. The former is a water deficit, the latter propaganda to help address it.
More substantially, the governor released a Water Supply Strategy last August. It acknowledges California’s changing climate could reduce the water supply by 10%.
“The volume of water used by people in California for agriculture, urban, and environmental purposes ranges from 60 million acre-feet per year to 90 million acre-feet per year,” the report reads. “A loss of 10 percent of that volume to hotter, drier conditions could mean the disappearance of about six million acre-feet to nine million acre-feet of water supply. For comparison’s sake, California’s largest reservoir — Shasta — holds 4.5 million acre-feet.”
The report proposes to:
- Create 4 million-acre feet of new water storage and capture stormwater.
- Recycle at least 800,000 acre-feet of water per year by 2030.
- Save up to 500,000 acre-feet through efficiencies and conservation.
- Desalinate ocean water and salty groundwater.
Salutary, but, “We still have a severe water shortage problem because we have not brought supply and demand into balance,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parilla of Restore the Delta.
California promiscuously awarded five times more water in rights than it has water in an average year. People fight like dogs over paper water. The political universe ignores natural limits.
“Climate change is exposing how severely we have mismanaged our water system,” Barrigan-Parilla said.
And the Delta pays the price. An example: Gov. Gavin Newsom recently issued a “temporary urgency change petition” — an emergency loophole in Delta water quality rules — to allow more water to be pumped south, though the Delta is on its deathbed.
Barrigan-Parilla’s analogy: “You have a critically ill patient, you don’t withhold health care. You have critically ill fisheries, you don’t withhold the water.”
But he did, to benefit large San Joaquin Valley landowners. Because it’s a drought emergency, right?
No, not when trillions of gallons of rainwater forced reservoirs to release water. That’s neither emergency nor drought. That’s policy by the compromised for the insatiable.
The state undid its unnecessary and destructive decree after 16 days. By then the damage was done, biologists say.
“They don’t predict climate change impacts because climate change impacts are inconvenient for them,” Barrigan-Parilla said.
California is entering a new era — or perhaps reverting to an old era — of aridification. An era in which even crazy rains like now won’t be enough for a permanently drier California. Half-steps won’t solve the problem if status quo politics won’t change with the natural world. If that’s a drought, it’s a drought of good judgment.
“It isn’t about getting it right,” Barrigan-Parilla said. “It’s about keeping water available to certain privileged parties.”
Michael Fitzgerald’s column runs on Wednesdays. Phone (209) 687-9585. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.