The Climate Change Lessons of the California Drought 1

Drought may be the sneakiest of natural disasters. Although human history teems with people engulfed by abrupt aridity — the Akkadians of four millenniums ago, the Maya in the ninth and 10th centuries A.D., the Great Plains farmers of the 1930s — even today drought is a poorly appreciated phenomenon. Unlike mighty storms or thundering eruptions, droughts slink into our lives invisibly, unannounced. It can be hard to know you’re in a drought until it’s too late to do much about it; then, when the rains come back, it can be just as difficult to believe the water will ever run out again, so why worry about the next dry spell? Donald Wilhite, a pioneering scholar of drought, calls it the Rodney Dangerfield of natural disasters. Drought has felled entire civilizations, but still it gets no respect.

The American West is once again facing drought, one of the worst on record. Across a vast region encompassing nine states and home to nearly 60 million people, the earth is being wrung dry. About 98 percent of this region is currently weathering some level of drought, and more than half the land area is under extreme or exceptional drought, the most severe categories.

This drought began just last year, but it is already causing severe disruptions. Farmers are being forced to rip out almond trees and send dairy cows to early slaughter. Lake Mead, a reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam, has fallen so low that the dam’s hydroelectric generation capacity is down by 25 percent from its peak. But the worst is likely to come — drought-intensified wildfires, blackouts, more extensive crop destruction and perhaps even more Americans who lack safe drinking water.

Droughts in the West are nothing new, and on a warming planet they are likely to become more numerous, more intense and longer lasting. And yet drought almost always seems to catch us flat-footed. This time, let’s finally meet drought in the United States with the fear and awe it deserves — with a recognition of our humility before its wrath and a consequent seriousness about mitigating its desiccating fury.

The way we manage our water is outdated, inefficient, uncoordinated and, to a lot of people, unfair. There is little national leadership. Even though the federal government pays for maintaining large infrastructure projects like dams, Congress has given states the primary responsibility to manage water supplies, leading to epic legal wars over water between states and a back-seat role for the federal government when droughts strike. At all levels of government, our response tends to be reactive; presidents and governors offer grand proposals to fight droughts while we’re in the thick of them, with little long-term planning for water crises long before they happen. Perhaps most important, as a society, we spend nothing close to the amount of money we need to manage a resource as precious as water. Water in the United States is provided by about 50,000 community water systems, many of them small and privately owned and lacking much capacity to prepare for the coming era of worsening drought.

The good news is that even if we cannot stop drought, we are not powerless before it. Experts foresee technologies that would allow for greater conservation and reuse; among these are smart irrigation systems that can water plants far more efficiently, expanded operations to recycle dirty water for new uses, and even grand breakthroughs like much cheaper desalination. The complexities in mitigating drought are less about innovation and more about determination — a collective will to recognize that the way we manage water now is not working and that we need big fixes.

And we need them urgently. Nobody is shocked that the West is dry again. The climatological record suggests the Western United States has long been prone to long periods of severe aridity. Some droughts in the region have lasted centuries; indeed, the last few hundred years, the period encompassing all of American history, may have been an unusually wet exception to the desiccated norm.

For scientists who study drought, then, the surprise is not that the dry season has returned but that it has come on so soon and has accelerated so quickly. Between 2012 and 2016, California experienced the most severe drought in a millennium. Scientists and policymakers described it as a wake-up call — a stark preview of the aridity to come under a warming climate.

The latest drought is “what the climate scientists have been predicting, except that it’s not far off into the future — it’s today,” said Felicia Marcus, a former chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board.

What does waking up to drought look like? It means recognizing that a large swath of the United States is in for a period of prolonged aridity and accepting that dealing with this crisis requires a fundamental change in our way of life.

Because water is elemental to life, this sort of talk is often hard to swallow. As a matter of basic survival, having less access to water sounds justifiably terrifying. Perhaps that’s why the United States and other countries have long struggled to mount effective, coordinated political responses to drought; deciding who gets water is often perilous politics.

Yet seriously combating drought does not have to mean the end of life in the West — not the end of farming, not the end of metropolises, not the end of growth. We have made great strides in efficiency over the past few decades. In 2015, the last year for which there are official statistics, the United States used an estimated 25 percent less water than we did in 1980, even though the population grew by about 40 percent in those 35 years. But there is a lot left to be done.

“There is still enormous untapped potential in both urban and agricultural areas to do what we want with less water,” said Peter Gleick, a co-founder of the Pacific Institute, an organization that aims to find fixes to the world’s water problems.

For instance, California has an archaic system of water rights that allows longtime agricultural holders to use water essentially without limit while others are forced to skimp. This has created clear inequities. About 80 percent of California’s water is used by its vast agricultural industry, and the remainder goes to everyone else. In response to a recent drought, California adopted the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which requires regional agencies to reduce their water usage, which could curb the ag industry’s preferential access to water. But some experts worry that the law does far too little to address water shortages exacerbated by climate change.

Pablo Ortiz, a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, lamented the lack of resources devoted to drought mitigation and water safety. In May, Gavin Newsom, California’s governor, proposed a $5.1 billion package to improve water security in the state. About $1.3 billion of it would be for improving drinking water infrastructure, which is far short of the nearly $6 billion that a recent study estimated would be required to provide every Californian access to safe drinking water. “That’s not a lot of money for a state like California,” which recently announced a budget surplus of $75 billion, Ortiz said.

The numbers tell the story. California and the rest of the country can well afford to manage our water supplies more sustainably and equitably. We could do a lot more. We could spend more, we could plan more thoroughly, we could govern better, and we could all make a commitment to using less. Or perhaps it’s better to say we must do a lot more, because we really don’t have much choice.

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