California Dreamin’ Of Wetter Times

  • Date: 06/02/14
  • Doug L Hoffman, The Resilient Earth

California, the state that raises 30% of US fresh produce, is in the grip of a severe drought. Billed as the driest period in the state’s recorded rainfall history, climate change alarmists have hastened to blame the parched conditions on anthropogenic global warming (AGW). Paleoclimate history tells a different story, however, and highlights the amazingly short attention span of AGW advocates.

Going beyond the 163-year historical period, science shows that there have been other, longer lasting and more severe droughts than the current dry spell. Today’s drought is minor when compared with ancient Megadroughts, which occurred between 850 to 1090 and 1140 to 1320. In fact, the worst droughts suffered by the American Southwest all happened so long ago that human memory fails us.

As bad as people think conditions are in the Golden State, they may get much dryer before the current drought ends. According to Bill Patzert, a research scientist and oceanographer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, the West is in a 20-year drought that began in 2000. He attributes the persistent drought conditions to a phenomenon known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). The PDO negative phase, which is linked to extreme high-pressure ridges that block storms, is currently underway. This may mean another 10 parched years for the Southwest.

California, the US’s most populous state with 38 million residents, has built a massive economy—Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and millions of acres of incredibly productive farmland—all in a semiarid coastal region that has its share of natural hazards. In an article in the San Jose Mercury News, environmental reporter Paul Rogers describes the potential impacts of such a prolonged drought:

Farmers would fallow millions of acres, letting row crops die first. They’d pump massive amounts of groundwater to keep orchards alive, but eventually those wells would go dry. And although deeper wells could be dug, the costs could exceed the value of their crops. Banks would refuse to loan the farmers money…

In urban areas, most cities would eventually see water rationing at 50 percent of current levels. Golf courses would shut down. Cities would pass laws banning watering or installing lawns, which use half of most homes’ water. Across the state, rivers and streams would dry up, wiping out salmon runs. Cities would race to build new water supply projects, similar to the $50 million wastewater recycling plant that the Santa Clara Valley Water District is now constructing in Alviso.

Noting that agriculture is only 3% of the state’s economy, a megadrought would still impact food prices across the nation. Undoubtedly the federal government would step in with billions of dollars of aid for the 38 million residents who send the largest delegation to the US Congress in Washington, DC, and wield the largest block of votes in the Electoral College in presidential elections.

Hailed as possibly the worst drought California has seen in 500 years, Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency. Some rural areas may run out of water entirely in coming months if conditions don’t improve. California’s State Water Project, an agency that redistributes water from the snowy mountains in the north to the drier south, has announced it will not be able to deliver water to many communities in the coming months. Those towns will be on their own for water resources.

“Cities would be inconvenienced greatly and suffer some. Smaller cities would get it worse, but farmers would take the biggest hit,” said Maurice Roos, chief hydrologist at the state Department of Water Resources. “Cities can always afford to spend a lot of money to buy what water is left.”

Though the current drought is undoubtedly a bad one, it really is not anything special. The longest droughts of the 20th century occurred from 1987 to 1992 and from 1928 to 1934. According to Scott Stine, professor of geography and environmental studies at Cal State East Bay, both were minor compared to the ancient droughts of 850 to 1090 and 1140 to 1320.

Californians may be dreaming of a wetter climate but not that long ago the state was beset by heavy rains and disastrous mud slides. This is also nothing unusual from a historical perspective. Between the two medieval megadroughts, for example, the long-term record shows decades of above-normal rainfall—the kind that would cause devastating floods today.

“We continue to run California as if the longest drought we are ever going to encounter is about seven years,” Stine said. “We’re living in a dream world.”

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