California drought continues, could be driest year on record

The Sierras have had practically no snow this year. Lake Tahoe, which relies on skiing for income, has no ski areas operating at full capacity. Some only have 30% of their lifts open. Last year, they had 50 feet of snow in some places. The Sierra Nevada is at a mere 14% of normal snowpack. The southern California Metropolitan Water District (MWD) says this could be the driest year on record, continuing the California drought

This isn’t just happening in California. It’s been exceptionally warm and dry across the nation. Flowers are blooming in New Hampshire in January. Last year, California had exceptional amounts of rain and snow. This year is the opposite. So, what accounts for this bipolar weather? The cause is a combination of a La Nina, which usually brings dry weather, coupled with an exceptionally strong arctic oscillation which blocks cold, moist air heading south from the arctic. This is due to the most extreme jet stream pattern on record. No one is able to make predictions as to when it will change.

Most of California is now classified as being abnormally dry or in moderate drought. The MWD says reservoirs filled with previous years’ rains are enough to get them through two or three dry years. But, that’s primarily in urban southern California. Conditions are drier in northern California. Ranchers and farmers are getting nervous, wondering if they should make contingency plans now. Irrigation water is already being delivered in some areas, which is unusual for January.

Making things worse, the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center says there will be a 2.6 million acre foot drop in Colorado River water this year. An acre foot is about 325,000 gallons. The crucial spring flows into Lake Powell are predicted to be just 71% of normal. California gets substantial amounts of water from the Colorado River, which is now so overused that it no longer drains into the ocean. In 2011, Arizona used 2.7 million acre feet from the Colorado. The Imperial Irrigation District in southern California took 2.9 million acre feet and is the single largest user of water from the Colorado.

It’s rather astonishing that California agriculture takes more water than any other user and that the water comes from hundreds of miles away. But that’s the nature of the California water system. Water from the Sacramento Delta and the Colorado is routinely sent hundreds of miles to the end user. This creates somewhat of a vicious cycle in that a primary use of electricity in California is for pumps moving water, while electricity generation itself frequently requires large amounts of water. So, we’re using water to create power to move water, something which seems remarkably unsustainable. But that’s the system we have.

Some may be saying, well then, just throttle back on the water supply to the Imperial Valley and the Central Valley (which uses delta water). Those farmers and ranchers get too much danged water anyway! This complaint often comes from urbanites unaware of the economic powerhouse that California agriculture is and how in a very real sense, California feeds the nation.

A study of history shows that some civilizations can withstand severe droughts and survive while others collapse. But droughts weren’t the entire cause of such collapses. Rather, they tipped the societies into collapse after the failure of elites to govern properly and to provide a robust infrastructure. The Anasazi were probably wiped out by a severe decades-long drought.

We are better prepared for drought now, but still, such an event would have major consequences on the southwest and California. Meanwhile, Texas is surviving its extraordinary drought in a surprisingly resilient manner. We should study how and why some societies survive severe droughts.

(crossposted from IVN)


7 Responses to California drought continues, could be driest year on record

  1. Steven G Thu, Jan 19, 2012 at 5:02 pm #

    Scientists can’t seem to agree if the world is getting warmer or colder. But many scientists can agree that there is climate change in general from the norm happening all over the world. There just is clear evidence of climate change, and you don’t need to be a scientist to see that. If it happened in only certain places of the world I would say it’s localized and not a global threat, but when it’s happening all over the world, like it is today, you can’t go on blaming La Nina and El Nino. Words that somebody probably made up to keep us all thinking it’s a natural phenomenon of what is going on. It’s not natural. Pollution is toxic to the environment and nobody disputes that. We don’t need to limit how much pollution we are putting in our environment, we need to make sure that none of it gets into our environment in the first place. We can recycle and reuse a lot of the waste we produce. It’s just cheaper to throw it away into our environment, especially if you can pay a city to bury it in a landfill or just release it into the air. A good start would be no more land filling and mandatory recycling as well as clean energy production.

    It’s already been proven that most of the waste we humans produce can be broken down it’s it’s base elements and recycled into other products and uses. While right now use of this technology is expensive, so was strip mining at first. It wasn’t until people invested in technology so that strip mining became cheaper and more efficient that it actually was.

    Then for power generation, already permanent magnetic generators are being developed to which they produce no pollution or require further energy to keep these generators running (other than their initial start up). They can run off their own supply, requiring no more than 20% of their output to keep running (which I’m sure can be improved upon). The magnets also have a lifespan of hundreds of years before they need to be replaced, and that’s only due to the magnetic field degrading in the permanent magnets over a very long period of time.

    The opposition to all of this is the energy companies. So the first step is to remove our dependance upon them. Those companies have a lot of money, so they’ll just figure out something else to do. Perhaps they’ll be the ones who develop more efficient magnetic generators to sell us all and service or repair the existing ones for us. Prohibition of alcohol in the USA turned many breweries into soda companies, and so I think it’s just one of those things where companies are forced to get with the times or be shut down.

    • Bob Morris Thu, Jan 19, 2012 at 9:25 pm #

      El Nino and La Nina are old names. When scientists here were trying to determine what was going on in the Pacific, they discovered that Peruvian fisherman had known about it for generations. That’s where the names El Nino and la Nina came from!

      Yes, recycling and reusing is a major answer.

  2. Ten Bears Fri, Jan 20, 2012 at 5:20 pm #

    What we are seeing here is a failed La Nina, where the cycle of colder waters drawing down warmer surface water in a perculative effect has been overwhelmed by the increase in the overall ambient surface water temperature [0.5 degree F over the recent fifty years, a full degree F over the “Industrial Revolution” (500 years)]. This delays the earlier onsets of the cooler/wetter La Nina.

    It fits the models rather well, though remains to be seen if the wet, sloppy lower altitude “Vally snow” the Oregon High Desert is enjoying today is indicative of a La Nina powering up, catching up, late, or if in this warmer/wetter world late mid-winter onsets of La Nina like cooler/wetter patterns are to be the norm.

    • Steven G Fri, Jan 20, 2012 at 6:36 pm #

      But the cause of what is disturbing these normal climate patterns that normally exist is what I’m talking about. It’s all about the pollution and the effect it has on the world on a global scale. Listen, if I’m wrong, wouldn’t you just like to live in a cleaner world anyway? I mean even if we cleaned up the earth and nothing got better and things just got worse for climate change? At least we can say we tried to do something positive to help the environment instead of always trying to destroy it.

      • Ten Bears Sat, Jan 21, 2012 at 7:58 am #

        I have several times proposed a twentieth century version of Pascal’s Wager: the Climate Change Denier’s Wager. Pascal was of course the fifteenth century ardent atheist, scientist and math master The Church so feared that upon his death cut off his head and it is now stored pickled somewhere in the Vatican basement. At some point in his life he was famously challenged by a “priest” that he would “convert” upon his deathbed. No word yet as to whither or no he did so, but my proposed wager is really rather simple: If I am wrong, I don’t lose a damned thing. If you – the climate change denier – are wrong, we lose the only planet we know of capable of sustaining our species – the human species – and all of our grand-children die.

        You want to take that bet?

        And I don’t even want hear “but there’s other planets… we just found one, Kepler 14 or 49 or something”. Finding new planets is cool. I’m a Mad Scientist, I love this stuff. But we have neither the time nor the resources or for that matter even the ability to move seven billion people to another planet. Or even a few.

        Maybe we ought to just put our energies and expertise into not f*cking up the one we already have.

        • Bob Morris Sat, Jan 21, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

          Manfred Mann. Messin’

          Right now the world ain’t looking too hot
          Unless you’re dead you must know what I mean
          You can read it in the papers, hear it on the news
          The earth is going down, going down in pollution blues

          We’re messin’ up the land
          We’re messin’ up the sea
          We’re messin’ up the air
          Messin’ up on you and me

        • Bob Morris Sat, Jan 21, 2012 at 8:30 pm #

          Getting to another planet isn’t doable by any technology we have now, especially since we wouldn’t really know if it was habitable until we got there.