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California Floods and the ‘Megadrought’
Climate media narratives may be in danger.
James Freeman, WSJ
Jan. 12, 2023 5:09 pm ET
Observing the tragic impact of California’s flooding, casual news consumers might get the impression that wet winters and dry summers represent entirely new phenomena in the Golden State. They might even conclude that extreme oscillation between flood conditions and water shortages is the inevitable result of climate change. But careful readers will find reason to reject such assumptions. They’ll also discover a phenomenon that is not unique to climate politics: Politicians like to talk about infrastructure and spend money on it more than they like to build it.
Various media outlets this week are forecasting that Californians suffering from too much water will soon be suffering again from too little. “All the rain and snow are undoubtedly good news for California’s water supply, but they’re unlikely to end the drought altogether,” is the conventional media headline on a New York Times story today. Soumya Karlamangla writes:
With the news of the replenished snowpack, you may be wondering what kind of impact the recent storms will have on the current drought, which began in 2020 and has stretched through the three driest years on record in the state. Could these downpours be enough to end our dry spell?
Well, experts say that the atmospheric rivers hitting the Golden State will undoubtedly help but probably won’t be enough to reverse the drought altogether.
Times colleague Henry Fountain also tries to discourage the intuitive conclusion that heavy precipitation will relieve drought conditions:
According to the United States Drought Monitor, in this century there have been four periods of persistent drought in California — 2001-04, 2007-09, 2012-16 and the current drought, which began in 2020. Between each drought there were only a few years of wet weather — and it was often extremely wet, as is occurring now.
“What we’re seeing is what I and others are calling weather whiplash,” said Peter Gleick, co-founder of and senior fellow at the Pacific Institute, a research organization specializing in water issues. “We don’t seem to get average years anymore.”
“Weather whiplash” is a compelling phrase. Mr. Fountain has also helped popularize the term “megadrought,” used by scientists who seem to believe they can study dry conditions across millennia with enough precision to estimate the percentage of contemporary droughts due to man.
Speaking of our contemporary climate, is there nothing to be done about California’s reportedly novel fluctuation between extremes of wet and dry weather?
A recent editorial in the Orange County Register states:
This cycle of drought and flooding is nothing new. “California summers were characterized by the coughing in the pipes that meant the well was dry, and California winters by all-night watches on rivers about to crest,” wrote Joan Didion in her 1977 essay, “Holy Water.”
Unfortunately, California has left itself dependent on the weather (or climate, if you prefer) because it hasn’t built significant water infrastructure since the time that essay was published — when the state had roughly 18 million fewer residents.
Some environmentalists argue against building water storage when there’s little rain, but they only are correct if it doesn’t rain again.
History suggests the rains will always come. If California expands its storage capacity with reservoirs, off-stream storage and groundwater banking, it will have enough water to get us through the dry spells.
Sounds like a practical solution, and of course reservoirs can also help with flood control. But as Journal readers well know, it’s been a long time since most California politicians were willing to entertain practicality. Nearly eight years ago, a Journal editorial noted:
... California... has suffered four droughts in the last five decades with each seemingly more severe in its impact. Yet this is due more to resource misallocation than harsher conditions.
During normal years, the state should replenish reservoirs. However, environmental regulations require that about 4.4 million acre-feet of water—enough to sustain 4.4 million families and irrigate one million acres of farmland—be diverted to ecological purposes. Even in dry years, hundreds of thousands of acre feet of runoff are flushed into San Francisco Bay to protect fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
During the last two winters amid the drought, regulators let more than 2.6 million acre-feet out into the bay. The reason: California lacked storage capacity north of the delta, and environmental rules restrict water pumping to reservoirs south. After heavy rains doused northern California this February, the State Water Resources Control Board dissipated tens of thousands of more acre-feet. Every smelt matters.
That long-ago editorial also noted one particularly useful proposal:
California’s Department of Water Resources calculates that the proposed Sites Reservoir, which has been in the planning stages since the 1980s, could provide enough additional water during droughts to sustain seven million Californians for a year.
How did that work out? Last year Louis Sahagun reported in the Los Angeles Times that environmentalists are still fighting it:
“Sites Reservoir won’t provide a lot of water — it will be costly, though, and hard to stop because it enables elected officials to say, ‘Look, we’re doing something about megadrought,’” said Ron Stork, senior policy advocate for the nonprofit Friends of the River. “It’s become their solution to climate change.”
Aren’t solutions to water problems a good thing? What’s interesting about this case is that big government projects often generate fierce local opposition. But according to the Los Angeles Times report:
Sites Valley is a glimpse back in time — a great dusty bowl 13 miles long and about 5½ miles wide where cattle and deer browse grasslands framed by oaks and creeks that go dry in the brutal heat of summer.
It’s also home to 20 people, including Mary Wells, a respected former water manager and policymaker in Northern California, who has operated a cattle ranch in the valley for nearly half a century.
Wells and her children often hike and ride horses in the area. And as they wander out, they muse that in less than 10 years the entire valley could be underwater.
Wells has no beef with any of that. For her, it’s not a matter of whether to fill the valley with storm water, but how deep and how fast.
“The bitter part of it all is losing more monetarily and emotionally than anyone could ever imagine,” she said with a sigh. “The sweet part is knowing that this project is a thoughtful solution to the water crisis facing Central California agriculture and this amazing state.”
But who wants to craft thoughtful water solutions when creating climate narratives is mega-fun?