storm watch

It’s raining here. That’s good news, at least for the time being.



California is experiencing a serious drought. Our reservoirs are appallingly low. Our population is high. We are certainly overpopulated for the amount of water we have available, even at the best of times.

Here are side-by-side photos of Folsom Lake, a northern California reservoir that is near Sacramento. At least 500,000 people get their water from this reservoir. The picture all across California is not too different from this. California is in a “drought emergency.”

Folsom Lake, California Department of Water Resources.

Folsom Lake, California Department of Water Resources.

What is this – a drought emergency? Let’s start with damage to the California farming economy. We’re facing higher food prices, less food choice, and significant job losses. Since so much of California’s economy is tied into agriculture and California agriculture is tied into irrigation, this is a serious situation, indeed.

Farm fields will go unplanted. Some predict farmers will pull back and idle crops like cotton, wheat and corn. Maybe they will divert irrigation to orchards. If fruit and nut trees aren’t watered in California, they die. It can take up to seven years to replace their crops. California tomatoes, garlic, onions, lettuce, and melons will eventually increase in cost all across the nation. So will fruit. So will everything, eventually.

Seedling in the desert.

Seedling in the desert.

Ranchers will be hurt. Larger-scale California ranching is a fairly water-intensive operation. If grass/pasture doesn’t grow, ranchers rely on alfalfa, a thirsty crop.

Bless our sustainable ranchers.

Bless our sustainable ranchers.

Rural northern California is hurting already. Nearly twenty communities there face severe water shortages in the next two to three months. The state of California said last Friday that, for the first time since 1960 (that’s 54 years), it will not be releasing water from reservoirs to 29 water agencies serving something like 25 million people. That’s half the people in the state, at least.

What about the Southland? The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) is a water wholesaler for various cities and municipal water districts, serving 19 million people. Southern California has stockpiled water from diverse sources (snowpack from the Sierra Nevada and local mountains, Colorado River water, regular precipitation, and groundwater). Still, the district has asked users for voluntary 20% cuts.

Governor Brown has asked all Californians to voluntarily reduce water use by 20%. Mandatory residential or business cuts of 20% to 50% are in place for some communities, mostly in the north from what I’ve heard.

I want to talk about groundwater in southern California later. It’s not a pretty picture. None of this is, really.

Back to mega-drought. Governor Jerry Brown has very recently advised us that this upcoming year could bring a “mega-drought.”

We’re hearing that term “mega-drought” tossed around. It sounds like one of those D-grade films on the SyFy Channel that I sometimes can’t stop watching.

You know, though, it’s not hyperbole.

Folsom Lake, above, is at 17% of its total capacity. Two and a half years ago it was at 97% of its total capacity. Last year brought California 7.48 inches of rain. That’s the lowest amount in 119 years of record keeping. In fact, that’s less annual precipitation than my region of the southern Mojave is “supposed” to receive, as an average.

Marc Reisner once said that California had a “desert heart.”

Many have pointed out that much of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County are located in harm’s way.

Housing tracts have been placed on floodplains and in wildfire zones. Large industrial districts, entertainment complexes and vast tracts of housing, not to mention city centers, are constructed on and near filled-in wetlands and liquefaction zones (bad news in earthquakes: sands and silts give way, causing roads and buildings to collapse).

The potential for earthquake tragedy has not been fully fathomed. Mike Davis has quoted seismologist Kerry Sieh maintain (after the 1994 Northridge earthquake), “Until this last year I was never truly scared. Now, I am.”

FEMA photograph of Northridge earthquake taken January 17, 1994, by Robert A. Eplett.

FEMA photograph of Northridge earthquake taken January 17, 1994, by Robert A. Eplett.

Every year, now sometimes twice a year, Californians turn on their TVs to watch nearby wildfires eat up acres of land and often homes and businesses.

My desert's on fire.

My desert’s on fire.

And now we are hearing about some kind of frightening mega-drought. I have lived in southern California since 1974. The real consequences of building one of the world’s economies in a region with a “desert heart” and building it with a flourish are rarely considered.

The news of the day is full of talk about “not enough water,” “I will not be able to wash my car,” “how will I take a 10-minute shower,” and potential effects on local lawns. We really need to start talking seriously about what it means to be overpopulated in an environment that cannot carry all of us.

In the Middle Ages, California experienced two serious droughts, droughts that some of my students might refer to as “epic.” And epic they would be since they lasted 140 years and 220 years.

These days we talk about long-lasting droughts of a decade, or close to a decade. The medieval mega-droughts have been carefully measured and dated in northern California, in the eastern watershed of the Sierra Nevada and they encompass a time scale unlike any we’ve been experiencing or even speculating about . There is also research in paleoclimatology that shows while the water in the eastern Sierra was drying up, the salinity of San Francisco Bay was climbing precipitously, indicating a serious lack of fresh water flowing into the bay.

SF Bay

SF Bay

SF Bay and city.

SF Bay and city.

Here in the south, things were not much better. In Santa Barbara, Orange County, and coastal Los Angeles, the huge droughts of the Middle Ages had an effect as well. What is now coastal Los Angeles County with its Mediterranean sort of ecosystem was a semi-arid zone backing up to the Pacific Ocean.

There is global paleoclimate evidence that the great Medieval droughts of the California region were part of a global pattern of climate anomalies.

Those droughts of the middle ages were natural occurrences, global interactions of ocean and atmosphere and polar ice, that flipped a climate switch and created a worldwide series of changes, including massive and prolonged drought in many parts of the world.

To keep things interesting, climate studies show that the normal temperature and precipitation amounts recorded in California over the last 150 years or so are at odds with any real, long-term conditions. California Gold, our mild and beautifully Mediterranean climate, has been documented over about 150 years of West Coast modernity. What we’ve documented is an anomaly. We live in a climate anomaly. We have been recording one of the wettest, yet, mildest periods of California history.

Marc Reisner was correct, in a deeply perceptive, maybe almost prophetic, way.

First, we are living with false norms as far temperature and precipitation go. Second, the reports of the UNIPCC indicate that California will suffer decreased rainfall, seasonal shifts, increased fire dangers, and potential for alternating severe drought and floods. Increased anthropogenic climate change is not going to ameliorate the potential for disaster here in the Golden State.

The upshot is that climate change along with our current drought could increase many risks of living in California.

What would happen if we were to be plunged into a drought like either of the very severe Medieval droughts? What would happen to our cities, our farmland, all of our infrastructure? Throw in a major earthquake, something the geologists have been predicting for several decades, particularly on the southern portion of the San Andreas Fault, and then what?

Dust Bowl. California. Now.

Dust Bowl. California. Now.

Good grief, I’m not an apocalyptic person. If a woman like I am, one searching out the calm ponds in life, can acknowledge this is happening, in fact can KNOW this is happening, friends, it’s time to take a long look at the disaster-prone region we have chosen to inhabit. There are no extra scraps on the table in Sacramento, sadly, to mitigate this.

Any chance we might look to Boulder, Colorado with its slow-growth ordinances intended to limit residential growth? Could we develop an interest in zoning regulations that take ecological factors into consideration in new ways? I honestly don’t see this happening. People want to build and live in the chaparral, profound fire danger be damned. Before I lived in this desert, I resided in a mountain village here in southern California that had the San Andreas fault running directly through it. In addition, the forest land surrounding the village was/is filled with pine trees riddled with bark beetles, producing a huge fire hazard each dry season. Now, it’s all dry season. We were blithe about the fire danger. We somehow considered the bedrock of our mountain a protector against shaking on the fault line. Human nature? I don’t know. At least when I grew up in Tornado Country, we all had basements and storm cellars. There was some sort of tentative respect for the elements.

So, southern California.

Are we going to stop building in ecosystems where the native plants are adapted to fire in order to germinate? Those ecosystems would be our beautiful hillsides, everywhere up and down the Golden State. Are we even going to insist upon more stability and soundness in our built environment, for everyone?

Finally, are we going to insist that our children and young people be provided with an education that not only (possibly) includes but clearly forefronts regional environmental education so that they can make intelligent and socioecologically sound, reasonable, and just decisions as the years unroll?

If we decide that’s a good idea, where will we get the money to do it? Even an old unschooler like me, even I cannot continue to run a learning center like this on a shoestring forever. Or can I?

Maybe this is exactly what learning toward a safe and sustainable way of life will look like – a series of learning centers running up and down the state, each one connected to the next in a patchwork.

Rural, exurban, suburban, urban. Maybe we will have to begin to implement environmental solutions on producing farms, in backyards, on hardscrabble country farms, in small-scale household gardens, in city yards, on donated city land.

farm-based learning.

farm-based learning.

Weeding the orchard. It's almost her birthday here!

Weeding the orchard. It’s almost her birthday here!

Books to look at:
Davis, Mike. (1998). Ecology of fear: Los Angeles and the imagination of disaster. New York: Vintage Books.
Reisner, Marc. (1986). Cadillac Desert: The American West and its disappearing water. New York: Penguin.

About rainshadowfarm

I teach anthropology, am an archaeologist, a drylands agroecologist, community educator, and a single mother of eight grown kids. I currently own and operate an educational and research farm in the southern Mojave Desert, Rainshadow Farm. I'm 100% West Virginia hillbilly. Not necessarily in that order.
This entry was posted in agroecology, climate change, education, fire season, Nature, resilience, socioecological intelligence, sustainability education, sustainable agriculture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to storm watch

  1. Pingback: an irrigation tower for drylands gardening, part 2, and some drought thoughts | Rainshadow Farm

  2. Pingback: California fires, landscapes, and traditional ecological knowledge | Rainshadow Farm

  3. Pingback: California fires, landscapes, and traditional ecological knowledge | Rainshadow Farm Institute

  4. Pingback: dry and more dry | Rainshadow Farm

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