OK, we get it out here on the left coast. Old Man Winter has been shellacking the right half of the US for many weeks now with storms, sub-zero weather, and children staying at home wreaking family misery because the schools are closed. The Midwest, South, and East have floods, frozen pipes, and absurd snowdrifts not to mention renegade polar vortices. But out here, at least in California where we live and Oregon and Washington and Arizona and Nevada too, the planet looks to be dying. Around here in January the countryside is supposed to look like an Irish Spring. Instead the hills have gone from brown to ashen. A walk in the woods is a dusty, noisy affair, twigs and dry leaves crackling with every step. The SF Bay Area is shattering heat records – 70 and even 80+ degrees in mid-winter. We have a second place up the coast near thick redwoods where the well went dry maybe a month ago – we didn't figure it out till a day ago when the taps stopped running. A peek in the green storage tank by the pumphouse revealed nothing but a thin splash and orange sediment in its bottom. For $200 a former logger with a big tanker truck came and re-filled the thing with 1000 gallons he got from a town waterworks ten miles away. I am thinking that prices are going up.
The only rain we get is hardly enough to get grass growing in the hills. It stunts back to nuthin' before more rain arrives from the occasional little wave of moisture that slips around a high pressure ridge that has blocked out major Pacific storms for more than a year now. Farmers and fish that don't live in the sea are in big trouble.
But enough free-association about you East Coasters and me. Here is what is going on, in several sterling parts:
- San Jose Mercury News – Paul Rogers: Jan 26: California drought: Past dry periods have lasted more than 200 years, scientists say, plus Bay Area water districts starts asking urban residents to conserve , and Jan 13: California Drought: What's causing it?
- and for good measure, from the same paper, Jan. 26 Erin Ivie: Rain expected this week won't put dent in the drought, forecasters say ;
This is good reporting. Rogers is an old hand at diligent enviro and science coverage. The first piece linked above is particularly good. It reviews via some decent sources the paleo evidence for droughts in the region going back millennia. That's right, natural cycles long before our CO2 starting pressing on Earth's climate gizmos unleashed plenty of droughts far worse than the one here now. But the story does not provide succor to those who dismiss anthropogenic global warming as a hoax or perhaps just a sad left-wing delusion. Rogers just notes that climate change due to greenhouse gas buildup adds an extra wild card to a local climate that is not particularly stable to start with – in fact, the last century may have been among the few long periods of relatively reliable rainy and dry season patterns around here. One source, familiar with the deep record, told Rogers and his readers that people living in this region have been living in a dream world to think our weather ought to remain as it has since the Spanish arrived. Rogers looks ahead and sketches a near-apocalyptic vision of how, given a true mega-drought, blowing sands and surviving cities sipping at desalination plants would transform life out here in the West.
But I didn't quite understand the extent these pieces are models of the craft till this morning when I read this:
- Tech Times – Mary Anne Moll: Mega-drought heading for California? ; Paul's first piece linked up there is spreading ripples of influence. This is a rewrite of it. Looks like sheer aggregator churnalism with little evidence of original reporting. I have learned not to lay the blame, necessarily, on the person behind the byline for such low-grade news gathering. For one thing the same byline appears on more than 40 stories just this month, so far. That doesn't leave much time for not just writing, but thinking, chasing leads, pursuing sources, and all that j-school nitpickiness. Plus, the only Mary Anne Moll writer I can find with a search lives in the Philippines and appears to write a lot about ghosts and spirits. I think the writer of this story is a different one who, if she exists and by whatever name, apparently goes at a pace suitable only for a sweatshop. Sympathy rather than scorn may be appropriate. I know I would serve tracker readers better by contacting the service's editors to ask about their business model. I just haven't the heart.
Examples of other, respectable media accounts of California's growing dry spell:
- Time Magazine – Bryan Walsh – Hundred Years of Dry:How California's Drought Could Get Much,Much Worse /Scientists fear California's long-ago era of mega-droughts could be back ; Another serious effort to fill California residents in on the paleo-context to this drought, so far still a pipsqueak.
- LA Times – Evan Halper: Republicans seek to tap California drought for a political edge ; Not a science story, but a sharp contrast to Rogers's well-researched explanation of where the state's water now goes and the likely scenario if this drought does not break soon. Halper's piece is about the desperation of farmers and about politicians who want to gain the rural vote by promising to divert more water from reservoirs to farmers, fish and other wildlife notwithstanding. Rogers by contrast simply notes (via sources) that agriculture already gets 80 percent of state and federal-supplied water and that, if things get much worse, farmers will surely lose badly. When push comes to shove cities, with their population and wealth he reports, more likely will take the water (and let the fish flop in the sun). Either way, farmers in the long will get less water.
- E&E Greenwire – Anne C. Mulkern: DROUGHT: Calif.'s 5-year plan emphasizes water conservation; pretty much a straight policy wonk story but it also has some wit. Mulkern gets this world-weary quote from a UC Davis academic and expert on water issues: "We have a history of having a lot of California inaction plans."
- McClatchy (via Kansas City Star) Michael Doyle: Stormy seas ahead for the California water debate ; Another deeply political story. The story illustrates well how this drought is exposing deep fundamental divisions in the state among people who compete to call the shots.
Grist for the Mill: (Aside from the NOAA drought outlook below, check the NASA Earth Observatory photos of CA last week, and a year earlier. Not just snow levels are different but, just as dramatic, the hue of the unforested spaces.