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This could be California's driest year on record

by Bob Morris, published

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.

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.

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