The Standardized Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index (SPEI) for California, 195-2014. The lowest measurement ever recorded was in the 2013-2014 season. Graphic: National Weather Service Hanford

By Brad Plumer
10 April 2015

(Vox) – California saw this drought coming. Even if people in the state didn't know it would be this bad — now the worst in recorded history — they've known that dry years are inevitable and had all sorts of ideas for how to deal with them.

But for all that planning, California's current drought has been a total disaster. Reservoirs are drying up. Crops are wilting in the fields. For the first time ever, towns and cities will face a mandatory 25 percent cut in their water use.

The problem isn't that no one foresaw the drought. The problem is that no one has been able to solve an underlying issue that is simultaneously less scary and also much harder than a dry spell: California's convoluted water system and intractable water politics.

Designed piecemeal over the last century, going back to a time when Los Angeles had one-sixth its current population, California's system for managing water doesn't just make it tough to deal with shortages — in some ways, it encourages inefficiencies and waste. This is partly an engineering issue and partly a political one, but it's become a huge dilemma for a state struggling to adapt to unprecedented drought.

Much of the bickering today around California's water crisis can trace back to this underlying systemic issue. Many people accuse farmers — especially its almond growers and cattle ranchers — of using too much water. Farmers, in turn, blame environmentalists for placing undue restrictions on water use. Others fault golf courses and overwatered lawns. Economists say California could better manage its water if only it was priced properly.

There's some truth to all these points. But it's worth understanding California's incredibly complex water system in order to grasp why all these conflicts have arisen — and why fixes are so difficult.

1) California's water comes from the north and is used in the south

Perhaps the most fundamental water fact about California is that, historically, water was extremely scarce in the southern two-thirds of the state. The vast majority of precipitation occurs up north, mainly in the winter.

So, during the 20th century, both the state and the federal government built an elaborate system of canals, aqueducts, and reservoirs to bring water south: […]

3) California is now suffering the worst drought in history, and its water system is cracking under the stress

Now, however, this system has reached a breaking point. This current drought, which started in 2012, is worse than anything California has endured in its history. Virtually the entire state is facing "severe," "extreme," or "exceptional" drought: [more]

A guide to California's water crisis — and why it's so hard to fix


  1. Anonymous said...

    I just flew into CA (LA) a few days ago. From the plane, it was the driest I have ever seen it. Very, very dry. Lakes from above look very shrunken. Not a cloud in the sky all the way from Oregon to LA.

    But people here are not paying any attention. Am in a major hotel. No water restrictions anywhere. Pool still full. No notices, no 'please conserve', nothing.

    Also noticed that Californians aren't the least bit concerned about what's unfolding. Climate change is not discussed. Not on anybody's mind as far as I can tell.

    Everyone here drives way too fast. And with millions of drivers, it's quite the sight.

    My visit here told me one thing (that I already knew): humans don't care and won't care. Humans won't stop even when their own survival is threatened. Humans are going to eat the last scrap of food, kill off the last fish, last animal and burn the last drop of carbon.

    All this talk of 'saving the planet' or saving ourselves is doing no good whatsoever. The proof is in what we have to 'report' year by year - which species are now forever gone - what the C02 level now is - how hot it is getting - new records broken every year and so forth. Always more - always bad, always nothing effective done.

    We cannot control ourselves. Repeat, rinse, repeat: We cannot control ourselves. And now we are so many that it's 100% likely that we will wind up destroying everything else.

    A very interesting trip for me. Real proof of just how indifferent humans have become. ~JR~  

  2. Jim said...

    JR, thank you for the comment. I've reposted it on the
    Desdemona Facebook page.  


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