This was the year without a winter.
In January, not a single drop of rain fell in the San Francisco Bay Area, the first time such a thing has happened since recordkeeping began during the Gold Rush. Day after day, the skies were clear and the afternoon temperatures were in the seventies. It was awful. Without any rain or the typical cold winter winds, a thick haze developed over the bay and stuck around for weeks. An orange miasma choked the view from the Berkeley Hills to the Golden Gate, making the sun into a tarnished brass coin.
Meteorologists blamed it on something they’ve dubbed the “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge,” a persistent wall of high pressure over the Pacific Ocean that pushed winter storms away from the state and kept temperatures so warm that there was little to no snowfall this year below 8,000 feet of elevation.
Then there’s “The Blob.” For nearly a year, a mass of warm ocean water as much as two to seven degrees Fahrenheit above normal has clung to the West Coast. The Blob—which stretches 1,000 miles from Mexico to Washington State and goes 300 feet deep into the water column—has contributed to the warm winter, and is likely to be a factor in a predicted hotter-than-average summer.
The weird weather has had many strange effects. My friend Victor complains that at his house he can now see the stars at night. Victor and his family live in San Francisco’s Sunset District, on the far west edge of the city, hard against the ocean. Normally this area—dubbed the “Outside Lands” by the first white settlers—is fog-locked much of the year. Now, however, the summer fogs seem less dense, and the recent winters have been infamously cloud-free. “It’s really frightening,” Victor tells me.
• • •
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, essayist, and conservationist Wallace Stegner once wrote: “Aridity, more than anything else, gives the western landscape its character.” West of roughly the 100th meridian, civilization is impossible—physically impossible—without some sort of system to capture and store water. California, especially its northern sections, may have more of a green tint than the red-and-orange stretches of Arizona, Utah, and Nevada, but this place is still, at best, a semi-desert. In a “normal” year (a phrase that seems increasingly anachronistic) between fifteen and twenty-five inches of rainfall land on most parts of the state. Nearly all of that comes in a brief winter window outside the prime growing season.
“We have tried to make the arid West into what it was never meant to be and cannot remain, the Garden to the World and the home of multiple millions,” Stegner wrote in an essay titled, “Striking the Rock.” That piece was published in 1987, at the tail end of some of the wetter years ever recorded in the West. In 1985, Fresno—the small city at the heart of the San Joaquin Valley—received more than fifteen inches of rain. This winter, Fresno got just over five inches; last winter, the figure was four.
The central problem is this: The state and federal water systems allocations are based on water we don’t have. The numbers on the official paperwork are five times greater than the amount of water in the actual, physical hydrological system. The water allocation figures are fixed to a figment of history, a time when the state was wetter. California has hit overdraft.
“We shouldn’t even be talking about ‘drought’—it’s climate change and the new normal,” Conner Everts, a one-time drought manager for the city of Pasadena and now the executive director of the Southern California Watershed Alliance, tells me. “And because we’ve never managed water properly, when drought comes, we are exposed for allocating water that isn’t there. This isn’t going away, and it isn’t going to be solved easily.”
• • •
Everyone is anxious. According to a late February poll, 94 percent of registered voters in California say the drought is “serious,” and more than two-thirds describe the situation as “extremely serious.”
You hear talk about the drought everywhere—people discussing it on the BART train, at the coffee shop, on the radio. Most often, people say it’s “weird” or “freaky” or, simply, “scary.” The topic comes up all the time, even with strangers. A couple of weeks ago, my partner was making plans for a weekend getaway to wine country, and while she was on the phone with the woman at the inn in Calistoga, a late spring storm rolled over the Napa Valley.
“Is it really going to rain?” the innkeeper said, stopping what she was doing. “Oh, here it comes. Oh, it’s raining—thank God.”
That shower (about an inch of precipitation) kept the hills green for another ten days.
We Californians are known for our incorrigible (some might say pathological) optimism, and so this glimpse of a limit to our once-boundless growth seems vertiginous. The uncertainty makes things worse.
“We don’t know if we’re in year four of a four-year drought, or year four of a forty-year drought,” Mark Leno, a state senator representing San Francisco, tells me. Data from tree-ring studies reveals that the current drought is the worst to hit California in 1,200 years. This fact would be a consolation of sorts—the dry spell is just an anomaly!—were it not for the paleoecologists’ confirmation that, according to the fossil record, megadroughts have been a regular occurrence in western North America for millennia.
• • •
Eighty percent of California’s “developed water”—water captured and controlled for human uses—goes to agriculture. We are, famously, “America’s salad bowl.” Half of the country’s fruits and vegetables are grown here, including more than 90 percent of the nation’s broccoli and strawberries, and three-quarters of carrots, cauliflower, and raspberries. As the drought has settled into the popular consciousness, pistachios and almonds have become a favorite target of derision and disgust—“Lay Off the Almond Milk, You Ignorant Hipsters,” a Mother Jones online headline shouted. The trees are huge water users (according to one estimate it takes a gallon of water to produce a single almond), and because they are perennials, they can’t suddenly be taken out of production like, say, a field of tomatoes or wheat. The fact that much of the pistachios and almonds are exported abroad only adds to the resentment. Shipping water overseas? It seems totally, well, nuts.
But the almond crop isn’t the worst water guzzler. That dubious distinction goes to alfalfa, much of which is grown in the Imperial Valley east of San Diego, a sun-baked desert that is arable only because the farmers there receive abundant (and essentially free) water from the Colorado River—which, incidentally, no longer flows to the ocean most years. The alfalfa is grown to feed the state’s thousands of dairy cows, California being the leading dairy state in the country.
During the drought, the demand for alfalfa and other irrigated silage has increased. In February of last year, I saw columns of flat-bed semi-trucks hauling stacks of feed to the dairies in Point Reyes, just north of San Francisco. It was a disorienting sight. Normally, at that time of year, the dairy cows would be grazing on verdant hills, but what little rain we had that winter came late, and the farmlands were an ugly brown-grey. And so, in a way, the drought feeds on itself: The lack of water makes it even more lucrative to grow one of the thirstiest crops.
Adam Scow, the California director of Food and Water Watch, warns that the status quo is untenable.
“We need to get water supply and water demand into balance,” he tells me. “The State Water Board needs to say: ‘Here are the realities, and here’s how it’s changing on a hotter planet.’ Given the reality that the water has all been overallocated, it’s going to mean some cutbacks. Everybody is going to make some sacrifices to make this work. It’s going to mean some difficult conversations.”
• • •
Everyone likes to talk about what they’re doing to conserve water. Restaurants serve water to people only upon request. Some people have taken to placing a plastic bucket in their shower to capture the water that comes out of the showerhead before it heats up, and then using that saved water on their gardens. Farmers like to point out that this year the Central Valley Project, the federal water program administered by the Bureau of Reclamation, has reduced water allocations all the way to zero—not one drop for crops. Last year, farmers in the state kept fallow about 400,000 acres of land. That figure is expected to double in the 2015 growing season.
And yet a kind of denial coexists with the awareness of our predicament. The anxiety hasn’t been matched by action. “I’ve never heard so much talk about water, and seen so little done,” Everts says.
The situation feels Hobbesian, a war of all against all that has pitted cities against farms and farms against industry.
Many farmers are having a difficult time facing the facts. At a mid-April symposium on “fostering resilience in the face of drought,” I heard an organic walnut grower attack the widely agreed upon statistic that farms use 80 percent of the state’s water because, really, half of all precipitation is saved for the environment. So actually, the farmer said, agriculture uses only 40 percent of the state’s water. A week later, I caught Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau, offering this same canard on a radio talk show. Do the math yourself: If humans use 50 percent of all the state’s water, and farmers use 40 percent of the original total, then agriculture does in fact account for 80 percent of the water used by humans, as reported. Why deploy this obvious sophistry? I can only imagine that it’s some kind of attempt to dodge the inevitable redistribution, an effort to forestall the farmland buyouts that some people say are needed.
In all fairness, the urban water managers have behaved little better. When the State Water Board released its initial plan for mandatory cuts, lots of water managers got defensive. The state-mandated reductions, they said, were too demanding and would be bad for business. The city manager of Beverly Hills complained that conservation targets “may ultimately be infeasible.” San Diego leaders pointed to the $1 billion they’ve just dropped on a (hugely energy-intensive) desalination plant as an excuse not to make bigger cuts. Litigation is likely.
In any case, the wealthy are expected to simply pay for the privilege of having a lawn. Silicon Valley’s milennial millionaires and the Hollywood swells in Pacific Palisades will barely notice a spike in their water bills. “Rich water wasters slow to turn off tap,” the San Francisco Chronicle reports, noting that between June 2014 and February 2015 residents in Malibu reduced their water usage by a scant 1 percent. The well-to-do will be able to keep their tender green grass. And the middle class and the poor can landscape with gravel.
Even if the cities reach the state-mandated conservation targets, it will do little to address the fundamentals, given the relatively small amount of water used in urban areas. A 25 percent reduction in urban water use will decrease total state water consumption by less than 3 percent. Governor Jerry Brown’s mandate might be well intentioned, but it’s incommensurate with the challenge—like telling someone they’ve got cancer, then recommending plastic surgery.
Meanwhile, the idiocies pile up. In Kern County, oil companies use as much as ten barrels of water to produce one barrel of petroleum, and for years state regulators have allowed the drillers to inject their briny and hydrocarbon-laced wastewater back into aquifers that otherwise would be clean enough to drink. An estimated two-thirds of the state’s golf courses still irrigate with potable water instead of reclaimed wastewater. Four major bottled water companies—Arrowhead, Crystal Geyser, Aquafina, and Dasani—are tapped into spring water or municipal water supplies, meaning that people across the United States are drinking water from a drought-wracked state. A recent investigation by The Desert Sun found that Nestle Waters, owner of the Arrowhead brand, has been pumping and transporting water from the San Bernardino National Forest without a permit since 1988. The U.S. Forest Service says that examining Nestle’s expired permit is now “a priority.”
• • •
The landscapers are expected to do well by the drought. Ripping out lawns to install drought-tolerant gardens will keep them busy for years. Farm workers are a different story. The Western Growers Association estimates that 17,000 farm jobs were lost last summer as farmland went idle. The unemployment figure is expected to increase to 23,000 this summer. The vast majority of those jobs are held by Latino workers who were struggling to make it before the drought hit.
“We are seeing more need at the food bank, and our funding for drought food assistance only goes through October,” Sarah Ramirez, the executive director of FoodLink for Tulare County, said at the drought symposium I attended. Ramirez’s parents were farm workers from Mexico, and after getting a Ph.D. from Stanford she decided to return to the Central Valley to serve residents in the community where she grew up. Today, that’s more difficult than ever.
“We’re having families having to decide between food, medicines, housing, children’s clothing, and utilities,” she says. “And now you have to throw in paying for water.”
In the last couple of years, Ramirez reports, at least 900 wells have gone dry in Tulare County, a sprawl of farmland located between Fresno and Bakersfield. Residents turn on their taps, and nothing comes out. Even before the drought, many poorer families there didn’t have access to clean water. Now, statewide, more than one million people don’t. Ramirez and others in the farm worker advocacy community say the drought—while a clear threat to people’s livelihoods—is also an opportunity to rethink the assumptions underlying the California farm economy, which has always been a plantation system of huge operators reliant on cheap labor.
At least this much is clear: A reckoning is coming.
“There is going to be more idling of land, there is going to be [permanent] retiring of land,” John Diener, who farms 5,200 acres of mixed industrial and organic crops on the west side of Fresno County, tells me. “We are trying to get down to a level that we know we can sustain. But I can’t tell you what that level is. No one can.”
• • •
The wells in Tulare County (and many other California rural communities) are going dry because we are pumping too much water out of the ground. Under the old “normal,” Californians get about one-third of our water from the Sierra Nevada snowpack. This year there was virtually no snowpack (6 percent of “normal”) and barely any the year before. But the water still has to come from somewhere, so we’ve been taking more and more of it from deep underground. This is ancient water—“fossil water,” you could call it—that has built up over the last 20,000 years. Typically, California farms and cities suck between 12 and 15 million acre-feet of water from the ground every year. In the last three years, the number has leapt to between 20 and 25 million acre-feet of groundwater (and those are conservative estimates).
No one has any idea how long such withdrawals can last—that’s because, until last year, California had no regulations for groundwater use. Let that sink in: As recently as one year ago, California was the only state in the West without a groundwater law. As Scow of Food and Water Watch said to me, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.”
When Governor Brown signed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act into law into September, many newspapers described it (accurately) as “unprecedented” and (less than accurately) as “sweeping.” State agencies will have no power to stop local water agencies or private landowners from pumping, even if an aquifer appears heading toward depletion. The water basins won’t have to achieve “groundwater sustainability” until 2040—a full generation from now.
But the signs of stress are already obvious. In the last year alone, the water table has dropped by sixty feet in some parts of the Valley. The groundwater withdrawals have been so vast that they have affected the geology of the whole state. According to a study published last year in the journal Nature, the breakneck water mining is causing the Sierra Nevada and Coast Ranges to rise between one and three millimeters per year. During the last century, the southern Sierra Nevada has risen six inches due to groundwater withdrawals. And this mountain uplift, in turn, relieves stress on the San Andreas Fault and, according to geologists, is correlated with increased seismic activity.
“What we find is that when we remove water … and especially during the last drought conditions, we are essentially unclamping the stresses across the San Andreas fault, and that makes it just ever so slightly easier for earthquakes to happen,” U.C.-Berkeley professor Roland Burgmann, one of the co-authors of the Nature study, told me in an interview last year. “It just hastens the timing of earthquakes.”
Our thirst is literally moving mountains.
• • •
Years ago, being good Bay Area hippies, we tore down the fence between our neighbors’ place and our own so that there are three families currently sharing one large backyard. I love the communitarian vibe of it all, but recently the shared layout has led to “some difficult conversations,” as Adam Scow put it. Sometime in the spring of 2014, I asked my neighbor Tom what he planned to do with his share of the yard, given the unfolding drought. “I’m going to water,” he said. And so he did, all summer, even as he and his boys decided to dig a koi pond next to the patio. Most of our side of the yard is taken up by vegetable plots and a cacti-and-succulent garden and a chicken coop, but we do have a twelve-by-twelve section of sod that abuts Tom’s lawn, and I had to figure out what I was going to do with it. I opted to let my grass go. By August, it looked horrible, a khaki-colored eyesore next to Tom’s swath of resplendent emerald.
But I shouldn’t get too self-righteous. The arrangement benefits me nicely. I can have my little patch of virtue and my big lawn, too. And the new koi pond is also a welcome touch. On warm nights, we can hear it through the open bedroom window. I like listening to it burble. The sound reminds of alpine snow melt, of the many times I’ve gone to bed next to a forest brook. I am sure that somehow the constant babble inhabits my sleep, and keeps me dreaming of water.
Jason Mark writes from Oakland, California. He is the editor of Earth Island Journal and author of Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man, which will be published in September.
Artwork by Tara Jacoby