April 08, 2015

'The desert always wins': The last word on California drought

The quote above, whether most popularized by Cactus Ed, good old Ed Abbey, or someone else, is true indeed. indeed.

As Marc Reiser demonstrated in "Cadillac Desert," along with many others, some before, many since him, the Colorado River was highly overappropriated among its seven basin states because the 1920s were an outstandingly wet period within a larger wettish period. While Colorado River system water is not the same as the snowmelt from the Sierras that fills (Californians hope) in-state reservoirs, it too is snowmelt-based, with all that implies in our era of global warming, El Niño-related oceanic oscillation changes and more.

Let's not forget that the Los Angeles Aqueduct of "Chinatown" fame was built less than 20 years before the Colorado River Compact, also during a wet period. And, although the 1960s of California State Water Project fame were less wet than the 1920s, they were far wetter than today, or than long-term droughts we know hit the Southwest in the past and are likely to do again in the near future. And, while that megadrought is expected to center on the Four Corners, not California, it will have its "fair share" of effect on the Golden State. And, for students of paleo-American history, this drought is expected, at least in the Southwest, to be worse than the one that shuttered Chaco Canyon and destroyed Anazasi culture. In other words, anthropogenic climate change, while part of the problem, is not all the problem. Rather, it is, in part, intensifying what's more "normal" than European settlers thought, 100 years ago.

So, that leads to Abbey's most famous statement certified statement: "Growth for growth's sake is the theology of the cancer cell."

This NYTimes graphic, from the linked story about
groundwater regulation, shows the amount of sinkage
in many areas; the largest red dots have shown
more than 100 feet of sinking. See story for more.
And thus, the quasi-rhetorical, yet seriously asked, question in this long New York Times piece has but one answer: "no." Relentless growth has limits. There is no perpetual motion machine in general and certainly not with water supplies. Meanwhile, even as Jerry Brown has imposed water cuts (that don't affect agriculture, don't affect oil fracking and don't start until July 1), there's really a bigger scandal in California water issues: groundwater, unlike in most western states (but, unfortunately, very much like in Texas) is currently not regulated at all, and under a weak-tea system the state finally, recently, adopted, will not be semi-effectively regulated until the 2040s.

By that time, the groundwater may be almost gone, with storage capacity, flow, and more of reservoirs irreversibly damaged.

(In turn, this is part of why I said last week that Californians should recall Jerry Brown.)

Now, Reisner did not directly cover these issues. But he did indirectly cover them when he wrote about overpumping of the Ogallala Aquifer.

Having grown up in New Mexico, and been the editor of one newspaper in that state, I personally know this.

Most Western states have a state water engineer, who is god and czar of the state's water supply, with the partial exception of any rivers that come under interstate compacts.

For example, in New Mexico, at least at the time I was editing there, if a person wanted to drill a new water well, they had to run an ad in the newspaper three weeks straight, giving a precise metes-and-bounds description of the well's location AND its planned depth. At the end of said legal notice had to be a date for a public hearing about that well. The regional office of the state engineer conducted that hearing.

From what I understand, even if California does have a state engineer, said office has nothing like that regulatory power.

Meanwhile, fallowing of the fields could damage the fields themselves.

Reiser, whether the water source was irrigation or groundwater, wrote about improper irrigation and the salination problems it caused to land. As California farmers are having to fallow more land, the salinity problems are apparently starting to show up in places in the Central Valley.

Add in that the current drought is worsened by climate change, and many Californians' blithe belief that the state will "escape again," like it escaped Enron gaming its electricity nearly 15 years ago, is kind of appalling. It's also a proof that blue states aren't exempt from the delusion of American exceptionalism.

Abbey addressed that, too:
“There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, insuring that wide free open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.”
So, Californians? (And, Arizonans, Nevadans, etc.?) It's time for a lot of you to move back to Minneapolis, or Cleveland, or St. Louis — where the water is.

And, speaking of Arizonans and Nevadans? Here's Part 1 and Part 2 of what's going to be a three-part series on drought in the Colorado River basin, from the Arizona Republic.

For those who think desalinization is the answer? In the Colorado River Basin, per that Part 2 link immediately above, maybe think again. In coastal California, even if the price drops a lot, and quickly, which is open to debate, you have the issue of thermal pollution from "wastewater" being dumped into a coldwater ocean current. The only plant currently under construction is only going to meet 7 percent of San Diego's needs, a drop in the bucket for overall California use. If desalinization in Florida is any indication, it will probably not run as well as expected, and be pricier than expected. (Right now, the San Diego project will deliver water at twice the current cost, and the same company that built that troubled Florida desal plant is doing the one in San Diego. It would probably be cheaper to move people back to the Midwest.)

Salvific technologism, as I've called it before, has no guarantees. Re-read those Abbey quotes.

No comments: