California’s Governor Brown, announcing the first-ever statewide mandatory rationing in April, said. “This is the new normal, and we’ll have to learn to cope with it.” His plea that we need to adapt is spot on, but his “People should realize we are in a new era” flies in the face of the State’s water history. The new normal is in fact the old norm.
New York Times Science writer Henry Fountain’s recent article “In California, a Wet Era May Be Ending” posits exactly that. Citing studies that show that the last 150 years have actually been wetter in California and Western states than the prior centuries, Fountain cautions that today’s drought harkens back to decades and even centuries of droughts over the past 1,200 years.
Looking back at this relatively wet 150 year period, deep droughts recur like boomerangs picking up speed. First, the Great Drought of 1863-64, and then, 65 years later, the 1929-34 drought. The 1976-77 drought surfaced 42 years later, with another in quick succession in 1987-92 and still another in 2007-09. Just 3 years later, the current drought began.
Experts agree that a drought is a complex, gradual phenomenon, although no universal definition exists. Quantitative expressions include meteorological (dry weather patterns) and hydrological (low water supply.) NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Information) National Centers for Environmental Information add agricultural and socioeconomic expressions to the mix.
Essentially, a drought is a prolonged absence of water. The symbiotic relationship between nature’s bounties falling from the sky and mankind’s intervention to store, transport, and distribute water determines its absence or presence. Precipitation can be below normal, but if engineered solutions such as reservoirs, piping, desalination, or recycling can meet the demand for water, it’s not a drought.
The natural world’s escalating drumbeat of water scarcity is exacerbated by the wild card of climate change. California Department of Water Resources’ “California’s Most Significant Droughts: Comparing Historical and Recent Conditions” reports year #3 of today’s drought was the hottest and the driest three-year period ever recorded. NOAA Temperature and Precipitation Maps show 2014 statewide average temperatures much above average for all Western states, with California, Nevada, and Arizona setting new highs. Even more unnerving, their Center for Weather and Climate report, compiled with contributions from 413 scientists from 58 countries, concludes 2014 was the earth’s warmest year since records began in 1880.
A phrase I often hear is ‘when the drought ends…” followed by some variation of things will go back to “normal.” I even catch myself saying it occasionally.
Guided by the long history of water shortages that global warming can only worsen, “normal” now and in the future is water scarcity rather than abundance. Perhaps, after this drought ends, our showers can be 10 minutes instead of 5-minute start-and-stops. Perhaps we can dispense with small savers that degrade quality of life, like waiting to flush a toilet until it stinks, or pouring pasta water on thirsty plants.
For everything else, we need a full-fledged war on waste. Let’s continue all those innocuous steps taken to routinely save many gallons, such as hose nozzles. Let’s intensify all those compelling actions that cut consumption hundreds and thousands gallons each month, most of which are outdoors in landscaping.
On this week’s PBS’s Brief but Spectacular, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti predicted, “The droughts in Los Angeles and in California are here to stay.” He then elaborated, “We’re not just planning for the next two years to get through the immediacy of the drought. But we have got a 10-year and a 20-year plan to wean ourselves off of water that we import.”
I couldn’t have said it better.