Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Drought

[Anasazi ruins at Mesa Verde]

The recent rains dampened but have not ended the current drought in California and other Western states.  Speaking exactly a drought is a period of no rain, so the drought just ended.  Speaking in practical terms, a drought is a period of water shortage.  The reservoirs at Oroville, Shasta, and elsewhere are way below seasonal normal.  The snowpack in the Sierra is puny.  That drought has not ended.  

It may be becoming a tradition that depressions are accompanied by droughts.   The Great Depression was exacerbated by the Dust Bowl.   The current drought may be a companion piece to the looming Depression 2.0.  We may yet find ourselves tieing our mattresses on top of our cars and driving to Oklahoma.

What will we do if the drought continues or worsens?  The first thing we will do is fight among ourselves.  

The farmers will argue that, though they use huge amounts of water, that they deserve priority because they produce the nation's food supply.  They will not mention that they produce so much of the nation's food supply that the government pays them subsidies not to grow so much.  So it is urgent that they get enough water to produce the food surpluses we are paying to reduce.

Southern California will argue that there are 23 million people living there and they all need water.  They will not mention the endless lawns, swimming pools, and golf courses built in deserts, nor the cult of cars and carwashing. 

Northern California will argue that it is our water and we should get all we want before sending it south.  Presumably it is ours because it fell out of our sky after evaporating from our Pacific Ocean.   It is given to us by G_d, who is definitely a Northern Californian, and is widely believed to have been Herb Caen.  They will not mention that most of it falls in a different part of the state entirely, the Sierra, which is eastern California. 

Arizona and Nevada will want water for their burgeoning populations.  They will not mention that, unlike Southern California which originally had a water supply but outgrew it, Phoenix and Las Vegas were built in places with no water supply at all.

Everyone will unite in abusing the environmentalists for protecting a rare smelt at the cost of not diverting fresh water from flowing through the Delta into the ocean.

If the drought worsens, some people might get distracted from the bickering and recriminations enough to consider doing something about it.  The usual thing to do about droughts is to build canals and giant pipes to bring water from somewhere else where there is plenty.   When this has been discussed in the past, that has meant building a water system to bring water from Washington state.

Yet Washington and Oregon are in drought as well.  So far from having water to send us, they have their own deficits.  Anyone who has seen it would be hard pressed to believe there is not enough water in the Columbia to ever use all of it.  But one might have said the same of the Colorado fifty years ago.  Today no more than a trickle of the Colorado reaches the sea.

Sadly the same may eventually have  to be done to the Columbia if the drought does not abate.  And even that may not be enough.

There are 56.6 million people in the five westernmost states, more than half of them in California.  We consume a lot of water.  

The West has an ominous history in this regard.   We Americans are not the first people to live here.  We are not even the second or third.  We are the fourth that we know of.  Before us were the Mexicans and before them were the Native Americans.  Before them were the Anasazi, the Ancient Ones.

According to the National Park Service visitor center archaeological display at Chaco Canyon, the Anasazi population dwindled to zero because of persistent drought in the 700's C.E.  The land that was empty of water became also empty of people.  The drought lasted until the 1300's, six hundred years.

Such a drought can come again.  There is no reason to believe that it will happen again in our time.  But the fact that it happened once proves that it CAN happen.

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