The only category of drought higher than the one now assigned to nearly 60 percent of California (the USDA’s Drought Monitor calls it “exceptional”) is “Biblical.” Three years in, there is no relief in sight — the much-anticipated El Nino pattern of sea-surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific, which usually increases rainfall in California, has not materialized. It would take a full year of normal rain and snowfall to restore surface waters to normal levels. A UC Davis study just out finds the amount of surface water available to California agriculture has been reduced by 6.6 million acre-feet (yes, that’s enough water to submerge 6.6 million acres to a depth of one foot). Groundwater has been pumped to replace five million acre-feet, but the shortfall remains a jaw-dropping 1.6 million acre-feet.
It is, right now, one of the worst droughts in the history of North America. Bad enough, says Lynn Wilson, chair of the School of Arts and Sciences at Kaplan University and member of a UN delegation on climate change, that “we may have to migrate people out of California.”
Which immediately led to a post on the aptly named Lunatic Outpost ( I am not making any of this up) titled “UN panel recommends moving people out of California.” In black transport helicopters, one assumes. (For the record: Dr. Wilson’s UN service is not her day job, and her observation had nothing to do with the UN.)
But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean you might not have to leave California. “Civilizations in the past have had to migrate out of areas of drought,” says Dr. Wilson, and although heroic measures can be expected before any such decision is reached, she says, “it can’t be taken off the table.”
Ominously, heroic measures are already being taken. Californians can now be fined $500 for washing their car or watering their ornamentals. Time to move to Phoenix. Oh, wait….
Like an earthquake far out to sea, the California catastrophe has raised a tsunami of consequences that has not yet reached the doorsteps of the rest of the country. Except for much higher prices for lettuce and, one assumes, arugula. California industrial agriculture produces half of America’s produce — fruits, vegetables and nuts — and to do it sucks up 80 per cent of the available water. (Which is why, when the drought gets really, really bad, the government cracks down on car-washing.)
With half a million acres of farmland idled for lack of irrigation water, with lettuce wilting and fruit trees dying, the hurt will soon spread beyond the region’s devastated farmers. Just this year, the California Farm Bureau estimates, the average American family should expect to spend $500 more on food because of the California drought. And next year, it’s going to get serious.
Next year, or soon thereafter, they are going to start running out of groundwater to pump onto their fields. And while the effects of that will be obvious and immediate, there’s more: they have already pumped so much water out of the Central Valley’s deep aquifer that the Sierra Nevada has rebounded upward by a half inch just in the last decade — six inches in the last century-and-a-half — and the massive San Andreas Fault has been twitching with unusual clusters of earthquakes nearby.
The UC Davis study went to great lengths to monetize the costs of the drought just this year to the state ($2.2 billion), to agriculture ($1.5 billion), and so on. But it may not be until we see the first battalions of climate refugees trudging across the Oregon border in search of rain that we comprehend the true cost of screwing around with Mother Nature.