California Droughts: Then And Now

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Erico Matias Tavares of Sinclair & Co,

The obstinate drought in California is showing no signs of letting up, and is now being compared to the last major drought which took place during 1976 and 1977.

Back then, the state was not as well equipped to cope with severe dryness. The sharp decline of surface water supplies coupled with the lack of backup reservoirs and waterways caused a lot of damage to the state’s agriculture, in particular to the livestock industry. As it turned out, the drought reversed itself completely a year later, and California powered on to become the major agro-industrial player it is today.

At the height of the drought, predictions about California’s water future were just as dire as the ones we are hearing today. Here’s an interesting snippet from a U.S. Government Accountability Office report published in October 1977:

“The State water plan shows that dependable water supplies will not provide for State needs through the year 2000, even if certain conditions are met. These conditions include completion of planned federal, State, and local surface and groundwater projects, as well as reclamation and reuse of wastewater. To compensate, more groundwater will have to be extracted than is replaced. Continued, excessive extraction of groundwater can lead to land subsistence, poor water quality, and high energy costs as pumping depths increase.”

But actions were undertaken to improve efficiency and significantly boost infrastructure, and with generally favorable precipitation patterns water supplies have lasted well beyond the year 2000. Yet another example of California’s engineering and ingenuity.

However, the current drought may get much trickier if we don’t see a sharp reversal in rainfall patterns soon (which is conceivable given the hydro-climatic variability of the southwest).

Climate models predict that California could become warmer and drier in the future. So the weather may turn out to be much less cooperative than suggested by recent history. There are 23 million more people now than in the late 1970s and virtually every drop of water is accounted for. And the agricultural industry, the state’s largest consumer of water, is of course much bigger today.

The Wild West was conquered by enterprising and optimistic pioneers, and successive water rights officials in California seem to have inherited those qualities in spades. According to a recent study by Theodore Grantham and Joshua Viers, both from the University of California, water right allocations total almost *five times* the state’s mean annual runoff, and account for up to 1000% of natural surface water supplies in the major river basins.

It seems that there is a conflict brewing as

“(…) the state simply does not have accurate knowledge of how much water is being used by most water rights holders. As such, it is nearly impossible to curtail or re-allocate water in an equitable manner among water users and to effectively manage for environmental water needs.”

The stakes are very high now and out-of-the-box solutions are needed. Otherwise this time might turn out to be different indeed.